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Troy Vincent tells players potential gets you drafted, delivering on it gets you in the NFL

For new Green Bay Packer Joshua Jackson, the lessons are already being taught

While the 2018 National Football League draft is over, the transition from amateur to professional athletics is just beginning while also dramatically distinguishing this group of college students from all the others entering the job market after graduation.

Their interviews are held at the NFL combine in front of thousands of journalists, scouts, teams and fans. Their job offers are then extended at the NFL draft — the world’s most highly watched job fair.

“You’re no longer on scholarship,” Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, told the league’s newest employees. Vincent, along with commissioner Roger Goodell, spent the draft week welcoming the prospects who came to Dallas. They thanked them for accepting the NFL’s invitation but also told them about the challenges, and potential rewards, ahead.

Some will not make it beyond training camp.

Some will have extended, championship-laden careers.

All of them will be injured.

Next week the hopefuls begin the process of earning the positions they were conditionally promised during the draft.

The past eight years — four in high school, four in college — were all about their potential to earn the position. Now they really have to learn the position.

“Potential means hope,” Vincent said. Now it’s all about your daily production, and that’s a big difference.”

When their name are called on draft day, however, there’s no longer any talk about your potential. “It’s all about you are coming in and performing now,” Vincent said. “If not, they will exit you.”

Many young players will be unnerved to see their teams work out players on a weekly basis — players who play their position.

“That’s a different mindset, and you have to have the ability to stay focused when all this other stuff is going on around you, because if you don’t perform, they’re moving on to the next man. It’s nothing personal. Potential means hope,” Vincent said.

“A week from today, it’s all about daily production, and that’s a difference.”

Twenty-six years ago, Vincent was a draft day hopeful, sitting with other players in New York. He had been a star defensive back at the University of Wisconsin, projected to go anywhere from 1 through 5 on draft night. Vincent was drafted by the Miami Dolphins as the seventh overall pick. “It was a good day,” Vincent told me last week in Dallas. But Vincent also said he did not romanticize draft day. The draft “was one part of the process of being a pro. The draft for me was just a formality.”

A day earlier, the Los Angeles Rams had offered to make Vincent a third-round pick provided he sign a pre-draft-day deal on the Rams’ terms. Vincent, serving as his own agent, declined the offer.

“I didn’t care whether I was a third pick or the last pick or an unrestricted free agent,” he said. “For me, it was just an opportunity to get to an NFL team, try out and beat out the competition.”

After the draft, Vincent returned to Trenton, New Jersey, for a family celebration.

“Then it was on to the next day,” he said.

Fast-forward to 2018.

The annual NFL draft has become a traveling carnival, going from city to city. This is a spectacle no other college students, except basketball players, experience. It is a ritual the athletes happily embrace.

And many have no idea what they are in for.

The contemporary athlete has access to far more information than the athletes in Vincent’s class had.

“Whether you’re an athlete or not, the information, the availability of information, the commercialism of the game has just exploded,” Vincent said. “They’ve seen the big stage. What they don’t know yet is the business part.”

Last Friday, the lobby of Hotel Adolphus in downtown Dallas was bursting with celebration.

Prospects who had been invited to Dallas for the NFL draft were celebrating with friends and family. Some who had not been drafted on the first day were celebrating being selected on the second.

As a group of us stood in the lobby, Joshua Jackson walked over to renew an acquaintance.

We had met a few hours earlier after Jackson, a former defensive back from Iowa, had been selected by Green Bay in the second round with the 45th overall pick.

On Thursday, Jackson had experienced a sobering introduction to the vagaries of pro football.

A native of nearby Corinth, Texas, Jackson expected to be drafted Thursday, the first day of the draft. Many experts, including his agent, thought he’d be a first-round pick as well.

So Jackson traveled to Dallas and invited his high school coach and family to sit in the green room with the other prospects.

Jackson waited. And waited. He watched as defensive backs were chosen ahead of him.

Jackson was not taken in the first round. He was selected on Friday.

After his selection, Jackson admitted he was initially disheartened on Thursday. “For me, it was more of a humbling thing,” he said.

He had the confidence to stay for Day 2.

“I’m happy that I was able to come back and experience the second day,” he said. “A lot of people would have left after the first day, after they didn’t get picked.

“I’m happy that I was able to come back and experience the second day,” he said. “A lot of people would have left after the first day, after they didn’t get picked.

“But I was able to come back to my hometown — Dallas, Texas — and get picked by the Green Bay Packers. For me, it’s a fantastic feeling. I stayed humble and trusted in God.”

The snub was not personal.

“It’s not because he can’t play; that’s a team need,” Vincent said. “That’s when poise comes in. What expectations are you setting in your head? Is it really to be the [No.] 1, 2 or 3 picks? That’s ego. Or do you want an opportunity, whether you’re the first pick, the 19th pick or the 50th pick?”

Nearly all the draftees said being drafted was a dream come true.

Not for Vincent, and he cautioned young players in Dallas not to get hung up on this part of the journey.

“Because for most, that’s where it ends,” he said. “Their dream is getting here, not getting here and sustaining.”

Throughout the week, Vincent stressed that the draft was a starting point, not the destination.

“Most young players are dreaming of the arrival, when in fact the arrival is just the next chapter,” Vincent said. “The goal is to get here, perform and just sustain yourself.”

Over the next weeks, months and years, we’ll see who was listening.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.