2007-08-30 / Sports

O'Hara's story offers lessons for young players

BY PATRICIA TRAINA Correspondent

As summer training camp comes to a close, numerous rookies and firstyear players on the New York Giants roster who went undrafted are hoping to secure a spot on the final 53-man roster.

It's a tall order for some, but certainly not impossible, since numerous players have come into the league as undrafted free agents only to go on to have rewarding NFLcareers.

The perfect example is center Shaun O'Hara, the former Rutgers standout who went virtually unnoticed by scouts in the 2000 NFLdraft. O'Hara's path to the NFLreads something like a rags-to-riches story: the classic overachiever from a little-known college program (at the time) who came out of nowhere to work himself into one of the better players at his position at the highest competition level.

Still, for all the success he's had thus far, O'Hara remembers where he came from, and for those younger players looking for some inspiration that a little hard work and good fortune really can make a difference, they need not look any further than at No. 60.

Like many young college players about to leave the sanctuary of their college programs, O'Hara had dreams of playing in the NFL. However, he was very realistic about his chances of being drafted, given the circumstances of his college career.

A walk-on for the Scarlet Knights in 1995, old scouting reports on O'Hara often described him as "an undersized, overachiever type," with many draft projections having him graded at or near the bottom of the lot. Through sheer determination and hard work, he transformed himself into a viable contributing member of the Rutgers offensive line, earning All-Big East honors as a first team offensive tackle in 1999, the same year he was voted a team captain. He finished his collegiate career starting 31 consecutive games and consistently graded out as among the top offensive linemen for the Scarlet Knights.

Despite his transformation into an intriguing prospect, O'Hara was realistic about his chances of being drafted. Not only was he playing for a program that back in those days was nowhere near the powerhouse it is today, he was also playing out of position at offensive tackle instead of his more natural position of center, a move necessitated by injuries.

And even though his college position coach, Bill Laveroni (now Seattle's offensive line coach), held high hopes for the Hillsborough native to make it to the NFL, O'Hara refused to buy too much into the hype.

"Going into the draft, I tried my best to not get my hopes up that I was going to be drafted, because I didn't want to be disappointed that day," he said. "Really, I was just going to be happy signing as a free agent."

He also found another silver lining to cling on to if he was lucky enough to get a free-agent contract: he would have more of a say as to where he'd be spending those critical first years of his pro career. In O'Hara's case, he was pursued by two teams - the Cleveland Browns, with whom he signed, and the New York Giants.

Although the Giants offered more money and were his hometown team, O'Hara did his research in determining which team offered the better opportunity. He said he chose the Browns because Cleveland represented a better opportunity for him to make the roster, considering it was their second year back in the league and their offensive line wasn't as settled as the Giants' was at the time.

O'Hara will freely admit that coming in as a free agent is more of an uphill battle than being drafted, regardless of who you are or what school you played for. But he also believes that being a free agent no longer carries the stigma that you're merely brought on board to be camp fodder.

"When you come in as a free agent, no one really expects you to make the team," he said. "When you're a draft pick, there's probably more pressure on you because you're coming in with expectations, and depending on how high you've been drafted is how lofty the goals are for you in the eyes of other people."

When he was getting ready for the Browns' rookie mini camp, he experienced a plethora of emotions about his chances, whether he had made the right decision and if his dream would end in disappointment. However, thanks to some sage advice he received from his father, O'Hara was able to go into that camp with both feet on the ground and with an unwavering focus, which many free agents seem to lack these days.

"My father said to me, 'Pack your car up and go out there believing that you're not coming home and that you are going to make this team.' He gave me the confidence that I could do it, and I realized that if I performed at the same level every day, and took it one day at a time, that I'd have as good a chance as anyone at making the team."

Armed with that mind-set and increasing confidence, O'Hara's goal was to be consistent, something he admitted was a challenge due to the limited number of reps a team typically gives its rookie free agents.

"I started playing in the first game and thinking how fun it was and how I might be able to hang," he recalled.

"It is tough when you're a young player, because you don't get a lot of reps. If you mess up one rep, and you're only getting five that day, then it's a huge play. So, yeah, when you're a free agent, you feel like you're under the microscope 24/7."

So he kept at it, doing things the only way he knew how: through hard work, precise attention to detail and by not creating waves.

Even though he knew he was doing all he could to impress the Cleveland coaching staff, and his confidence was increasing, it wasn't until he started to get some feedback on his progress that reality hit him that he most definitely had a legitimate chance of making the team.

"I think someone from management sent a message down that they were really happy with what I had been doing, and my offensive line coach at the time also pulled me aside and told me to keep doing what I had been doing, but to take it up another notch. That's when I thought, hey, maybe I will be OK after all."

Any player will agree that they never want to make a roster at the expense of an injured teammate, but in O'Hara's case, that's what happened.

"Based on the feedback I was getting, people were hinting I might get a shot at making the practice squad," he recalled. "So I thought to myself, OK, that's a start. I was ready to take the practice squad for my first year because I knew it was a chance to learn, and to get bigger and stronger."

However, when the injuries started hitting the Cleveland offensive line, suddenly O'Hara found himself on the 53-man roster. And he hasn't looked back since. He left the Browns in 2004 to sign as a free agent with the New York Giants, fulfilling another lifelong dream, and this past winter, his strong work ethic and leadership qualities earned him a reported five-year $19 million contract with the Giants just minutes before he was due to become an unrestricted free agent.

O'Hara always has his solid foundation that began in his college days to get him through the challenges of the NFL, but sadly, some of the most talented prospects don't understand that the hard work doesn't cease when a player gets to the NFL.

"A lot of times, kids who get college scholarships sometimes develop a sense of self-entitlement, and they don't really understand what it's like to have to prove yourself all over again at this level."

That's why his younger teammates look to him and his experience to help them gain the proper perspective on what it takes to make the NFL.

"I was talking with a teammate about this, and he asked me, 'How do you do it?' I told him it's not going to be one play or one day, it's going to be every day, every play.

"My advice is to find a way to make yourself valuable," he continued. "Don't limit yourself to one thing; special-teams play can add value to you as a player. I think because I was also able to long snap, that helped me. I encourage them to do everything they can to stand out, and to also understand that you're not just auditioning for one team, but for the other 31 teams as well."

As for the age-old question of whether it takes talent or luck to make it in the NFL, O'Hara believes it's both.

"You can come out and beat your head against the wall, but if a team has its guys picked out, you obviously will need a little help. For me, those breaks, unfortunately, happened to be injuries."

O'Hara's story is more than just a tale about NFLsurvival, it's about not taking opportunities for granted or being satisfied just to be on a roster. It's about hard work, perseverance and believing in yourself.

It's also a lesson that his young teammates who are fighting for those remaining roster spots can definitely call upon if they need a little extra inspiration to succeed.

- Patricia Traina covers the

New York Giants for www.InsideFootball.com.

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