Daniel Kelly: Key To Getting In The NFL

Daniel Kelly is a former NFL Scout - NY Jets to be exact. His book "Whatever It Takes" is out now, and you can check it out HERE.

I wanted to write an article that could help anyone who is trying to get into the National Football League in any capacity. The key is doing something different that separates you from the competition. You have to get outside the box. This is half the battle and if you think it’s impossible to get in, trust me, if I could get in, anyone can do it. You just have to do things a little bit differently than how everyone else does them.

I’ll never forget when I was sitting in Tony Dungy’s office when he was the defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings. There were piles of VHS tapes sitting in the corner. When I asked him about all the tapes, he said, “They’re just dreamers.” When I asked what he meant by this, he popped one in and hit the play button. Quickly, it became glaringly apparent that the quality of the film was grainy and there was this rap music with very explicit lyrics that accompanied the highlights. Then he handed me the “resume” that had been folded up and stuffed into the jacket cover of the tape. It was on low quality pink paper, you could barely make out the picture and several misspellings jumped off the page. This guy could have been the next Eric Swann for all we knew, but his presentation was so poor he wasn’t even taken seriously by one of the greatest coaches to ever coach the game.

I remember sitting at the pro secretary’s desk when she would go to lunch during my time with the Jets. There were stacks of resumes lying there from guys who had attended various Ivy League Schools and they were just trying to get an internship. Here I was, a dropout from a small community college and I was working for the team. I had self-published a 350-page draft guide and sent out three copies to every GM, head coach and personnel director in the league by overnight mail. That’s when the call came for me. Looking back, I can see now my draft book had less to do with my evaluations and it had more to do with the intangibles they could see in me, my passion, work ethic and attention to detail.

No matter if you are a player, an aspiring scout or coach or if you have a dream of making it into the NFL in some other capacity, you must get out of the box. You absolutely must do something different to even get noticed in the first place. Once at the Jets, an aspiring player literally jumped in front of Parcells’ green Cadillac when he was leaving for the night and was pulling out of the front security gate. While it’s possible that this article may be monitored for quality control purposes, I’m not necessarily advocating for taking things quite this far, but you get the picture. It must also be noted that this particular player indeed did get a workout with the Jets and he made it further than most ever did. Come to think about it, the way the story goes, Vinny Cerrato was waiting for Daniel Snyder in the parking lot when he bought the team. Cerrato ended up running the Redskins for a decade.

When I worked in the league, it seemed like every player and their brother sent in a VHS highlight tape along with their resume. We must have had four hundred of the things sitting in the corner of the war-room collecting dust.

For players, having an agent isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either. Saying you have an agent while sitting around the campfire sounds glamorous maybe to friends and family, but the million-dollar question becomes, what’s your agent doing for you? Most agents place most of their efforts on their primary breadwinners, “Show me the money.” That’s the famous line from the hit movie, Jerry Maguire. Agents get a certain percentage and a certain percentage of nothing is nothing. Most college seniors who are on the outside looking in don’t realize this hereditary reality until they’re down the road and by then another graduating class or two has strolled across the stage and has been handed their diplomas.

Most teams don’t even trust highlight tapes to begin with because NFL personnel people know that anyone can be made to look like Superman. That’s why if you’re going to send in film hoping someone will review it, your best bet is to send in a complete game tape that shows the good, the bad and the ugly. Scott Pioli, who was my boss at the Jets, taught me there’s a huge difference between a highlight tape and what he liked to call, a “player profile tape.” Pioli went on to become the NFL Executive of the Decade for his work with the New England Patriots.

As a lot of players with NFL aspirations are bombing buildings with their highlight tapes, aspiring scouts and coaches are following suit by shooting in resumes like paper airplanes. Traditional standard resumes rarely say anything personal and they really don’t reveal much of anything about a person’s intangibles or their characteristics. However, if someone were still insistent on this ancient methodology, sending it in a bright fluorescent yellow envelope would be a step in the right direction.

If you go shopping the day after a holiday, you can get a lot of things on clearance for 90% off of what you would’ve dropped just two days prior. A principle along these same lines apples to this. You must get out of the mainstream to give yourself the very best chance. Getting into the NFL is not as impossible as many believe it is.

Here are a few ideas that I pray will help you on your journey:

  1. Don’t send it in the regular mail. While this is the cheapest and most traditional route, it’s also the absolute easiest way not to get something into the hands of whom it’s addressed to. The more official your package looks, the better chance you have of getting it into the right hands. Overnight mail costs more, but like anything else, it’s worth it.
  1. Personalize your materials and whatever you do, don’t misspell or write the person’s name incorrectly. Don’t underestimate the importance of the presentation. Your materials are a reflection of who you are. Having a professional looking portfolio is a good idea. You won’t show up to an interview wearing a pair of old tattered jeans and a ten-year old t-shirt, so why should this be any different? Including a high quality color photograph on the front cover of your presentation goes a long way to moving the chains. It also makes your materials more personal looking and it gets you away from being yet another number. Once at the Jets, there was a player who sent a letter to Dick Haley, our college scouting director at the time. He addressed the letter, “Dear Mr. Dick.” I’m not joking.
  1. Put yourself on paper. Sending in a standard traditional resume is more overdone than the West Coast Offense. Try writing a story; a biography about yourself. Write about your dream, who you truly are and write about the good, the bad and the ugly. A lot of aspiring NFL people don’t know this, but teams care much more about your characteristics and intangibles than anything else. Educational background is highly and grossly overrated.
  1. If all the other fish are swimming upstream, swim in the opposite direction. Said in a different way, if everyone else is sending stuff in during the spring, send your stuff in during the fall. Get outside the hiring cycles. Instead of being one of a thousand incoming packages, your package might be the only one to come across someone’s desk when the leaves are changing color.
  1. Send your materials to every person in the NFL from the interns to the owners and everyone in-between. Most aspiring NFL people only focus on the decision makers. However, if you focus on every one else who doesn’t get much or any mail, suddenly one of your biggest fans could end up being someone within the very building you are trying to get into. More than likely they will make sure your package is hand delivered. It’s also worth saying that a few of today’s assistants will be tomorrow’s leaders. You might even try sending your materials to the field goal kicker. He’s somebody who doesn’t get a lot of mail unless he misses the game winning kick.
  1. Focus on the idea that just comes into your mind out of the blue, not what you try to think of. That’s how it happened for me and I ended up getting hired to work on one of the best staffs in league history while working at a bank. Ideas just started popping into my mind out of nowhere and that’s the plan I worked.
  1. Put yourself in position. A couple years ago I was at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama and I was rooming with a young up and coming coach. One day he seemed to doubt if him being there was really going to help him get into the league and he asked me what I thought. I told him, “Absolutely, you being here is a great thing.” I explained that just him being at the event and rubbing shoulders with the “who’s who” of the league instantly put him ahead of the curve. I know of another guy who wants to become a GM. He showed up at the owner’s meetings in Orlando, Florida. No other aspiring GM’s were there. You’ll be hearing his name announced as a GM in the future.
  1. Pay very special attention to who just naturally is brought onto your path. A lot of aspiring NFL people would tend to pay very close attention if someone like Joe Gibbs walked past them, but then they’d pay very little attention to the significance of “Joe Blow” saying hello. My scouting mentor, Lionel Vital, has taught me, “We are only five people away from anyone in the world.” Lionel has worked with the top minds in the game now for a quarter of a century and is widely regarded on the inside as being the top talent evaluator in the league. Many times in life, I’ve been amazed at who I run into. For example, the brother of our pastor’s wife happens to be the scouting director for the New York Yankees.
  1. Pay very special attention to the people who you naturally resonate with. A lot of aspiring NFL people just want to get in, but getting in with who you resonate with will give you your very best chance of succeeding. The NFL is filled with people and people tend to like people most like themselves. People tend to gravitate towards those when the chemistry is natural and it just feels right. Hiring and promotions have far more to do with who resonates with who, rather than pure ability alone.
  1. Offer to work for free. This is different. You have to get in the door and this just might prove to be a way you can get in though the side window. If you can then prove yourself, somebody will step up and do the right thing.
You are as unique as a snowflake, so too should be your presentation. Don’t get discouraged, many people who have accomplished great things have faced intense set backs, rejection and they’ve walked the path less traveled. That’s what prepared them. You may be tempted to think you are off track or somehow behind schedule, but I’ll share with you my life verse. Proverbs 16:9, “In his heart a man plans his ways, but the Lord orders his steps.” Keep going forward.

At one point Kurt Warner was bagging groceries and he went on to quarterback the Rams in the Super Bowl.

Eric Mangini was coaching in Australia for the Kew Colts before getting a chance with Bill Belichick and going on to become an NFL head coach himself.

Charley Casserly was a high school teacher who began as an intern with the Redskins. He stayed at the YMCA for eight dollars a night. Casserly went on to become the GM of both the Redskins and Texans and is now considered a league ambassador and he’s one of the more coveted television personalities in the game.

Daniel Synder was a college drop out before building Synder Communications into an extremely successful company, which he sold and used the proceeds towards the purchase of the Redskins.

Will you be the next name on this list?

Whatever you do, don’t send in a resume or a highlight tape. 

Daniel Kelly