Shawne Merriman recalls his early days with the San Diego Chargers, from being drafted to stepping on the field for the first time.
When Lavar Arrington got drafted by the Washington Redskins, he started hearing about this local linebacker that was tearing it up in high school. Before I knew it, he was showing up to my high school games with Stephen Davis, who was the Redskins running back at the time, Chris Samuels, and a few other guys.
Being around Lavar off the field as a young kid, I got to see him do a lot of great work in the local community. Between him and Ray Lewis, I got to be around some really special people early on and learn from them. It gave me a bit of a head start, on and off the field, so that I was mentally prepared for the NFL.
Watching those guys be so active in their community, it became obvious that if I wanted to make a mark, not just as a football player but as a person, I have to help out as much as I can.
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I didn't want cameras in my face as I fell down the draft.
I was invited to the 2005 NFL Draft in New York, but projections had me going anywhere from the 3rd pick to the 20th pick in the first round. I didn't want to go, because I didn't want to be sitting there in the green room with the cameras in my face as I fell down the draft.
I had visited with the Redskins, Vikings, Cowboys, and Chargers before the draft. When I talked with Jerry Jones, who had the 11th pick, he and Bill Parcells told me that they didn't expect me to be on the board when their pick came around. But if by some miracle I was, they would pick me.
On draft day, I wanted to watch the draft surrounded by my family, friends, and high school coaches — there were about 40 people in total. So I rented out a mansion.
I had a couple of friends that weren't at the house with us on the day of the draft that were calling me during the draft, during the first few picks in the first round. I almost lost it when I picked up the phone. Why would you call me with something that's not serious? Every time my phone rang, I was thinking some team is drafting me earlier than expected, and it turns out to be just one of my friends calling to chat. I said, "What is wrong with you? Why would you be calling me right now? Do you have any idea what is going on? Do you know what's taking place?"
Everyone thought I was going to be a Dallas Cowboy.
Most everyone at the house had brought Dallas Cowboys hats and jerseys with them to the draft party, and were ready to put them on after I was picked. Everyone thought I was going to be a Dallas Cowboy.
In all honesty, it didn't matter which team was going to draft me. As long as I was drafted, it was still a dream come true for me.
When I had visited with the Chargers before the draft, A.J. Smith also told me that he would pick me with the 12th pick, but he didn't think I would be available that late in the draft. As soon as Dallas didn't pick me, I knew I would be going to San Diego.
When Marty Schottenheimer called and asked me, "Are you ready to be a Charger?" I asked him, "Are you guys ready to draft me? Because I'm ready to go!"
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I came into the league with a lot of hype. With a nickname like "Lights Out", I had big expectations to live up to on day 1. Most people in my life, since I was 12 years old, have called me "Lights". Everybody calls me "Lights".
I'll never forget, in one of my first days with the Chargers, LT told me he wasn't going to call me "Lights Out". He said rookies don't have nicknames, so he called me Shawne. Then, when I knocked out Priest Holmes, LT came up to me after the game and shook my hand and said, "Hey, what's up, Lights?" He finally called me "Lights"!
First Day with the Chargers
Before the days of the rookie wage scale, players and their agents had to come to an agreement with the team on what the player was worth before the player would sign with the team. This sometimes led to rookies holding out and not reporting to the team until halfway through the preseason, as was the case with me.
On my first day on the field for the Chargers, the team was doing a special "fan night" at practice. I stepped out onto the field right after getting my pads, and my adrenaline instantly started flowing because the fans were out there and supporting me. Everything that I did, the fans were going crazy.
At one point, we started doing one-on-one pass–rush drills against the running backs and fullbacks. In my first time up, I went up against Lorenzo Neal.
Lorenzo Neal wanted a piece of me
Now, in the pass–rushing drill, you're supposed to do a move to get around the guy who is trying to block you, and get into the backfield. Mind you, I'm already pumped up because the fans are yelling and screaming for me, so I ended up running straight through Lorenzo Neal. All I could hear was the fans making a sound like "oooohhhh." That's what you hear when you run through one of the greatest fullbacks of all time. I'm 21 years old at the time, and I wasn't thinking about Lorenzo Neal being an All-Pro and a legendary blocking fullback.
The next time I get to the front of the line, Lorenzo sees me and comes up and moves the guy I'm supposed to go against out of the way and sets up to block me again. He wanted a piece of me, because this rookie just ran right through him.
The second time, I tried to run through him and do the same thing … and it felt like I ran straight into a brick wall. He was so pissed off that this rookie had run right through him during the pass rush drills, not doing the drill the way it was supposed to be done, and he used that anger to stop me in my tracks. I remember feeling all of the blood rushing to the front of my face. It was like trying to run through the Great Wall of China!
Lorenzo and I still talk about that moment to this day, and that was my first time being around the team. That was my first day as a San Diego Charger after my contract holdout.
Picking a Number
By time I got to the team, I had to take whatever jersey number was left, so I got stuck with #91. I even played a couple of games wearing #91, because that's all that they had available for me.
I had always wanted #56. Lawrence Taylor was one of my favorite players growing up, and I was compared to him so much in high school and college, I had decided I would wear #56 once I got to the NFL. It didn't hurt that Lavar Arrington, who I looked up to like a big brother, was already wearing #56 for the Washington Redskins at the time.
I went to Matt Wilhelm as soon as I signed my contract and asked what he wanted for #56, because that was his number at the time. He wanted $30,000 for it!
I was not paying $30,000, and I believe myself to be a pretty good negotiator. I eventually got him down to $20,000 and bought #56 from him, and the rest is history.
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You want to know how the veterans got me? They didn't tape me to a goalpost or make me wear a silly outfit or anything, but I did get hit with what was, at the time, the biggest rookie dinner bill ever.
The final bill for one night of food and drinks with my teammates? $32,000!
I also had to carry shoulder pads and bring food for the vets throughout the season, but that's just the normal stuff.
Hitting the Rookie Wall
The rookie season, as far as I'm concerned, is the hardest one.
As a rookie player, you really have no break. You go right from the end of the college bowl season to the NFL Combine to working out to nonstop interviews, straight to getting drafted and getting a whole new playbook in your hands. There is no offseason for a rookie, really.
That's why guys hit the rookie wall. Part of it is the longer season — 20+ games when you count in preseason games! — and a more physical game, but the biggest part is really that these guys haven't had a break to recover and relax in over a year by time the second half of their rookie season rolls around.
I don't care who you are. You're going to hit a rookie wall, so you just have to do your best to take care of yourself.
I remember hitting that wall in Week 8 against the Chiefs. It was the first game after our game against the Eagles, which was my first start. I got on the field and thought "I feel like I've been playing all season and I only have 1 start under my belt."
Add in that NFL days are just longer than college days. In college you go to class and you have practice, but in the NFL, your class is film. You'll spent 4-5 hours a day watching film, so the days are just as long, but it's all football.
Shawne Merriman is a former NFL All-Pro, a contributor to The Players' Tribune and Bolts from the Blue, and the CEO of Lights Out Brand.