By Bryan Burwell
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
05/13/2007

Sports Columnist Bryan Burwell


As the 30 assorted Rams rookie draftees, free agents and million-to-one dreamers began arriving at the team's sprawling Russell Training Center in Earth City on Friday for a two-day weekend rookie minicamp, they were all floating around the place like dizzy kids in the midst of their ultimate football fantasy.

Regardless of their place on the football food chain, from the high-priced first-rounder to the most faceless street free agent, everyone in this locker room was behaving the same way.

Some just wanted to touch the dark blue helmets with the famous golden horns. Most simply wandered around with wide eyes and slack jaws. "I was standing in front of Torry Holt's locker just staring at everything," third-round draft pick Jonathan Wade admitted with a sheepish grin. "I stood there counting all his (special ordered) cleats. I looked at all the pictures he had. I was checking out the (stickers) for his Pro Bowls and Super Bowls. Yeah, I was like, 'Wow.'"

That was then. This is now.
It was Saturday morning and the wide-eyed rookies were on the practice field for the first time, in shorts and helmets, and this was not quite as dreamy as Friday's arrival at Rams Park. Now they were in the midst of an intense ó and rather profane ó cram course on the thick NFL playbook, and their heads were all spinning from their first full exposure to pro football life.

"Back to reality. Back to football," Wade told a small gathering of reporters after he walked off the field from the first of two-a-days. "Don't get me wrong. We're all still smiles and giggles, and we're all still happy to be here. But I feel like a freshman all over again. It feels like I just learned a season's worth of plays in an hour on the field today."

If this is torture to the rookies, it's like a trip to the dentist for the coaches. Last week, they were probably experiencing the best coaching environment, working individually with veteran players in the less-intense atmosphere of offseason training sessions. This weekend, it's a cram course with head-swimming rookies who are starting from scratch. Predictably, the first practice Saturday morning was culture shock for the rookies.

Mostly, what the rookies heard was a lot of screaming ó most of it profane ó from coach Scott Linehan and his assistants, who were trying to make them understand that the pace of the NFL is worlds apart from college. "Yeah, we had a few moments where the coaches got on us," said fifth-round pick Dustin Fry, a center from Clemson. "We had a bit of trouble getting some of the plays right."

You could hear Linehan's raised voice and several other colorful (mostly blue) "instructions" from the coaching staff all morning, as the players went through a blur of drills and half the playbook. "Whew, what a difference from yesterday," said Alton Pettway, an undrafted rookie defensive lineman from Albany (Ga.) State. "The tempo of practice was like game speed. Lots of stuff to absorb. Hopefully the second practice will go a lot better than the first. All I want to do now is get into the cold tub (of ice) and soak every bone in my body."

Somewhere on this field is the Rams' future. The good news is that for a change, the Rams went through an entire draft without dabbling in any exotic or experimental adventures. They went for solid, sensible selections. You hope the high draft picks like Adam Carriker, Brian Leonard and Wade become instant hits. But you also look out there and wonder which one of these unknown dreamers like Pettway, Shaine Smith, Markee White or Keith Jackson could be the next million-to-one shot to become an NFL star.

The first step in that process was Saturday morning on the grass at Rams Park.