One of the things we like to focus on here at The Football Fan Spot, in addition to, of course, football, is the fan. However, when you are a just fan, it can be tough to understand what its like to be a player. To help us fans understand this is former NFL player Mikhael Ricks. He was drafted by the Chargers in 2nd round, 59th pick overall in 1998 as a wide receiver after 4 years as both a tight end and a wide receiver at Stephen F. Austin University. He spent 3 years in San Diego, and then went to Kansas City as a free agent in 2000 where he was converted to a tight end because of his size (6-5 260) and served as a back up to Tony Gonzalez. He only spent one year there before spending two years in Detroit. He spent 2004 on the practice squad in Dallas before retiring. He currently remains a huge fan of the sport, just like all of the fans reading this, and he’s here to talk about the NFL lifestyle through a few interview questions.
The Football Fan Spot: When did you start playing football?
Mikhael Ricks: I started playing football like most young Texan athletes when I was in 5th grade. I was on a Pop Warner team named the Anahuac Wildcats. I played for two years, and we never lost a game.
TFFS: When did you realize that football was your passion, what you wanted to do with your life?
MR: This may sound funny, but I didn’t realize I wanted to play football until my senior year in high school. I wasn’t a highly scouted player my junior or senior year in high school. Matter of fact there were four other guys that were doing things better than me at that time, I guess I became a late bloomer. When I saw how much attention they were getting from colleges, that is when I told myself I was as good or even better than them and started playing like that. My senior year in high school (Anahuac High), I passed for 1500 yards and rushed for 1200 yards in a wishbone style offense. I was recruited as an Athlete and went on numerous visits, committed to 4 colleges, and waited to the last minute to sign. I signed with Stephen F. Austin State University, and my first year there was a safety. Blew out my ACL my freshman year and redshirted. During my rehab, the coaches noticed how well I caught the ball, and moved me to a pass receiving TE. The next year I was the first TE in SFA history to have a 100 yard game. Unfortunately I tore my other ACL. It took me 3 months to come back from both injuries, which in the sports world is unheard of. During my college career I also separated my AC joint (shoulder). Going into my senior year in college I played receiver, and that year I had 47 catches for 1348 yards and 14 touchdowns. Going into my last game, I was averaging 35.9 yards a catch and ended up after the last game with a DII or (FCS) record of 28.9 yards a catch which I still think is a record today. I knew I had a shot when I had an agent come and stay in Nacogdoches for a week until I signed with him. He got me into the Kelly Tire Blue/Gray All Star Game where I was MVP and the Senior Bowl where I scored the only touchdown for the North squad. I went to the combine and performed well, and did even better on my pro day where I ran a 4.46 40 yard dash and a 4.18 shuttle drill. I guess after that is when I knew I had a shot.
TFFS: What was your attitude about playing along some big names during your era?
MR: I think that was the big thing with me when I got into the league was, “what am I doing here with all these other guys?” I came in the same year with Peyton Manning and Randy Moss, and I guess it was a big shock for me. I was confident that I could do big things, but when you come from a small school, I guess it is more of a culture shock than anything else. I had a positive attitude and just wanted to show everyone I belonged.
TFFS: Did you feel that you were in the NFL and had a ton of talent just like the other big names and deserved that recognition too or did you feel like these guys were on a different level, the best in their sport and deserved that more than you?
MR: I felt that I had just as much talent as they did, but when you come from a small school, sportswriters and columnists start saying that the competition level isn’t as fierce as the big schools and sometimes you start to question yourself. I knew I should have been there, but unfortunately I didn’t have the concrete teams, or coaches to help me develop myself into a better all around player and that is one of the things that still bugs me to this day.
TFFS: What was an average week in the NFL for you?
MR: Monday – is usually the time you come in and watch game film, take care of injuries, and do some conditioning and weight training to recover from Sunday.
Tuesday-is the players off day. For some of the committed players, we did things around the community such as going to schools and doing speaking engagements, going to homeless shelters and help building homes for Habitat for Humanity.
Wednesday & Thursday-were the official big time work days. In at 8am and by that time you eat breakfast and lift weights, by 9am you are in meetings putting in the game plan. By 10:30am you are doing a walkthrough. After lunch it’s time for practice which usually begins with special teams then you practice from 2 pm till 5 pm. After that you go through the practice film and finished at about 8pm. You usually have on pads or half shells these days.
Friday-light day, usually Red Zone and 2-minute drill practice. Finished around 2 pm. Then the rest of the day is yours to tie up some loose ends and run errands.
Saturday-you travel for away games, or come in early for a walkthrough, then meet at the hotel before the game.
TFFS: What was your relationship like with your teammates?
MR: I had a great relationship with my teammates. While in San Diego I stayed close with Junior Seau, John Carney, Rodney Harrison, and Natrone Means. Kansas City: Tony Gonzalez, Larry Parker, Troy Drayton and Warren Moon. Detroit: Az Hakim, James Stewart , John Owens, and Stephen Trejo.
TFFS: What was your relationship like with guys who played your position, especially those above you or close to you on the depth chart? Did you feel yourself having to compete with those players for playing time, yet at the same time having to work together as a team to get what you wanted? If so, what was that like?
MR: I never had an issue with any of the guys I played with. I guess the big thing for me was my rookie year when they released Tony Martin for me, now that was an uneasy position to be in. While in Kansas City, I played along the best TE in NFL history and we worked well as a team. I was usually used to clear routes for him, and I had no problem with that. He was a great teacher and a great fan. I just wished at that time that the offensive coordinator would have used me a little more. I think we would have won more games if I was involved more in the offense and that is just me being honest. My last year in Detroit I was benched for a player that played 6 man football, and that was the only time I resented playing football because I think I was more of a trying to “run Mikhael out of Detroit thing” than anything else. I think that is the reason I can’t stand the politics behind football or Steve Mariucci.
TFFS: What was the NFL like coming in as a rookie, particularly your first few days of training camp with the entire team? Were you a bit star struck at first with all of these NFL players around you or did you feel like you fit in right from the start? What was the most important advice you received as a rookie and who was it from?
MR: I was pretty star struck. I mean these guys went to the Superbowl a few years prior and I knew I was big but these guys were huge. You had Chris Mimms, Natrone Means, Freddy Jones, Jim Jackson, Aaron Taylor, Junior Seau, and Rodney Harrison and they were all over the place trying to intimidate you. The best advice I got was from a former SFA teammate and Charger Terrance Shaw was to just play like you did and do the things that got you here and you will be fine.
TFFS: As you became a veteran of the league, how did your impression of the NFL change? Did it ever lose its luster, or did you still continue to get that, I’m in the NFL, I’m living the dream, this is amazing, kind of feeling?
MR: It lost its luster for me I think the second year into my career. During my training camp, I had a note on my door talking about trade rumors, and how in the hell did this get on my dorm room door. No one in the organization could tell me and I thought that was foul. I was getting ready for a road trip and sitting on the bus, and my position coach told me I didn’t have to go to the game. So since I didn’t go to the game, I didn’t show up for team meetings on Monday because I was frustrated and I felt at that time that the coaches that were there weren’t man enough to talk to me. The next day I was released. In San Diego, these coaches were on the idea that it was good to switch receivers every other series, and it is hard to get in a good groove like that. Not to mention the guy I was switching every series could care less about playing. In Kansas City, I was brought in after being released as a wide receiver and found myself having to fight for a roster spot after a coaching change. That is when I asked Coach Vermeil to move me to TE and it worked for me. Now the situation in Detroit was the deal breaker. I came in as my first full time of playing TE and made the Pro Bowl. Now mind you when I changed over in KC the coach didn’t bother to coach me up because we had the best TE in NFL history, then after my first year I didn’t get coached up on blocking techniques. I also had micro fracture knee surgery and the Detroit coach insisted that I play with it and if I didn’t I wasn’t a team player. So I did, played terrible, and I was benched for it. When I came back healthy I was the second leading receiver on the team and was released for Stephen Alexander the next offseason because Mariucci thought he was a better fit for his West Coast offense. In closing this subject, I played 7 years, 5 of those with two broken fingers and that may explain the drops that plagued my career. I also played under seven head coaches and 12 QB’s in my seven years. Now how easy is it to get a groove in the league? Also when you play on teams that don’t use an audible system or tell you to run routes to clear out for other routes and don’t look back, but still have the ball thrown to you anyway? How do you become successful?
TFFS: What was your retirement like? What were the feelings you felt at that time? Did you just feel that you didn’t have a place in the NFL anymore, or you lost the will to come back every season and try to make the team? Do you ever watch NFL games today and wish that you were back out there playing?
MR: I do miss the NFL. I thought I went out to early and eventually thought I was “pushed out”. After all the moving and disappointment, I knew it was time. I guess I was just tired. Just looking back now at the people that are playing and especially doing the things I was doing its kind of frustrating. When I played coaches said you can’t be just a pass receiving TE and there is no such thing. I be damn it that is all there is now. Kind of ironic.
TFFS: You’re no longer in the league, but do you still stay involved in NFL life so to speak, keeping in contact with current NFL players? Is football still a part of your every day life? What do you do now that you’re retired?
MR: I do still speak with some of the fellow I played with, and living out here in San Diego, I frequently see a lot of them. I guess San Diego is the mecca for offseason football families. I connect with a lot of the guys on Facebook and Pro Player Connect. As of now I do train athletes as a Sports Performance Director for Velocity Sports. I also train players getting ready for the combine through Pro Prep Training. Also I train receivers and TE on route running and making sure they are living up to their ability to be the best they can be.
TFFS: Looking at some of those players today, like, for example Michael Vick, Adam Jones, and Donte Stallworth, who make big mistakes, what do you think about them? Do you see their actions as completely inexcusable? You do understand at all why they would make those mistakes, how easy it could be to mess up like that in the NFL?
MR: Every player has their own stories. Its hard to leave that old lifestyle behind especially when you have money and everyone thinks you owe them, or you are “leaving the old crew” behind. I think God puts people in certain situations to help teach everyone a lesson. Maybe Michael Vick needed a wake -up call and to put the awareness out there about dog fighting and how brutal it is. He is a great player and I wish the best for him. As for the other guys, you can throw Leonard Little in with that group I think just wasn’t thinking at that time and thought their celebrity status was going to get them through. My hat goes off to Roger Goddell for doing a great job in making examples of these guys.
TFFS: Who are some of your favorite players in the league today and why? Do you follow a team today regularly?
MR: As a player, I’m just a fan of football now and really no favorite teams just guys. Some of my favorites are LT, who I think deserves to be on a team that cares about him and get him a championship, Kevin Mawae, Jason Witten, and Donovan McNabb.
You can follow Mikhael Ricks on Twitter: @MikhaelRicks