Ron Bartell is living his childhood dream. He is playing in the NFL and is a millionaire at 23, having signed a four-year, $2.88 million contract with the St. Louis Rams late last month after being selected in the second round of the draft from Howard University.
Still, some of life's lessons sting every bit as much for him as they do for any other new member of the workforce, as when the Rams' payment of the first installment of the $1.49 million in bonus money in his contract arrived.
As he sat in the Rams' marina-front hotel here last weekend on the night before the club played the San Diego Chargers in a preseason game, Bartell was asked whether he'd felt suddenly wealthy when he saw that check. "Not when I looked at the taxes they took out," he said. "I gave the government more money than I'd ever seen in my life."
His mother, Phyllis Bartell, said a couple days later: "That was the first thing he asked me. He said how much they took out, and could they legally do that? I said, 'Yeah, they can.' "
Taxes aside, life is good these days for Ronald Bartell Jr. as he prepares for his rookie season. He has had decent performances in the Rams' two preseason games, including Sunday's loss to the Chargers, and has avoided glaring rookie mistakes. He is in line to be the Rams' No. 3 cornerback after they lost a starter, Jerametrius Butler, to a season-ending knee injury. He drives a Hummer and is having a house built in St. Louis.
"It's football, football, football," Bartell said. "It's a job now, which is different for me. But it's fun. It's what I always wanted to do. . . . It's good money [but] I don't feel wealthy at all. It's no big deal to me. . . . I think [his parents] are just happy to have me out of their pocket. My sister's been bugging me a lot, though."
Bartell has been living in St. Louis since May. The Rams had a rookie minicamp a week after the draft, then sandwiched regular offseason practices (called "organized team activities") around a minicamp for the entire team. Bartell attended the NFL's rookie symposium -- where players are taught how to act and warned about what to avoid -- in West Palm Beach, Fla., then returned to St. Louis for rookie conditioning workouts right up until the start of training camp in late July. He has had little time to catch his breath after an offseason of near-constant preparation -- and fretting -- leading up to the draft but his vacation, he said, will come after the season.
Bartell missed the opening day of training camp because his San Antonio-based agent, Jeff Griffin, still was working out contract details with the Rams. Bartell spent the day in his apartment in St. Louis, waiting for Griffin to call and tell him the deal was done and he should get to camp. The negotiations had commenced only the previous day.
"It was tough," Bartell said. "It was a little nerve-racking. I wanted to be out there. Unfortunately things didn't get done as quickly as I hoped, but it got done the next day."
NFL coaches get upset when rookies show up to camp late, especially rookies who weren't first-round draft picks. Fortunately for Bartell, the Rams' first-round draft choice, offensive tackle Alex Barron, signed nearly two weeks later than Bartell did and drew more of the wrath of Coach Mike Martz and more of the ribbing from the team's veteran players.
"I took a little grief," Bartell said. "The good thing is, Alex Barron was out, too. Once he came in, they laid off me and now everyone's on him. . . . Coach Martz, he wanted me to be there on time. I think he was kind of upset that it took as long as it did. But it's a business. I had to do what's best for me. One day's not that bad. In the long run, you have to look out for yourself and do what's best for yourself."
Phyllis Bartell said she has, for the most part, no problems with how her son has handled his money so far.
"With the exception of him wanting to put his bonus check in the ATM machine, I was okay," she said. "I said, 'No, walk into the bank and deposit it.' "
The family is close-knit. Bartell's parents, who live in Detroit, have attended both of the Rams' preseason games (the Rams will come to them next, facing the Lions in Detroit on Monday night). They had dinner with him Saturday in San Diego. Bartell has hired a separate firm to handle his financial planning, and says he is planning to make some real estate developments with his father, Ronald Sr.
The younger Bartell must endure the usual indignities of being an NFL rookie. He woke up at 5:30 one morning to go to the Waffle House to buy breakfast for all the defensive backs. He was booed off the stage once when his veteran teammates forced him to sing, but says he did better the second time. True to his Howard roots, he chose a song -- "If I Ever Fall in Love" -- by a group, Shai, whose members once were students at the school.
His football development has its ups and downs as he practices against the Rams' two standout veteran wide receivers, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. Bruce has told Bartell that he will do his best to force the rookie to improve by going hard against him in practice every day.
"It's had its bumps," Bartell said. "There are peaks and valleys. One day will be a really good day, and the next day will be a really bad day. . . . No competition in college is like the competition you're going to get at the pro level. I don't care who you are. I'm going against two Hall of Fame receivers every day in practice. Nobody has seen that in college. I don't care if you go to Miami, you're not going to see that in practice. It's a learning experience. You have to take your lumps and swallow some pride. They've run so many routes I haven't seen before, it's ridiculous."
He is big (6 feet 1, 208 pounds) -- by cornerback standards -- and fast, but still is fairly raw in his coverage techniques. His coaches, he said, told him to work on one specific thing in practice each day and try to get better at that as he attempts to add the necessary polish to his game.
"I think I'm a good enough athlete that I can be a good player without it," Bartell said. "But I want to be a great player. It's something I really want to work on. . . . Athletically, I'm there. Experience-wise and knowledge and the small little details and technique-wise, I'm not there yet."