It was a dream come true, when the Washington Redskins drafted former Westfield High School standout Evan Royster last month,--not only for the running back and his parents, but also for his friends.
All had joyfully followed his career at Penn State, where the 6-foot, 212-pounder amassed 3,932 yards in four seasons to finish as the Nittany Lions’ all-time leading rusher. Royster believed he would get drafted. But landing with the hometown Redskins as a sixth-round pick was beyond thrilling.
“My best friend since I was 7, 8 years old is a diehard Redskins fan,” Royster said Wednesday with a laugh. “And the day I got drafted, he came over with a Redskins polo and was like, ‘This is what you’re wearing. We’re going to play golf right now and this is what you’re wearing.’ He’s really excited and so are my other friends, too.”
Two days after he was drafted, Royster walked into a sporting goods store and picked up a Redskins cap. The cashier asked him, “What did you think of the draft?”
Royster burst out laughing.
“I couldn’t really say much,” he recalled. “I just said, ‘I couldn’t be happier, because they picked me.’ He was taken aback. He was pretty shocked.”
Royster spent the next three weeks training on his own and waiting for a resolution of the NFL’s labor dispute so he could finally have contact with his coaches and the dream would start feeling a bit more like reality.
The NFL’s players remain locked out, and Royster and his fellow draftees haven’t been able to sign contracts. But this week, as he works out with a group of 40 other Redskins players at a local high school, Royster is finally starting to sense what the future holds. He still calls his situation a “real blessing,” but the excitement is wearing off and in its place is a determined focus.
Quarterback John Beck photocopied the team’s playbook and handed it out to all 10 rookies in attendance at the workouts this week, so Royster finally has been able to see what the Redskins plays look like. Fullback Mike Sellers has served as positional coach, explaining the running backs’ tasks and responsibilities, and critiquing Royster and fellow rookie Roy Helu’s execution.
Royster said his understanding of the playbook already is improving, but the last two days have shown him that to succeed in the NFL, he will need more than just physical skills.
“It’s a business,” he said. “There’s a whole new meaning to, ‘You’re fired.’ In college, people would say it jokingly, but now it’s serious. … It’s such a mental game at this point.”
Sellers said that was the first piece of advice he passed onto Royster after meeting him Tuesday.
“It’s a mindset,” said Sellers, who is entering his 12th NFL season. “You keep that same mindset that got you here, you’ll be fine. But if you get intimidated, it’s the end of the road.”
Over the first two days of workouts, Royster looked solid running through positional drills and three-quarter-speed seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 drills. He has reeled in a few nice passes out of the backfield, and a few times veterans teased him for going full-speed as he turned upfield and made cuts.
After drafting Royster, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan praised his effortless running style and said he reminded him of former Denver star running back Terrell Davis. Speaking of Royster on Wednesday, Anthony Armstrong said, “I know Royster has been pounding people all his career at Penn State, so I think he’ll be a good addition to the offense.”
Sellers agreed that Royster has potential, but says he’ll reserve his judgment for whether or not he will shine in the NFL until he sees him in action.
“Everybody looks good when you’re running around on the field, but you don’t know until we put the pads on,” Sellers said. “When he takes that first hit from a 280-pound defensive end that runs a 4.5-second 40-yard dash, it’s a little different, because he was on a different level in college. But if he can deal with that, keep the mindset that he’s going to do the job, he’ll be good.”
Royster isn’t putting enormous pressure on himself, but said he is approaching the situation with focus. For now, he will continue to prepare as well as he can and set modest goals, check those off as he accomplishes them, and set more along the way.
“I’m just taking it a step at a time, trying to get a grasp of the playbook and just get better,” Royster said. “Right now, even without fully knowing the playbook, I’m at about a six or a seven. I’m confident. I’m looking to come in and try to contribute.”