OAKLAND, Calif. _ In a multibillion-dollar industry with multimillion-dollar talent, it's good business practice to protect and maintain the most valuable assets. The Raiders, after years of resistance, finally have.
Not long after the new coaching staff was assembled, first-year general manager Reggie McKenzie hired the team's first full-time director of player engagement.
Lamonte Winston's title, however, is corporate-speak. Some call him a life coach. The essence of his job is to be whatever the players and coaches need him to be.
It's a very big task, one in which Winston's impact can be every bit as significant as that of head coach Dennis Allen. D.A. is in Oakland to prepare players to win games on the field. Winston is here to help them navigate challenges off the field.
"You have (Human Resources) for everybody in the building," he says in a rich, firm baritone. "Well, why wouldn't you have H.R. for the players? They're employees. Reggie and Coach Allen understand it's about providing H.R. benefits for players and coaches.
"It's no different than Google. We have talented people. They are a product. They have to produce. When they're not, you can't just fire everybody. The league is not built that way. So we want to provide a model and a basis of education and support for the players and their families."
Winston is highly respected in the NFL, having spent 17 seasons in Kansas City, the first three as a scout and the last 14 dealing directly with players and coaches. The annual Winston/Shell Award, presented to outstanding player development director/program, is named after former Steelers star Donnie Shell and Winston, who pioneered the concept.
Though assistant defensive backs coach Willie Brown was asked to assume similar duties in Oakland, the Raiders had never devoted a full-time specialist to the position. Winston will be assisted by longtime Raiders employee Pete Caracciolo.
As part of the sweeping changes he is making to the football operation, McKenzie has directed Winston to provide the resources for players and coaches to better address any personal issues. He will make himself available, for example, to wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, who is facing DUI charges in San Francisco.
Winston also can be expected to reach out to middle linebacker Rolando McClain, who is being charged with third-degree assault, menacing, reckless endangerment and discharging a firearm within city limits relating to an incident last year in Decatur, Ala. McClain is scheduled to appear in court Thursday.
"I always draw a line: boy and man," says Winston, who declines to discuss matters related to specific individuals. "On one side, you have a whole bunch of boys. They make a lot of money, grown-man dollars, but they act like boys. They don't want any accountability, don't want any responsibility. It's always somebody else's fault.
"Men don't act like that. Men understand the environment in which they operate. You have to approach life in this game as a man. Those who continue to act like boys get consumed by it. A lot of them who get run out, it's not because they don't have talent but because they refuse to grow."
The NFL is a high-intensity workplace, overloaded with testosterone and egos run amok. It's also an insecure profession, where coaches routinely get fired and the vast majority of players are separated, by release or retirement, before they turn 40.
As part of his address to rookies, Winston holds in one hand an inflated football and in the other a deflated football. He reminds them that for most of their college teammates, the football already has deflated. Everybody's football eventually deflates.
"You have to be honest," he says. "We are obligated to help them understand what they're facing."
Winston will be a part of the interview process for prospective Raiders. He's a counselor and confidant, reminding all not only that NFL careers are temporary but also that they should have something waiting when you leave the game _ and that he'll help with that. He'll listen at least as often as he delivers straight talk.
Winston arrives too late to help JaMarcus Russell, the only No. 1 overall pick in Raiders history, who never could dedicate himself and was released after three seasons.
He's too late for Barret Robbins, the Pro Bowl center who now sits in a Florida prison but is best known for abandoning the team the weekend of the Super Bowl.
And it's much too late for former defensive lineman Darrell Russell, who made the Pro Bowl in two of his first three seasons, was out of the league four years later and was 29 when killed in an auto accident.
Maybe these sad and tragic stories could not have been avoided. Maybe each of these gifted, troubled souls was destined to get lost along the way.
Maybe a man like Lamonte Winston, hoping to save them for the team, could not have saved them from themselves.
But now he's there, accessible to the current roster.
The Raiders have endured the losses _ in sheer talent as well as millions in investments _ and Winston represents the commitment to prevent such occurrences in the future. It's another sign of culture change within the franchise.
(c) 2012, The Oakland Tribune (Oakland, Calif.).
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