The senator leaned in closer, sharing a sheet of paper with the oversized extern seated next to him. Listed was the day’s schedule, groups coming through the office, committee hearings on tap and policy matters that needed to be explored.
“The ones that are highlighted in blue are ones where I’ll be making the full meeting,” Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) explained. Will Pericak, a 300-pound offensive lineman for the Seattle Seahawks, nodded.
Outside the office, official Washington was consumed Thursday morning with reports that the attorney general might have met with a Russian ambassador.
For at least a moment, though, Gardner’s office was much more focused on the staid details of the day.
“If you follow all the media, you’d think they’re throwing grenades and launching rocks from windows out here,” Pericak said, “like everybody’s at each other’s throats. But really, there’s nice people who are working their tails off to make things better.”
Pericak, 27, is one of three NFL players who have been working on Capitol Hill as part of a crash-course three-week externship program run by the NFL Players Association. The union encourages players to spend part of their offseason exploring other career fields, and last month, 41 NFL players were planted with 15 different organizations. While Pericak, Titans lineman Karim Barton and free agent defensive back Dion Bailey are working with elected members of Congress, others are assigned to businesses such as Marriott, Under Armour and Comcast SportsNet.
The trio of football players on the Hill arrived at a particularly unique time in Washington: shortly after President Trump’s inauguration, as the Senate held confirmation hearings for appointees and the House opened a new session. There is turnover and change every two years, but the frenetic pace and the political bombast and drama have been turned up several notches.
Bailey said that when he came to the Hill, he “expected it to be very uptight.” But it was reassuring, he said, to arrive at his temporary assignment each morning, sit behind a desk and get away from 24-hour news networks and the morning headlines.
“The information, man, so much information is circulating on a daily basis,” Barton said. “You wouldn’t believe how much paper you see every day. I mean, wow.”
For many football players, there’s little time to think about a Plan B. Since they were young, they spent afternoons and summers on football fields or in weight rooms — not working jobs, not applying for internships or anything else that might work on a résumé. When football is no longer an option, many are left with no practical work experience, limited contacts and often no clue about what other fields might be worth pursuing.
“I don’t know what that thing outside of football will be, what will make me excited to get up in the morning every day to perform,” Barton said. “But that’s okay. That’s why I’ve been doing this: to find out what else gives me that burning desire.”
“It’s been refreshing to actually know that all of politics isn’t the stuff you see on CNN and what Trump’s doing every second,” he said. “It’s refreshing to understand that there’s more going on, bigger problems and things that need to be addressed.”
While a new crop of football prospects have gathered in Indianapolis this week for the NFL Scouting Combine with hopes of long and lucrative playing careers, the game’s veterans know it is never too early to think about life beyond football. “From Day 1, everybody tells you that football won’t be your last job,” said Pericak, who earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Colorado in finance as well as a masters in accounting.
Pericak spent Thursday, his second-to-last day in Gardner’s office, shadowing the senator. After the morning briefing, they walked together to a subcommitte e hearing.
“You enjoying everything so far?” Gardner asked as the two waited for an elevator.
“Oh yeah. You have a great staff. It’s interesting how similar some things are. You’re kind of like Pete Carroll,” Pericak said, referring to the Seahawks’ head coach. “He sets the tone, and everybody kind of falls in line.”
The externs quickly learned that on the Hill, big moments are usually preceded by a million less glamorous ones. In Washington, that means constituent calls and emails. The three also have been assigned to help research some policy issues and gather background for their temporary bosses. Pericak researched foreign policy. Bailey read up on agriculture and food.
“I hope Dion learns from his time in Washington, takes what he has learned back to his community and looks at public service as a viable option in the future,” his boss, Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio), said.
Barton, for his part, is participating in the NFLPA externship program for the third straight offseason. Last year, he was a marketing extern for a Texas mattress company, and before that, he worked with a sports-merchandise company. This year he has been in the office of Rep. Yvette D. Clarke (D-N.Y.).
On Thursday morning, Gardner and Pericak walked briskly through the halls from the Russell to the Dirksen building, where the subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation and the Internet was holding a hearing on wireless technology.
Gardner also serves on the Foreign Relations Committee, which is probably why a reporter caught him in the hallway to ask about the controversy surrounding the attorney general. “Any thoughts about him recusing himself?” she asked.
Pericak’s eyes were wide as he quietly observed the scene. Gardner kept smiling at the impromptu pressing. “Look, let’s see the information first,” he said, quickly excusing himself.
Gardner and the lineman disappeared into the committee hearing room, where Pericak sat behind the senator. As they heard testimony, Gardner occasionally leaned back, whispering to his extern or sharing notes. At one point, Gardner unearthed an old photo on his phone of himself as a young boy, meeting John Elway. Pericak and Gardner shared a laugh at the 1980s clothing and the senator’s brush with football greatness.
The externship program ends Friday. The players will return to their homes and resume their offseason training. They’re excited about next season, but each will return to the football field with an eye cast much further down the road.
“I’m really trying to plant seeds that will help over time,” Bailey said, “so when the time comes when I have to hang up the cleats, I’ve already invested in my future.”