One prime lesson from Bly based on his experience is that what happens in college stays in college.
Bly began his pro career in 1999 with the St. Louis Rams as a second-round draft pick, but he had his greatest personal accomplishments in the four seasons he spent with the Lions after signing as a free agent in 2003.
Bly made two Pro Bowl teams and was first alternate on another as a Lion. Although the Lions never had a winning season in his tenure in Detroit, he was a respected player and team leader.
Bly’s college accomplishments at North Carolina were so outstanding that he has been voted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Induction ceremonies are Dec. 9.
But everything that happened in his 11-year pro career, including playing a key role on a Super Bowl winner in his rookie season with the Rams, came after the Rams veterans indoctrinated him into the reality that life in the pros is different than in college.
“Basically, I had to prove myself,” Bly said in a telephone interview from his home in Charlotte. “Having a chance to be around the veterans I was with reminded me that what I did in college was college.
“I was playing against a completely different caliber of athlete. Nothing would be easy. Probably the one biggest adjustment going from college to the NFL was the every-day grind, the every-day work that was required to be a good player, to be an outstanding player.”
Lawson and Bly have some similarities, both in physical stature and how they are beginning their careers. Consider the following:
Work ethic: Bly’s comments about the “every-day grind, the every-day work” resonate with Lawson. He graduated from Utah State in May and was ready to make football his job.
“I wake up every day glad and happy that I’m able to come in here and play football and call it my job,” Lawson said after a practice last week. “I love it. It’s a job.”
Size: Bly was listed at 5-9, 197 when the Rams drafted him in the second round, 46th overall.
Lawson was listed at 5-10, 190 when drafted in the fourth round, 133rd overall out of Utah State.
Stats: Bly was one of the most productive defensive backs in Atlantic Coast Conference history. When he left North Carolina after the 1998 season, he held the ACC record for career interceptions with 20. He led the nation as a red-shirt freshman with 11.
Lawson had six career picks at Utah State and 32 pass breakups his senior season.
Rookie status: Bly joined a veteran secondary in St. Louis. He began his rookie season as the Rams’ dime back and worked his way up to be the nickel back.
He was a spot starter that season and for the next two before becoming a full-time starter in 2002.
Lawson’s most likely opportunity to get playing time will be as an extra defensive back. He said he’s been playing nickel back in practice. That’s a transition from Utah State, where he lined up wide to cover the opponent’s best receiver every game.
Playing wide let him use the boundary for help in coverage. There is more territory to cover lining up inside in the nickel.
“Your foot speed comes into play,” Lawson said of playing the nickel. ”You don’t have a sideline where you basically can push them out. You can get good hands on them inside if you have the right technique.”
Bly sees it as a plus for Lawson that he is being used in the nickel so early.
“Playing nickel, you have a two-way go,” Bly said. “A lot of times, they don’t put rookies inside. There’s too much coming at you.
“It says a lot about Nevin if they’re doing that with him. It says they value this player very highly.”
Bly was never intimidated by giving up a height advantage to taller, bigger receivers. Neither is Lawson.
“I feel like no matter how big you are, how small you are, if you can play you can play,” Lawson said. “I was always successful at my height.
Just be faster and quicker.”
Bly had great hands, and he used them to intercept 43 career passes, 43rd most in NFL history. He recorded his one-season high of six picks three times.
Bly departed the Lions after the 2006 season, his fourth in Detroit. Head coach Rod Marinelli and his staff didn’t think Bly fit their defensive scheme. Bly played three seasons in Denver. His career ended after one season in San Francisco in 2009.
The Lions brought him to training camp in 2010 and released him in the final cut.
Winning a Super Bowl ring with the Rams as a rookie was an obvious career highlight for Bly. He made a major contribution to their championship run with an interception late in the NFC Championship against the Bucs. The Rams converted it into a touchdown for an 11-6 victory and a trip to Super Bowl XXXIV, where they beat the Titans.
Bly’s stay in Detroit was special because of what he accomplished on a personal level. He kept a home here until two years ago, when he moved to Charlotte.
“I played my best ball in Detroit,” Bly said. “I got involved in the community. The one thing I say when I speak to kids now is that the ones that don’t apply themselves, don’t take care of their body -- the ones that don’t study are the ones who don’t have a long career.
“I tell them, ‘Take your craft seriously. Put in time. Put in the extra work. Your teammates need you. They‘re depending on you.'"