The Washington Commanders' rookie class was out in full force at Joe Gibbs' Youth for Tomorrow Gala, and fifth-round pick KJ Henry was doing a roll call.
First up was Emmanuel Forbes, followed by Ricky Stromberg and Andre Jones. Then Henry got to Chris Rodriguez, and while the running back was introducing himself, Henry interrupted him by saying, "Hold on," and took a couple steps back to get Rodriguez more into frame.
"My bad, you so short," Henry said to a visibly frustrated Rodriguez, which earned a few laughs from the rest of his teammates.
It's good that Henry and the rookies can have those lighthearted moments, because finding ways to contribute on the field isn't the only aspect of being an NFL player. Sure, it's certainly the main goal and something that will demand most of their time, but a portion of their offseason was also spent learning the off-field responsibilities that come with being in the professional ranks like serving the community to getting to know the city they'll be playing for.
"Right away, we put them into the atmosphere and the environment of being a true NFL player," said player development assistant Alexis Dotson.
The Washington Commanders' 2023 rookie draft class attended the Joe Gibbs Youth for Tomorrow Gala on Thursday. Check out the top photos from the night. (Photos by Emilee Fails/Washington Commanders)
Whenever the rookies weren't on the field during OTAs and minicamp or learning the playbook, they were spending time getting to know the rest of the team, the DMV and each other. One of the first things the group did together was go to the mall, get something to eat and get more acquainted with their new teammates. "We're in this thing together," Jones said, so it's important that they build a strong bond.
"They're gonna want to bond with the rookies, but they're also gonna want to bond with the vets," said director of college personnel Tim Gribble. "We've got a great group of vets here. They want to be successful, and we've built a strong foundation of quality character guys. And we're bringing in another strong group of character guys."
The rookies and veterans got to each feel out each other's skill set during practice, but the Commanders also set up a team bonding session at Top Golf for the entire roster. Although Henry saying that golf is how he really intends to make a living, the real point of the players hanging out together was for them to get a better look at who their teammates are as people.
"From the inside, I can say it's a cool group of guys, from all the guys we drafted to some of the free agents," Henry said. "No one's really too high on their horse, which says a lot coming into this league."
It's also important for the rookies to introduce themselves to the fan base and the DMV community. Aside from taking a tour of Washington, D.C., which included seeing the Lincoln Memorial and standing in the same spot where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I have a dream" speech, the team also has the rookies participate in various charity events to show the fans they can offer more to the DMV than winning football games.
"I'm really enjoying just meeting people and getting my name out there," Stromberg said.
One of the first events on the list was the Commanders' first ever flag football clinic, which saw the rookies offer local kids a few pointers as they ran through drills. All of them were enthusiastic about chipping in because it helped put a smile on kids' faces.
"It's a great opportunity to come out here to show support and give back to the fans that show us support and give us love every day," Braeden Daniels said.
Check out each of the Washington Commanders' seven draft picks joining the roster and prepare to don the Burgundy & Gold for the first time. (Photos by Emilee Fails and Kourtney Carroll/Washington Commanders)
Henry got some first-hand experience with that when he got to spend time with Kennedy Keene, who finished up her active treatment for Leukemia and attended practice with help from the Commanders Charitable Foundation and the Hogfarmers Charitable Foundation. For Henry, meeting the fans serves two purposes: he gets to set the foundation of who he is as a person, and it allows him to have a positive imprint within the local community.
"It was real heartwarming," Henry said of Kennedy's visit. "I haven't stepped on the field in this league yet, so it's cool to still see that people appreciate me for me and me for my game. I'm just glad I could put a smile on her face."
It's also a reminder to the rookies that their efforts can have a lasting impact on the people they interact with.
"The high fives, the interactions, the smiles, it's one thing whenever you do it in college, but it's a completely other thing when you do it in the NFL," Dotson said. "I think them understanding what power that holds and what significance that holds and the impact they can have on others, I think it's nice, and they were a little kid once, too, looking up to NFL players."