If Lamonte Winston ever chooses to leave his role as the Raiders director of player engagement, he might consider looking into the field of psychology.
Either that, or someone who designs our freeway systems. Winston is already bracing for the steady flow of Raiders prospects as the NFL Draft begins Thursday night.
“Right now they’re on the frontage road on the highway of life,” Winston said. “At some point it ends and you see the exit to get on the road of life. You’ve got to know how to merge onto this highway. If you don’t merge right, there’s going to be a wreck.”
The Oakland native is entering his 24th year in the “people business.” He’s tasked with doing homework on every potential college player the Raiders could select, as well as those who join the team during free agency and via trades. His job is to prepare them for what happens when the excitement of draft night is a distant memory and when playing football is no longer a career choice.
Make no mistake, Winston isn’t a licensed psychologist. But the many roles he has in dealing with players’ emotions, what makes them tick, their happiness, self-actualization and fulfillment away from the field might make you think otherwise.
During Aldon Smith’s suspension for a violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy, Winston was (and remains) the direct link between the controversial outside linebacker and the coaching staff, as Del Rio and Raiders coaches were not allowed direct communication due to league rules.
What exactly does his job entail? Nothing you would see unfold on game day.
“I don’t get into philosophy,” he said. “I don’t game plan. I left that all back in coaching. And evaluations? I left that all back in scouting.”
But to a certain degree, Winston is doing all of those things. His job just doesn’t involve position meetings and breaking down film.
Long before general manager Reggie McKenzie hired Winston in 2012, the San Francisco State graduate spent years as a coach in the high school and college ranks before transitioning into the NFL as a scout for the Chiefs. It was former Kansas City coach Herm Edwards who saw the need to create a “player space” and tasked Winston with building programs that would help players excel in other phases of life.
Much of that begins with professional development opportunities players can get while they’re still playing, something Winston is always presenting to those interested. Last year Raiders cornerback T.J. Carrie took part in a sports in journalism boot camp at Bowling Green University. Wide receiver Seth Roberts furthered his knowledge in a finance boot camp.
“Guys that partake in these programs, I think it makes them better pros,” Winston said. “They see a different perspective.”
With increasing attention on player behavior off the field, teams need help in spotting warning signs. Before any scouting begins about a player’s skill set, Winston is heavily involved in the interviews at the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis and those that take place when a player visits team headquarters in Alameda.
This is game-planning of a different sort. Winston happens to be devising a strategy for building a support system around each individual on the roster and practice squad.
“He’s involved in part of the culture which Jack (Del Rio) helps create around here and they’re always in constant communication and likewise with us before the draft when we go with certain players,” McKenzie said.
Winston is this team’s lifeline, in more ways than one. The Aldon Smith drama shows just how serious the challenge can be.
The contact is already limited for Winston during these tense times. It’s why he considers building a connection from Day 1 one of the most important parts of his job.
“If you want people to trust you, you have to be there for them,” Winston said. “If I’m asking people to trust me during crisis, they have to know that they have someone to call.
“We’re going to be there when it’s the worst time in your life.”
It’s something he’ll continue to do when draft picks he helped research and flush out start rolling in for rookie mini camp next week. It’s something he’ll focus heavily on as the stakes get higher during the team’s move to Vegas when finding players who can remain focused when surrounded by temptation and nightlife comes into play.
It’s a 24-7 job. Arguably one of the most important within the walls of the Raiders team headquarters.
It all starts with trust.
“We start out with relationships, not running routes,” he said. “Tell me about your mom. Some guys come in here with conditions and circumstances that are tough. Tell me about that.”
Follow Courtney Cronin on Twitter.