Playing tennis has served Josh Rosen well as he prepares for life as an NFL quarterback
Josh Rosen is all in for football, he’s clear about that.
But there was a time not so long ago when tennis was his No. 1 sport. Back then, if Rosen had heard “Roger,” he thought Federer, not Goodell.
Of course, it’s Goodell — the NFL commissioner — who will be calling Rosen’s name at or near the top of this year’s draft as plenty of teams are enamored with the former UCLA quarterback who’s widely considered the best pure passer in this class.
The way Rosen sees it, his background as a nationally ranked tennis prodigy helped prepare him for success in football.
“The thing about tennis that helped me a lot was because of how many points you lose,” he said. “[Even] if you beat someone, 6-0, 6-0, you’re going to lose quite a couple of points … so you have to move on from lost points, because it’s going to happen. You have to learn how to keep moving and pushing on.”
The ability to put mistakes behind and keep moving forward in football is key, particularly because Rosen will likely wind up with a struggling franchise. There’s a good chance when the draft begins with Round 1 on Thursday that he’ll be selected among the first five picks — belonging to Cleveland (twice), the New York Giants and Jets, and Denver — along with former USC quarterback Sam Darnold. Having a short memory and a knack for dusting yourself off from losses will be paramount.
“It’s not how you get knocked down,” Rosen said, “it’s how you get back up.”
It was a shoulder injury that sidetracked Rosen’s budding tennis career. He was the No. 1 Southern California player among 12-year-olds, and in the top 50 in the country. He ultimately lost interest in tennis and turned to football.
“I was rehabbing for a long time and realized at that time it kind of wasn’t a sport I really loved,” Rosen said of tennis in a 2014 interview with CFB 24/7. “I had to get surgery or quit the sport, and after eight months of rehab going back and forth, I didn’t know if I loved the game as much as I did before.
“I ended up moving to football full-time, and it’s worked out pretty well.”
Tennis and football is something of an odd combination, but not in light of the Rosen family’s varied sports background. The quarterback’s father, Charles, was a nationally ranked ice skater who nearly qualified for the Olympics in the 1970s, and his mother, Liz, was captain of the Princeton lacrosse team. Rosen’s sister, Beatrice, earned All-America honors as a tennis player at Emory, and sister, Lydia, is an accomplished high school rower.
“One of Josh’s coaches said his pocket is almost like his side of the court, from the service line to the net,” Liz Lippincott said. “Because he was a serve-and-volleyer. He would come in and have to learn his footwork, shortest way to the net and all that stuff.”
Throwing passes and hitting tennis shots both require an uncompromising attention to detail.
“There was a lot of target practice in tennis,” his mother continued. “The relentless repetition of ball in the right-hand corner, ball in the right-hand corner, ball in the right-hand corner. He had to do that 20 times in a row — service line, down the line, all that stuff. Football is the same way.”
Some NFL coaches see a connection between the sports, if only a thin one.
“I can see the correlation there, no doubt,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “There always seems to be common thing between tennis, quarterbacks and golfers. There’s a hand-eye thing, something in the wrist movement that carries over. Usually, if you’re a good tennis player, you’re a good golfer. You’re a good quarterback, you’re a good golfer.”
Said Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien: “I’m not saying I watch a ton of tennis. But when you watch Wimbledon and see these tennis players and their ability to move side to side, attack the net, backpedal back to the baseline, it is a skill set as far as footwork goes that’s definitely transferable to football.”
That said, tennis is basically a distant memory for Rosen. His mother, for one, is chafed when she hears people question her son’s passion for football.
“It’s so annoying to hear that,” Lippincott said. “How could you possibly get to this point and not love it? He’s what, 10 years into it now? ... It’s ridiculous. He’s attracted to the sport because he says, ‘Mom, it’s the most complex, exciting, team-oriented, selfless, complicated sport.’ So for his mind and body, it’s perfect.”
And in some ways, the football-tennis combination is perfect too.
“There’s going to be a lot of good from tennis,” said former NFL quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, now an ESPN analyst. “The toughest thing is going to be, that’s not a team sport. So the vibe you get from people is going to be, ‘Well, how’s that going to be with the coaching staff and his teammates?’
“But I think he’s growing and learning that way. I would always express to my strength and conditioning coaches, ‘Hey, I’m all in on these workouts that you’re having me do, the same workouts as the linebackers and linemen. But I feel it would be better if I trained like a tennis player.’ Power cleans are great, but I need a little more lateral. I’m not really tackling anybody. There’s value in it, but you’re a side-to-side athlete as a quarterback.”
Rosen is hoping all that side-to-side training leads to upward mobility on draft day.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer
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