I’ve seen my fair share of cover letters. I’ve researched how to write a cover letter. Plenty of websites exist that provide you with their perfect template “guaranteed” to get you hired for that dream job. I thought I knew how to write and spot a great cover letter. I was wrong. I didn’t realize this lesson from a seasoned professional, a recruiter, or a hiring manager. I learned the secret formula for writing the greatest cover letter ever from the most unlikely source – a 20 year old NFL draft prospect.
Most people, including myself, would never think that a NFL draft prospect would need to go through the traditional resume and cover letter process like most of us do. An aspiring professional athlete’s resume is his or her body of work, not a perfectly formatted, grammatically correct word document. Additionally, I would never have thought that a cover letter would be needed or even wanted at the NFL. That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised when I read Derek Barnett’s cover letter online this past week. Derek Barnett played for The University of Tennessee Knoxville, a school with a proud and rich football tradition. Last season, he almost guaranteed his 1st round draft status by breaking UT’s career sack record previously held by the late pro-football hall of famer, Reggie White (aka The Minister of Defense). While this stat is impressive enough, he also had 54 individual career honors while playing his 3 years at UT. His resume or body of work was impressive.
So that’s what makes his brilliant cover letter submission all the more surprising, but his content is what makes it so remarkable. Here are the lessons all of us should take away from a 20 year old NFL prospect:
1. Derek Barnett set the perfect stage and tone of the letter
“I’m not one to tout my own accomplishments. It’s not really in my nature. But I also understand that this is a time when I should be open about what I’ve done in the past and what I plan to do in the future”
The opening positions the entire letter by letting his audience know that he will reluctantly address his individual successes because this is one of the very few times that he will need to do so in order to help GMs and Coaches predict the future. He makes it very clear in the beginning of his letter that talking about his individual success is only a means for his audience to understand what he can bring to the future of their organization and is only a part of the draft process.
2. His summation of what he wants from his next employer: Leadership, Teamwork, Winning
“I want to lead a defense. I want to be an important part of a winning team”
“I want to win a Super Bowl.”
Concise and clear details of what he wants out of his next job, not coincidently aligning directly with what every prospective employer wants out of their next employee.
3. The roots of his unmatched character
“I’m sure you’ve hear from plenty of players who talked about the work they’d put into developing their craft. I understand that working hard is the very minimum of what you need to do in order to make it at this level.”… “Working hard is not optional – it’s in my DNA”
Derek Barnett is fully aware that every player will talk about how their work ethic is the best. He takes it a step further by describing where his work ethic derived but also mentioning that is an expectation, not something to be necessarily thought of as a bonus to be selected.
4. Consistent performance and still growing
“I’m proud of the fact that I’m not the player who suddenly burst on the scene late in my college career. Since I arrived at Tennessee, I’ve produced consistently every single year. But that doesn’t mean I’m the same player I was as a freshman. Not even close.”
Employers want someone who will take their organization to the next level. Derek realizes this, but he also realizes we live in a “what have you done for me lately” society. NFL players come and go, same with every other employee in today’s world; however, he is telling is future employer that he is the guy to help take an organization to the next level and then he will do it again. He quickly dismisses the common feared thoughts by GMs and coaches that he is a short-term fix and that his proven consistent performance and improvement will be taken to the next level.
5. Why he is the best choice
“I’m not scared of the big stage. I know what it’s like to play in a stadium where you can’t hear the person next to you. I know what it’s like to line up across from a player who is just as physically gifted as me – and know that I can beat him using my superior technique.”
Derek’s history of playing under pressure on the big stage have not deterred him from is consistent performance. He acknowledges the talent he has and will face are equal to his own but his success will be achieved through his skills, not solely based on his physical gifts. This statement brings together his consistent and continual improvement approach to his craft.
6. Looking towards the future
“I know there’s still so much work to be done, but I also think that I’ve only scratched the surface of my potential.”
Again, he admits that no matter which team drafts him, he cannot and will not stop improving. What he has done up to this point is only a small portion of what he can bring to his next job.
7. Will be remembered
“Right now, you might know me as the kid who broke Reggie White’s sack record at Tennessee, but that’s not the only thing I’m going to be remembered for by the time I leave this game.”
The conclusion of his letter is brilliant. He again humbly mentions his accomplishments but he adamantly conveys that will not be what he will be known for by the time his career is over. This sentence opens up the imagination to the possibilities of what the reader dreams is possible.
The next time one is in the position to write a cover letter, I would encourage you to re-read this 20 year-old’s unnecessary but impactful letter to his future employer. All of the ingredients you need to write your own can be found here. If the NFL doesn’t work out for Derek Barnett, which I highly doubt will be the case, I’ll hire him.