On his very first day as a Philadelphia Eagle at the NovaCare Complex, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside sat down with Paul Lancaster and felt an immediate sense of comfort.
Arcega-Whiteside felt so comfortable that he nearly fell asleep on the brown leather couch in Lancaster's office down the hall from the players' locker room. Lancaster took no offense to Arcega-Whiteside nearly dozing off. In fact, he expected it.
"As soon as everybody sits down on that couch, they fall asleep," Lancaster told Arcega-Whiteside. "If you want to take a nap, go ahead."
To be fair, the rookie receiver had good reason to be a little sleepy. He was merely hours removed from being selected in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft, which was followed by a sudden trip to Philadelphia, where coaches and front-office staff greeted him with dozens of handshakes and hugs.
Lancaster understood this. His main concern was that Arcega-Whiteside was at ease, as that is one of the many aspects of his job as the Eagles' director of player engagement. Between the Eagles and Buffalo Bills, Lancaster has spent nearly two decades in the role. Where coaches develop players on the field, Lancaster develops them in a variety of ways off it. Rookies are required to participate in the program, but Lancaster's door is open to players of all experience levels.
At its core, Lancaster and his program provide four things to players:
For Eagles players, having all of that at their disposal is crucial, and it has earned Lancaster universal respect amongst them.
"What he does is unmatched," says linebacker Nigel Bradham, who has had a relationship with Lancaster dating back to his rookie season in Buffalo back in 2012. "He's extremely good at his job. He understands the players."
At first glance, Lancaster is an imposing figure, standing at a towering 6 feet, 6 inches tall. Depending on the time of the year, he may also sport a bushy, salt-and-pepper beard that only adds to his daunting aesthetic. His personality, however, couldn't differ more.
He may talk down to a majority of the players in a literal sense, but he doesn't in a figurative one. Right off the bat, he wants to establish a genuine relationship with a player. Forging a personal relationship with the players is vital, according to Lancaster. If he doesn't know the players on a personal level, how can he help them?
"For me, above and beyond anything else, you have to start working with the players and the key to that is understanding that they're people," Lancaster says.
"Once you start to do that, you start to build a rapport with people. That's basic. Once you do that, then you start building relationships."
This is easier said than done, especially considering the age difference between Lancaster and the players. When Lancaster first held the role in Buffalo back in 2001, he was the same age as most of the veteran players. But as time has marched on, the dynamic has changed, and Lancaster has gone from what he called the "cool uncle" to more of a father figure.
Despite that, Lancaster still manages to relate to players who are, in most cases, the same age as his 21-year-old twin sons, PJ and Hunter. Lancaster uses his sons, as well as his nieces and nephews, as valuable resources of information.
"They let me know who Lil Uzi Vert was before he was mainstream," he says.
But the comfort goes well beyond being familiar with knowing the latest DaBaby track. It also goes into helping the players in matters away from the field. The money and attention that come with being a professional football player are great, but the reality of life can still affect a player as much as any normal person. With a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's in counseling from California University of Pennsylvania, Lancaster is a valuable person to turn to when those tough times arise.
"I think he gives you the comfort and the confidence as well to be able to come in his office at any time, call his phone at any time, and just have a conversation or talk about what's going on through your career or what's going on in your life or if you need some help or some guidance of handling certain situations," Bradham says. "He's definitely the perfect person."
Lancaster has worked in the NFL since 2001, but his first love was basketball. After a promising high school career and a brief stint at the Naval Academy, Lancaster felt like he was well on his way to being basketball's next big thing.
He was right to feel that way, as he had multiple offers from Division I programs that wanted nothing more than for Lancaster to continue his basketball career with them.
But Lancaster yearned to balance basketball with something else: education. Lancaster had an interest in psychology and there just so happened to be a university near his hometown of Brownsville, Pennsylvania that had a psychology school he was interested in — California University of Pennsylvania.
Cal U is a member of Division II when it comes to athletics, but it allowed Lancaster a chance to supplement his education. Education was a priority for Lancaster and his family as a whole, as both of his parents were educators. His father, Larry, was a professor at Cal U and his mother, Adrienne, worked for Intermediate Unit 1, a public educational service agency based in Southwestern Pennsylvania. She eventually retired after being the director of special education of a school district in Pittsburgh.
Even his grandmother, Arabelle, went back to school at a later stage in her life to further her education. There was a heavy emphasis on education in the Lancaster household, and it molded and shaped Paul into the man he is today.
"It's something that's always been in me to really help guys gain the knowledge that they need to better themselves," he says. "At this point, it's not about me. It's about these young men who are going to be leaving this game and moving on to another occupation if they choose to."
Whether it's obtaining a bachelor's degree, a master's degree, or even getting an internship, Lancaster instills in players the importance of setting themselves up for life after football.
A very important part of the education process is helping players with their finances. The world of finance isn't necessarily Lancaster's field of expertise, so he brings in professionals who can properly pass down the knowledge to the players.
The Eagles, like every other team in the NFL, held a Pro Day during the offseason for prospects with local ties or those who played for local programs. Among those in attendance was Philadelphia native Shareef Miller.
Miller eventually made his way to Lancaster's office and sat down on the comfortable couch. Miller wasn't struck with fatigue like Arcega-Whiteside. Instead, he was struck by something else: Lancaster's authenticity.
Miller grew up in the Frankford section of Philadelphia, where authenticity is paramount, and for Miller, it went a long way to establishing a rapport with Lancaster.
"He's like a mentor, kind of a father figure, somebody you can go talk to about everything," Miller says about Lancaster.
The thing about honesty is that it can be a double-edged sword. While it is mostly appreciated, it can also hurt. But good, bad, or indifferent, Lancaster is going to keep it real with the players.
"You don't want a guy like that, who works closely with all of the rookies, to just lie to you and not tell you how it is," running back Miles Sanders says. "He tells it how it is and everything that he's been telling me is basically what's been happening."
Unfortunately, Lancaster has had to have some hard conversations with players over the years for a variety of reasons, but being honest and straightforward helps those conversations become productive.
The harsh reality for every athlete is that one day, it will all come to an end. Lancaster knows this firsthand.
Lancaster did pretty well for himself during his time playing basketball at Cal U. He helped the Vulcans win a Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Championship, was a team captain his senior year, and even played in the Division II Final Four.
But like most Division II basketball players, a career in the NBA was not in the cards, which meant Lancaster had to seriously think about life after basketball.
"It served its purpose," he says. "I got both of my degrees. It put me on a path to where I am right now. Being in collegiate athletics really prepared me for being a part of all this."
After college, Lancaster interned for sports psychologist Kevin Elko, who was working with the Pittsburgh Steelers at the time.
Through that internship, he met Tom Donahoe, who eventually became the general manager/president of the Bills. Once Donahoe took over, he wanted to hire someone with a sports background for the role of director of player engagement. Lancaster fit the bill and was hired. He spent the next 17 years in Buffalo, working alongside seven head coaches.
But like all things, Lancaster's time there came to an end, which meant he had to look elsewhere to apply his trade. The first person he called was Elko.
"Get off the phone with me and call Tom Donahoe," Elko told Lancaster.
"Why?" Lancaster asked.
"Tom is in Philly," Elko said. "They're still trying to fill the position there. He will get you an interview."
Lancaster took Elko's advice and called up Donahoe, who is now the Eagles' senior football advisor.
"Paul, someone will be calling you within the hour," Donahoe told Lancaster.
Lancaster indeed received an interview and less than a week after leaving Buffalo, he was a member of the Eagles organization. The rest, as they say, is history.
None of this would have happened without Lancaster thinking about his life after basketball. It was vital to the path he took, and he wants to instill that mindset into the players today because, at some point, their NFL careers will come to an end. But until that day comes, Lancaster and his team do everything they can to make life easier for the players.
"Maximize your opportunities while you're playing, create opportunities, create networks, and then continue the education, build upon that so that when you leave the game, you can step into something because of all the work you put in both on the field and off," Lancaster says.
If all goes right with a player, it is quite rewarding for Lancaster. He knows more than anyone what the players go through, not only on the field, but away from it. Whether it's financial issues, family strife, or anything else that life can throw someone's way, Lancaster is there through it all.
And while it seems like a lot to deal with, it all starts with a simple conversation on the brown leather couch in Lancaster's office.