When the final whistle blows on a long, hard-fought season, it may be time for many collegiate football players to take a much-needed break from the painful demands the sport can have on the body. But for those select few fortunate enough to have a chance at the NFL dream, bodily rest is the least plausible option available—regardless of how much they may actually need it.
Each year around this time, roughly 1,000 players from all over the country begin rigorous preparations for their quest to be in the NFL. Of those prospects, about 120 of will be named to the East-West Shrine Game roster.
Fortunately, I made a big enough impact my senior season to receive an invite to play in the 2005 Shrine Game. Being recognized as good enough to play in this game was quite an honor—one that I immediately accepted.
Upon arrival in San Francisco, where the Shrine Game was held at that time, we checked into our hotel rooms. This was to become our home for the next seven days.
A noteworthy and perhaps inauspicious formality to the week was having to sign a waiver, which absolved the Shrine Game and all known entities involved in its creation from any liability should you happen to suffer an injury of any kind.
This, without doubt, puts the entire weekend into perspective: what each person out there stands to lose; the fragility of the circumstance; the future of so many hanging in balance.
Practices throughout the week are not your typical game-day practices; these are practices on steroids, designed to weed out the weak, lazy and unfit. The highly physical drills are intended to showcase players' abilities and are exhausting, to put it lightly.
In a normal practice week during the season, a great deal of time is geared towards conceptualizing game plans and executing plays. Large portions of the practice are broken up with a walkthrough or half-speed repetitions, focusing more on mental retention rather than beating up the body.
Well, not during an all-star week of practice.
Here, scouts are scattered across the sidelines carefully watching and observing the players’ every move. They use this opportunity to assess body language, fatigue and the way players interact with one another. Anything and everything they can learn about these prospects becomes valuable information in the evaluation process.
The competitive atmosphere makes things grueling, to say the least. Personally, I was dealing with several minor injuries acquired throughout the season, including a nagging hamstring pull that happened in the latter part of the schedule against UCLA.
The talent level of the players was noticeably more impressive than what I was used to. These were all stand-out players from major football programs across the country. I remember, as I stood there amongst my new teammates, feeling noticeably small for my position as a defensive end.
Fellow players from various conferences, who had all played against one another for years, were finally able to size each other up without the armor. One of the recurring sentiments which came my way from guys I’d played with was the surprise they expressed in seeing how small I was in person. Then I'd tell them how much bigger they all looked in person.
A large part of practices as defensive linemen centered around one-on-one drills, where we would attempt to beat offensive linemen in pass sets, one at a time, going full throttle while everyone looked on, including scouts.
The true value of these all-star games is forged out on the practice field; in fact, most scouts who are in town all week actually leave before game day. The game itself is actually one of the least important parts of the week.
Having been a relatively poor practice player my entire career, I suppose I wouldn’t allow this reality to fully sink in. Perhaps my habits were too far ingrained, but I never had it in me to brutalize my body in the days leading up to an actual game. I was used to utilizing those reps as a way to sharpen my tools, stay healthy and familiarize myself with the upcoming opponent.
Needless to say, this practice mentality did me no favors during those critical first couple of days. I slowly began to realize the intensity and value of every rep, every opportunity to impress, but the damage had likely already been done.
It’s hard to undo first impressions—not to say my first days were terrible, but they far from shining examples of my full potential.
The Week While Away from the Field
Throughout the week, we would be tucked away for the most part in our hotels. We were given a meager per diem—somewhere around $25—to spend on food or other incidentals as we saw fit.
There were also arranged meals given to the players, and the hardest part was picking which table of strangers to sit with.
There was no telling what type of conversation you'd walk into when you sat down to eat with a group of unfamiliar football players. If you weren't careful, you could find yourself as the center of everyone’s entertainment—and I don’t mean that in a positive way.
Brief position meetings were held after practice inside small conference rooms in the hotel. The coaching staff would focus on installing a very limited variety of plays. These meetings were lighthearted and went without any typical coaching chew-outs.
The coaches were clearly not there to win a championship and understood the nature of the game, which seemed to have some unwritten rules in terms of putting on a show without throwing your best punches.
During downtime, players could wander the hotel lobby, where they were sure to be greeted by agents at every corner. These lobbies are prime real estate for sharks looking to fatten up their rookie client rosters with as many prospects as possible. This is where I actually discovered my future agents.
Another integral component to Shrine Week, like with other all-star games, is the ability for scouts and other personnel guys to make appointments to interview you in their hotel rooms. These interviews provide teams with an intimate, unique examination into who you are as a person and what makes you tick.
During one of my first interviews, which happened to be with the Patriots, I got so carried away with the chance to sit with a real NFL scout that I actually turned the interview on him and began asking every question I could about what it’s like to be a scout, how he got started, how much money scouts make and so on.
The guy seemed really nice and catered to my curiosities, given that I vehemently expressed my desire of one day becoming a scout. It hadn't even occurred to me that I was unintentionally telling the New England Patriots that being a football player was secondary on my wish list.
Meeting with the Cleveland Browns felt more like a criminal interrogation. I walked into this tiny hotel room, and there sat an old man with shiny silver hair at the desk. He was facing me with his arms crossed and legs sprawled out in an overt display of comfort.
I think he might have been the actual general manager at the time, but I don’t remember. He asked me to sit down in some tiny chair that was uncomfortably close to the door and wall.
He then began to probe not into me, but into the characters of my teammates. He wanted to know which ones smoked pot, who used steroids and any other dirt he could pull out of me. I was not in the business of ruining the careers of guys I played with, but I was left wondering how much information this man had ascertained with his interviewing methods.
He then turned his attention to me, asking me the same types of questions. I was caught in a predicament I wasn't prepare for, and I decided to withhold the truth about ever smoking marijuana in my lifetime, which I indeed had done.
The old man clearly didn’t believe me, and he continued to try to pull a confession out of me. I guess I should’ve been honest with him about my past, but I panicked. I know teams have much more respect for honesty than they do a squeaky clean history.
So, after a marginal effort in practice and making a fool out of myself in two interviews, I was clearly off to a highly productive week.
A few days before the actual game, they hold a formal height-and-weight session, which can make or break it for many of the kids there. I recall talking to one guy who was so concerned about being undersized that he decided to drink five pounds of fluid hours before the weigh-in.
I remember it distinctly, because as we waited for our group to go into the auditorium, this poor guy was pacing around the lobby trying to hold back the incredibly strong urge to urinate.
Once called, they guided us into a waiting room where we were instructed to strip down to our underwear and form a single-file line. From there, we walked onto a stage, one at a time as an entire auditorium full of scouts sat there jotting down notes about our exposed flesh while a guy shouted out name, school and position and eventually your official height and weight.
For the players, this entire process evokes an unsettling connection to that of a slave auction. But the value and necessity of the event is understood despite the discomfort and historical references.
This is what a week leading up to a college all-star game is really like. The value of these kids in the eyes of various organizations can rise and fall in an instant. Careers are made and lost by the hour. Stars are born, while others strap on their helmets for the last time.
By the time the actual game kicks off, most of the players on that field have already told NFL teams everything they need to know about them—whether they knew it or not.
One of the more personally rewarding events we got to participate in was visiting the Shriners Hospital for kids. Seeing those faces light up as a busload of football players walked the facility was a special thing to witness.
There were several moments throughout the day when emotions ran high. So many innocent children going through so much pain and struggle really put my own struggles into perspective, and it gave me a renewed strength and appreciation for my own situation.
Sure my body was beaten and tired, sure the stresses of competition and judgment were taking their toll, but after visiting that hospital, all my own pain was immediately dissolved. I was reminded of how blessed I was in life, and that if these kids could find their smiles amidst unthinkable difficulties, then I should, at the very least, be able to rise above mine.
For me personally, when considering my many blunders throughout the week, it’s those kids who were the true value of the Shrine Game.