The Senior Bowl is often an opportunity for players to leave a lasting impression in the minds of scouts ahead of the NFL Scouting Combine. Sometimes, these players make more than an impression.
From time to time, the Senior Bowl is the beginning of what turns out to be a Hall of Fame-worthy NFL career. Not every NFL great begins his career as a No. 1 draft pick or with a whirlwind romance by the pros heading into the spring. Many earn everything they get at the next level.
For these guys, it all started at the Senior Bowl.
This Chicago native opted to play college ball at Syracuse, shunning Nebraska to instead prove he could be a true pocket passer and attend a university with a top-notch journalism school.
McNabb set several school records during his time at Syracuse, and he put his name atop the Big East record books with the most passing touchdowns (77) and snaps taken (1,403).
He shined in the 1999 Senior Bowl, which helped to secure his placement as a first-round pick. A No. 2 overall selection by the Philadelphia Eagles, McNabb eventually earned six Pro Bowl selections and guided the Eagles to the 2004 NFC title.
McNabb was inducted into the Senior Bowl Hall of Fame in 2012.
Bo Jackson is the definition of the ultimate athlete. While Jackson is widely known for his career both at Auburn and for the then-Los Angeles Raiders, he also played Major League Baseball for the Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox and California Angels.
Jackson spurned dominant Alabama to play at Auburn, and led the Tigers to two wins over the Tide for the first time in a decade.
Jackson won the Heisman Trophy in 1985 before competing in the 1986 Senior Bowl. He went on to be selected as the top overall pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but later refused to sign a contract. Jackson eventually landed in LA to play for the Raiders, where he earned a trip to the 1990 Pro Bowl.
Bo Jackson was inducted into the Senior Bowl Hall of Fame in 1995.
Before he was “Mean Joe Greene” in Pittsburgh, he was simply known as Joe Greene. He played for a defensive unit nicknamed “Mean Green” at what was then North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas). Greene played 29 games for North Texas State, with the Eagles posting a 23-5-1 mark during his career.
As one of the nation's top defensive tackles, Greene helped to hold opponents to an average of less than two yards per carry. Greene was a consensus All-American in 1968, and played in the 1969 Senior Bowl before being selected fourth overall in the 1969 NFL draft. When Greene arrived in Pittsburgh, Steelers fans mistook the “Mean Green” nickname as belonging to Greene himself rather than the entire defensive unit. The nickname stuck, with North Texas State eventually (and unofficially) adopting it for all of its athletics thanks to the national attention.
Greene went on to be named the 1969 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He was named to 10 consecutive Pro Bowls. He helped Pittsburgh to win four Super Bowls. He also was named the NFL's Defensive MVP twice (in 1972 and 1974).
Greene has been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, the NFL Hall of Fame and is also a member of the Senior Bowl Hall of Fame (inducted into its first-ever class back in 1988).
And there's also that Coca-Cola commercial.
Michael Strahan is yet another example of a non-FBS player gaining enough attention in his college career to earn a Senior Bowl invitation. While a senior at FCS (then Division I-AA) Texas Southern, Strahan recorded 32 tackles for loss along with 19 sacks.
He was a first-team FCS All-American, FCS Defensive Player of the Year and SWAC Player of the Year.
His 41.5 sacks at Texas Southern still rank first in school history.
Strahan showed up to the 1993 Senior Bowl looking to convince an NFL team to take a chance on him. But someone in New York knew that Strahan wouldn't be much of a gamble.
After being selected in the second round of the 1993 NFL Draft, Strahan played all 15 of his pro seasons with the Giants. Strahan was selected to seven Pro Bowls, was NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2001, NFC Defensive Player of the Year twice, set the single-season NFL sacks record at 22.5, is one of just 29 members of the "100 Sacks Club” and led the Giants to a win in Super Bowl XLII.
Strahan was elected to the Senior Bowl Hall of Fame in 2006.
Gene Upshaw spent his college days in his home state of Texas attending Texas A&I (now Texas A&M-Kingsville). Despite playing at what is now a Division II college, Gene Upshaw earned a spot in the 1967 Senior Bowl.
His performance, both through his career at Texas A&I and at the Senior Bowl, earned him a AFL draft selection by the Oakland Raiders. Upshaw was a seven-time all-star (one AFL All-Star Game selection and six Pro Bowl selections), and played a major role in three Oakland championships (one AFL, two NFL). He was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1987 and the Senior Bowl Hall of Fame in 1989.
Perhaps his greatest legacy, however, is his impact on the NFL Players Association. Upshaw led the NFLPA for many years, and was always an active, outspoken proponent for the active players.
In 2004, the Gene Upshaw Award was created to honor the top Division II lineman (offensive or defensive) in the nation. Upshaw died in 2008.
At Georgia, Hines Ward was certainly a solid receiver. He finished just 35 yards shy of the 2,000-yard mark, which ranked him second in UGA history. He also finished second behind the legendary Herschel Walker in the Bulldogs' annals with 3,870 total offensive yards.
After a strong performance in the 1998 Senior Bowl, Ward was selected by the Steelers in the third round of the 1998 NFL Draft.
After four Pro Bowl appearances, two Super Bowl wins (XL and XLIII), a Super Bowl MVP award (XL) and setting franchise marks in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, Ward still found time to compete on Dancing with the Stars.
Not surprisingly, Ward and his partner Kym Johnson won.
And in case you're wondering...Ward is also a member of the Senior Bowl Hall of Fame, being inducted in 2007.
Walter Payton will go down in history as one of the greatest running backs of all time. It's almost hard to believe, but Payton did not play on the biggest of stages in college.
Payton attended Jackson State, an “historically black university” and member of the Southwestern Athletic Conference. The Tigers, an FCS program, compete against other HBCU football programs both within and outside of the SWAC.
Payton's greatness, however, transcended his program's divisional limitations. Competing in the 1975 Senior Bowl, Payton proved he could not only compete with, but run past the best competition of his generation.
The Chicago Bears selected him fourth overall in the 1975 draft. In 13 season with Chicago, Payton earned nine Pro Bowl selections, the 1977 NFL MVP award, 1978 Pro Bowl MVP honors and helped the Bears to a victory in Super Bowl XX.
Payton, who died in 1999, was named to the NFL Hall of Fame in 1993 and was a member of the Senior Bowl's first-ever Hall of Fame class of 1988. Both the FCS and the NFL have awards named after him.