An Insider's Guide to the NFL Scouting Combine

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An Insider's Guide to the NFL Scouting Combine

The NFL Scouting Combine is a series of long, drawn-out lulls that can feel like endless hours of sitting around, followed by the expectation to instantly perform at the highest conceivable level—not just once, but over and over again, day after grueling day.

Imagine if you will that nervous feeling you get before taking the SATs or a final exam, assuming you cared about school. Well, multiply that 10-fold and think about experiencing it several times a day for four days straight.

My combine experience takes us back in time a bit, during the 2005 offseason, which was the first year of any significant live television coverage by the NFL Network beyond tiny excerpts and brief highlights on tape delay from that day's events.

For the 2005 prospects who were training to impress at this massive audition, like myself, there were no televised references to fall back on that would aid in familiarizing ourselves with the drills —at least not beyond brief clips of Robert Gallery performing in a mirror drill. The tape we had available during preparation was reminiscent of bootlegged industry film acquired by my agents and his partner.

Image courtesy of columbiachronicle.com

 

Arrival

As I stepped off the plane, I was instantly greeted by the blistering cold air of an Indiana winter. A quick ride from the airport to the hotel in a shuttle filled with recent arrivals set the tone for the days to follow.

The NFL combine was officially ready to commence —your entire football career, let alone the rest of your life, could be determined within the next four days.

Run fast, lift well and, by all means, say the right things…right?

Upon a quick scan of the hotel room, the accommodations proved satisfactory, but by no means extravagant. This, after all, was the first impression of a once-perceived glamorous NFL lifestyle. But the rooms’ true function would serve only as a place to store a suitcase and rest a weary head. 

We each received a packet of official combine workout attire, which was expected to be worn throughout the event. It consisted of a thick, grey sweatshirt; a white, dry-fit T-shirt; a pair of grey, cloth shorts and blue basketball shorts. The T-shirt and sweater had your name, position and assigned number written on it.

At that time, we weren’t given sleeveless, tight-fitting Under Armor shirts and sprinter shorts like they wear now. My gear was designed for NFL defensive linemen because it was the group I’d be participating in. This meant the sizes were enormous, especially the T-shirt.

As a defensive lineman, I was extremely undersized and viewed as a “tweener” long before it was a cool label to have. So when I was expected to wear gear designed to fit a 350-pound nose tackle, it understandably made me feel out of place—and a bit like a kid in his father's clothes.

Image courtesy of blogs.nfl.com

To make the whole process more manageable, we were assigned groups determined alphabetically and by position. I was sandwiched between Justin Tuck from Notre Dame and David Pollack from Georgia.

Pollack was already a well-known, highly decorated collegiate athlete who seemed to be fully aware of his high-profile status by the way he carried himself, electing to give his time and conversation only to other top prospects.

Tuck carried himself humbly, respectfully and as a highly professional person focused on the task at hand. He never involved himself with some of the loud, vivacious conversations that would ensue among prospects while waiting for whatever came next.

I remember at the time not knowing who Tuck was, yet scout after scout walked up to him looking to engage in conversation. He handled himself admirably, by my observations. Needless to say, I liked the guy more and more as the process went on.

One of the more surprising things I remember was listening to guys talk about how much money their agents fronted them as they sat around showing off gaudy watches and huge diamond earrings. Witnessing such overtly cliché NFL behavior for the first time did somewhat rub me the wrong way.

I struggle to understand the logic behind spending so much money on "flossin'" before playing a single down as a professional.

Ironically, those extravagant purchases would eventually yield a far greater return in appreciation than my attempts at responsible property investments during what would become the worst real estate bubble in our nation’s history.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Most days during the combine consist of a lot of waiting around.

 

Medical Exams

Oddly enough, the unforgiving day of medical probing and prodding is perhaps the most dreadful process of the entire combine.

This day, not entirely unlike the others, consisted primarily of standing in makeshift groups and lines for hours on end, moving as a group from one giant room to another, each taking on the appearance of a medical triage.

Throughout that day, it seemed as if my knee joints had been yanked on so many times by different doctors that they were on the verge of dislocation. The strength and mobility of my rotator cuffs were also tested to exhaustion.

Teams somehow have access to every injury ever suffered throughout your football career. If any of them caused you to miss a game, it had to be discussed and examined thoroughly. If it required surgery of any kind, then you experienced the full extent of modern medical examinations: MRIs, X-rays, CT-scans and every other resource available to science.

As a relatively healthy prospect who missed one game in college from a high-ankle sprain and had no surgeries, my shoulders and two-year-old ankle sprain were X-rayed from every possible angle, over and over again. 

Since I was entering the combine with a current hamstring injury, I had to get that X-rayed as well.

The process of X-rays and MRIs may seem simple enough, but at the time, they required being driven around from hospital to hospital to have various things looked at. Upon finally arriving at the hospital, you realize there are 15 to 25 guys sitting there in line before you, still waiting. Hours upon hours of the day were wasted staring at walls, leaning against walls and yawning incessantly.

Before the medical process was finalized, each prospect had a complete dental checkup, HIV test, drug screening and eye exam, and body-fat percentages were accurately determined.

 

Intelligence and Character

Interview process at the combine

The second-most important process of the scouting combine also happens to be the one most cloaked in secrecy.

Psychological testing and one-on-one interviews are designed to find out as much about you as possible. There’s a designated window of time when every group sits down and completes various tests or questionnaires from different scouting organizations or individual teams.

The New York Giants had their own personality test that consisted of multiple-choice questions and was several pages long. The questions were odd yet interesting, ranging from “what type of animal are you,” with choices like a cat or a dog, to a series of “what would you do if” questions.

The team interviews are done privately in a room with three to six executives and coaches all sitting on one side of a desk with you on the other.

This was actually one of the easier parts of the whole process. The Oakland Raiders, in particular, asked me questions like, “How do you expect to play a full 16-game season considering you missed a game your junior year?”

Or they would ask, “How would you compare yourself to Tully Banta-Cain (who was also a defensive end from Cal who had graduated two years before me)?”

I was also asked to describe a major obstacle or adversity I had to overcome during my football career. This was an easy answer for me considering I had to play my senior season at Cal in the midst of finding out my father was terminally ill from cancer after being rushed to the emergency room following one of my games, which he was in attendance for. Turned out the pain was the result of one of many tumors growing throughout his body.

My father had to stay in a Berkeley hospital, as he couldn’t drive back to Los Angeles for several weeks. During that time, I visited him after practice every day as the doctors ran tests trying to determine what was wrong.

Aside from those private team interviews, there’s also an opportunity to sit in a big waiting room with other prospects while a scout or coach from every team can request to have you come sit with them for a quick chat.

This would prove to be one of my more interesting interviews.

When a scout for the Pittsburgh Steelers requested that I join him, I was eager and excited for the opportunity. I sat down next to a relatively young guy with a serious look on his face. He looked as if he might have been an athlete himself not too long ago.

He proceeded to ask me questions about the way I prepare for games. He wondered how much tape I study, what I look for when studying film, etc. I told him most of my focus was geared toward figuring out my opponents while in the game rather than on film.

He then decided to explain how stupid he thought my answer was, which naturally made me uneasy. After asking me a few additional questions, which I then answered in a more guarded way, he responded with, “You’re a real uptight guy, aren’t you?”

Admittedly, his rhetorical question threw me off, as I was left searching for a way to respond. I don’t recall exactly what I said back to him, but I‘m pretty sure it was something stupid and even more uptight than ever.

 

On-the-Field Testing and Drills

Joe Robbins/Getty Images
The 40-yard dash might be the most talked about measurement at the combine, but is it the most important?

The positional drills are relatively easy, for the most part. The biggest challenge I had personally regarding drills was being asked to run through the linebacker coverage drills. This was something I had spent time on leading up to the combine, and I did very well moving in space and flipping my hips.

I performed the task well enough to have the Eagles head coach at the time, Andy Reid, send his linebacker coach Steve Spagnuolo to Long Beach for a private workout.

The 40-yard dash was definitely the most intimidating of all the on-field drills. This was the one event I was advised not to participate in by my agent. The reason behind the decision was clear; I was recovering from a pulled hamstring which had occurred in a game against UCLA. Since that time, I aggravated it during the East-West Shrine game and proceeded to make it worse while trying to train for the combine.

Electing to not run the 40 was a tough decision for me, and one that came down to the wire. I was even stretching and trying to warm up in hopes that I would be able to give it a go. But the fact of the matter was, I just wasn’t anywhere near 100 percent.

A taste of the bench press test, with Stephen Paea breaking the combine record.

Few tests at the combine are able to match the high energy and cheering that goes on during bench press. Many scouts are on hand for this event.

To prepare, we’re given the freedom to warm up on other benches for as long as we feel necessary. Whenever a guy is done warming up and is ready to go, he simply jumps up on stage and cranks out as many reps as he possibly can.

Each rep is greeted with cheering from other prospects, scouts in the stands and mostly by the strength and conditioning coach who oversees the event.

 

Summary

The entire process has been infamously described as a “meat locker” for good reason. 

Though the scouting combine might be a tough, grueling introduction to life in the NFL, it also happens to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s truly an honor to be considered worthy enough to compete among such elite company.

The combine experience will forever be carried in my heart as a difficult yet fond memory; a time of great possibilities and enormous realizations.

Having the opportunity to experience firsthand the beginnings of NFL stars while sharing the floor with so many admirable faces made all the stresses of the combine completely worth it. 

 

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