My Senior Bowl Story

Chris Trapasso@ChrisTrapassoAnalyst IJanuary 27, 2014

Jan 25, 2014; Mobile, AL, USA; General view of the end zone pylon during the first quarter of the South squad and North squad in the Senior Bowl at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Spor

"It's like a football convention," a fellow writer told me who had been to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. over the past few years. 

A football convention? 

Sounded like paradise.

The annual predraft showcase of the nation's top senior prospects had been going on since 1950, but in August of 2013, after six years of being aired on the NFL Network, the Senior Bowl agreed to a partnership with Reese's. So, with the event clearly trying attract more publicity, I figured a mildly successful football writer from Buffalo, N.Y., like myself could maybe get a credential. 

I filled out an application online in two minutes, and a few hours later, I received a "Credential Approved" email in my inbox. 

I was in. 

I was ecstatic but definitely didn't know what to expect. 

When I arrived at the Mobile airport on Sunday, I was fortunate enough to step into a cab with a driver who was the typical tour guide/historian/rumorist. He asked if I was in town for the week of practices before the game.

When I gave him an affirmative, it apparently gave him the green light to begin his rant about Mobile native A.J. McCarron daring to snub the event to which he was invited. I only made out the Alabama quarterback's name in the cabbie's first few sentences, as his southern drawl was molasses thick and ridiculously foreign to my ears accustomed to whiney, Western New York accents with drawn-out vowels. 

After that, my driver passionately spouted off about JaMarcus Russell, the town's most infamous failure. He spoke of spring and early summer months during which the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft spent lavishly in his hometown, running up bills of thousands of dollars in bars, restaurants and strip clubs in the area when he probably should have been training.

Ya think?

As I checked into my hotel, I was pretty sure the guy next to me at the counter was a famous sports writer. So I asked. He was refreshingly down to earth, a real normal guy. We agreed to catch up later in the week.

That coincidental, fortuitous meeting eased any tension I had about the enormity of the event. I needed that. 

I then headed straight for what I imagine is the largest, most exquisite hotel in Mobile, which was the official host of the Senior Bowl. The downtown area is quaint and easy to traverse. A local bartender later told me Mardi Gras actually began in Mobile and much of the architecture of New Orleans—a two-hour westward drive—was modeled after the Senior Bowl host city. 

At the host hotel—just a three-block walk down a main drag—appropriately named the Renaissance Riverview, I took an escalator to the second floor landing where I was told credentials would be distributed. 

For an NFL nut like me, that short escalator trip was a symbolic ascension into football heaven. Turns out I was a little early, as many coaches, scouts and media members arrived later Sunday evening or on Monday morning.

The second floor was everything Reese's. Manikins wearing Reese's shirts, Reese's banners, Reese's hats for sale. No Reese Peanut Butter Cups though. Seriously? Just 12 boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts, which I assumed were the carbohydrates of choice. Thinking about it now, as melt-away confections, Reese's candies don't exactly have the staying power from a marketing value perspective as a Reese's shirt or a hat do.

I noticed NFL team logos on pullovers, jackets and t-shirts, all traveling in packs around the large room with couches, seats and padded benches.

I got my credentials, a notebook, a roster and a schedule of events brochure. Then I recognized a GM, then another one, then a head coach, then who I assumed were scouts comparing notes. 

As more people arrived, after quickly devouring my free donut, I noticed what would become the hilarious theme of my trip—"Credential Scanning." 

During Senior Bowl week, instead of initially looking at someone's face to recognize them, people first focus on the credential around your neck in hopes of making out your name and "who your with." It's like the man-on-man version of checking out a woman's cleavage before her face, just not as violating...but maybe just as awkward.

After all, people can fudge Twitter avatars or use a picture 10 years and 30 pounds ago.

Though I was by myself among a myriad of old friends seeing each other for what seemed like the first time in a while with wide grins, I didn't feel alone. 

Because many were Credential Scanning as I was. 

I saw a few big TV personalities, an offensive coordinator, a defensive coordinator and a few former NFL executives. 

I didn't need to Credential Scan them. 

Then I located and zeroed in on probably the only loner wearing NFL team apparel. I approached him and conjured up some conversation. His accent revealed he was Southerner, and although he was somewhat personable, I'm not sure he looked directly at me other than when we shook hands. It made sense though. I wasn't a longtime scouting pal, an agent or a college coach. Not wanting to be that nagging, overzealous media guy, I left him after a few minutes of aimless chatter. 

As the guys with NFL team logos on their outerwear continued their bonding, I realized I was one of the few loitering while trying to look important by checking my phone and looking at the roster sheet given to me, so I decided to head out. 

Luckily for me, the AFC and NFC Championship Games were that afternoon, so I shipped over to what Google told me was the nearest "sports bar" in town—Heroes. 

It certainly was a sports bar—a deep but narrow drinking establishment with a TV wedged in every possible space—Buffalo Wild Wing's would have been jealous.

Randomly enough, the friendly, funny and well-known sports writer I met hours earlier in my hotel lobby was sitting at the bar with an empty seat next to him. 

He offered the vacant stool, and we went on to watch the entire AFC Championship Game together, exchanging commentary about everything from the color guy's feeble attempts to give insightful analysis to the 4-3 SAM linebacker filling the C-gap on a Denver Broncos run play.

It was the best football-watching experience of my life. Light and relaxed, and because I knew my newfound "friend" was an expert, I didn't have to hold back any football nerdiness. 

As the NFC Championshp Game started, Heroes got more crowded. A writing colleague of mine texted me to let me know he and bunch of others were on their way. 

When they arrived, we moved to a table in the back to accommodate more people.

As the game progressed, more guys showed up, and we added more seats to surround the tiny square table. 

They were all blogger friends I knew from Twitter or worked with, so everyone was happy to finally put faces to names. After the typical small talk—how was your flight, how's your site doing—the in-depth football dialogue began. 

Watching football in a place where just about anyone you talk to is as interested football as you are—and not in a fanatical way—is a pretty unique, exhilarating feeling.  

Finally, we were all able to discuss yards-per-attempt, teams' specific draft needs and the impact 3-4 defensive ends can have on inside linebackers...for hours.

(Football nerds, remember.)

Some guys got drunk; others didn't. Whatever. A quarterback coach and offensive coordinator chatted a few tables down. 

After Richard Sherman's now famous postgame tirade, everyone dispersed following the exchange of some business cards.

The official weigh-in was the following morning at 8:30 am. Inside Mobile's convention center, bleachers—about 20 rows—were set up with hundreds of floor seats in front of a large stage.

Think of an NFL GM, head coach or, if you know any, a scout. They were there. One by one, each Senior Bowl participant awkwardly walked across the stage in Under Armor compression shorts only, and two team assistants announced their height and weight through the PA system. 

In unison, everyone seated frantically looked up, then looked down to scribble the measurements of all 110 players in attendance. 

After that, many mingled with coaches, scouts and team employees. I realized I could easily spot the media members. They were ones typically not talking to anyone with an NFL team logo across their chest. 

I repeated Sunday's observation session on the second-floor credential area at the hotel where everyone congregated after the weigh-in. This time, though, there were three times as many people, and a mini "radio row" was set up along one of the walls. 

Hand shakes and hugs—especially between the old timers—were prevalent, giving the space a festive holiday warmth. I saw a few of my blogger buddies from the night before but needed to get some food. I went to a tiny cafe only a few blocks down the street and saw a major media member eating pizza with an NFC coach and an AFC scout. They seemed like close friends, engaging in what appeared to be serious talk, then erupting in laughter. An NFC GM walked in, and it was if he and the media heavyweight were long-lost brothers the way they greeted each other.

The South team practiced on a municipal stadium that afternoon that was said to be about 30 minutes away. Under the impression that the first session would be somewhat of a walkthrough, I decided not to go. Probably a mistake.

Instead, I went to the North practice a little early at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in the city, the venue for the game on Saturday.

Because the practice times overlapped, it was sparsely attended at first. A few formally dressed Senior Bowl workers and police officers Credential Scanned me when I walked in.

The North practice was dull on Day 1, but I tweeted observations and took some notes from the stands.

I realized, again that there were NFL employees everywhere, and as long as you had a credential around your neck, you could sit anywhere in the stadium. 

Want to listen in on the conversation between New York Jets staff members? Heck, go sit behind them. I observed other scribes moving around the stadium quite a bit making short stays within an earshot of NFL team employees. It's an environment that almost fosters eavesdropping...if you are so courageous. Then again, team scouting groups aren't exactly shouting their draft plans all practice.

There was a sponsored media night in the pavilion of the U.S.S. Alabama battleship on Monday evening. 

Again, more mingling. 

A huge seafood buffet was situated in the front of the large room, and long tables in rows resembled a high school cafeteria. 

It looked rather makeshift and somewhat hurried as if presentation wasn't of the utmost importance.

For some reason, there weren't as many media members in attendance as I expected. Wasn't this "media night?" We were notified that after the players were done eating, we could sit next to them to talk. If we needed to get them on video, there were small booths with Senior Bowl backdrops located along the side wall.

If you're really shy, it'd be incredibly easy to simply wait until a more brave soul started to ask questions then just stick your iPhone under the player's chin with the voice memo app recording his words. 

I started doing that, then eased into some one-on-ones. Precisely at 8:00 p.m., a loud voice announced "THAT'S IT, NIGHT'S OVER," and the players were herded like sheep onto two large buses parked just outside the door. 

That night, word got out—meaning a lot of people tweeted—that Veets, the bar ideally placed across the street from the Renaissance Riverview hotel, would be the place to go. 

After the long day, I wanted to drink, but I inadvertently nursed my beers much longer than usual because the spectacle inside the bar captivated me.

Outside of ESPN's household name NFL analysts, every major player in the football media industry was there along with a substantial collection of hopeful bloggers. Beyond that, a handful of coaches and coordinators were in attendance, seemingly drinking without the worry of being probed by the media or getting a picture snapped of them after their eighth beer. 

It was obvious this was their safe house. 

I noticed the big media guys yucking it up with the coaches, who, somewhat surprisingly, were very receptive and even approached some writers and reporters to have a few drinks. 

It was plain to see how the "insiders" get scoops on a regular basis. 

The guy-to-girl ratio was about 150-to-1, which remarkably trumped some bonfires I went to in high school, but the handful of females inside the bar were dressed as scantily as humanly possible.

Coaches reunited with former players, guys who weren't timid about throwing 'em back. We see coaches in controlled atmospheres only, but witnessing them in that setting really hammered home the obvious yet often forgotten truth that they're all just football-loving, beer-guzzling guys like millions of Americans.

It was an amazingly humanizing experience and was not like walking by a celebrity on the street in Manhattan. It was 40 or 50 unassuming celebrities all drinking together at the same bar within this interim NFL mecca.

I met up with some colleagues and bloggers and talked football for a good hour or so—I mean really dorky football talk that would be outrageously boring to 90 percent of the population. 

Again. Heavenly.

I realized most of the guys I met were almost exactly how I expected them to be based on how they typically "behaved" on Twitter. 

Imagine that.  

I noticed a few men who looked like agents. They just have a look. Believe me. They were crawling all over Mobile from Sunday on looking for their next big client.

The next day, both practices were at Ladd-Peebles, and the first began at 9:30 am. 

The stadium was hardly filled, but "everyone" was there. Some of the major media moguls, not necessarily known for their NFL draft writing or reporting, used their VIP credentials to make their way to the sidelines to continue their schmoozing ways. That's what they were there for, not to evaluate the small-school prospect trying to make a name for himself against good competition. All 32 teams in one city—it's smart.

The bloggers, draftniks and NFL teams were camped out in the bleachers. I was fortunate enough to meet with a former NFL personnel executive I knew from Twitter and had a nice talk with him. I had seen many people exchange cards, so, what the heck, I gave him mine. 

I found my blogger buds and talked with them about what we were seeing in real time during the practice as well as which NFL bigwigs we spotted earlier.

During that conversation, I became conscience of the fact that it was appropriate to talk about the finer details of football at any moment, and it was equally acceptable in this environment to be buried in your phone for minutes at a time, even midconversation. 

Everyone was looking down, entranced by their phone, flicking through their Twitter time line…often. 

A blogger for an AFC team who rented a car for the week took me to lunch and we, as usual, talked football the entire time. He interviewed a college coach in his car before we left and let me do a radio spot from the passenger seat after we got back to the stadium. 

Everyone understands. Everyone's in the same boat, especially the bloggers. 

The South practice was slightly more upbeat, and the stadium was pretty filled, much more than it was on Monday. 

While there, I tweeted at a guy I knew was an agent and was instantly delighted, through his introduction, to discover he had direct ties to Buffalo.

He told me to meet him on the field after practice, the time when the media gets about 20 minutes to interview any player they'd like. Just like media night, I stuck my phone in on a few interviews and chatted with a few players one-on-one. 

With the media in close quarters on the field, it was Credential Scanning city. We were all faceless characters whose paper necklaces were our most defining physical attribute.

I did my fair share of Credential Scanning, but I recognized many the old-fashioned way and even found myself standing next to some famous agents who were incessantly talking to groups of people—probably pitching something or talking about how fabulous their client was.

I eventually found the Western New York agent standing next to one of the players he was representing. He was incredibly friendly, and we exchanged numbers. Jackpot. 

He told me to call him whenever. He's probably a genuine guyI have no reason to think he's not—but it's funny...while the scouts give off a stern, tight-lipped, don't-approach-me vibe to the media, agents are the exact opposite. They're slyly ultra-friendly, hoping for future promotion of their clients. It was the first time I felt any semblance of power. 

Moments after my productive encounter with the agent, my AT&T SIM card stopped working. No cell service. Murphy's Law.

Wait, how would I tweet? That was my first thought. Then, more important thoughts entered my mind. How would I call a cab to get back to the hotel? 

Through divine intervention, the first "successful" Credential Scanning of the week for me happened as I waited by the gate after practice.

A Twitter acquaintance of mine Credential Scanned me and called out my name. We talked about who we thought looked good before I told him my phone story. He let me use his. I was momentarily saved. Thank you, Credential Scanning. 

Later, someone tweeted to me that Mobile was the most ironically named city in the country. Based on my predicament and with slight pronunciation variance, that might be true. 

I had some writing assignments that evening, and because I was pretty drained and didn't see an avalanche of tweets about guys meeting up at Veets or anywhere else, I stayed in.

Bright and early the next morning, after a not-so-brief stop at one of Mobile's AT&T stores to get a new SIM card, I cabbed it to Ladd-Peebles for Wednesday's practice. 

The schedule was the same as Tuesday's, and the free reign in the grandstands continued. As I'd done the previous two days, I purposely moved around every few minutes or so, and each time, I felt the same protectiveness from the cluster of NFL team employees clutching their clipboards if I sat close. 

A few scouts I ran into talked, but they rarely gave any juicy "inside" info. 

After Tuesday's success with an agent, I tweeted at another. Why not? Turns out we were sitting right next to each other. 

He really knew his football. We went back and forth for a while about the players he was representing in the Senior Bowl and the guys he represented in the NFL. In true agent form, he was friendly and talkative. 

Between practices, on the field during the interview session, I ran into the well-known sports writer I met in my hotel lobby and with whom I watched the AFC Championship Game. 

He asked if I wanted to go to lunch, and without hesitation, I accepted. At the famous BBQ joint in town, we sat with his friends, all members of the media whom I hadn't met before but classified as legitimate experts based on their articles and tweets I'd read.

Over some ribs and cole slaw, we got into a comprehensive talk about the prospects and a few NFL teams before my ride and I headed back to Ladd-Peebles. In the car, we opined about the ever-changing sports-media realm. Yeah, deep stuff.

As a media veteran, he told naturally witty stories of past employers and crazy assignments he had back in the day, and we generally agreed about the state of football writing. That was one of the high points of week. 

I masterfully executed my sit-then-go tactic during the South practice, moving around as much as possible while tweeting my observations of the session. 

I spotted a highly respected Buffalo sports writer sitting alone, so I joined him for about 15 minutes. I'd met him before and knew he was super intelligent and plugged in, but the width and breadth of his knowledge still really impressed me. Then, the sun starting to go down, and it got pretty cold. Alabama cold, that is. 

With a fully functioning cell phone, I called a cab and headed back to the room. After some writing, I had somewhat of a celebratory meal and a few drinks at a tremendous Mexican restaurant just a few blocks away from my hotel. 

Oddly enough, the bartender was from Syracuse, N.Y., so we talked Polar Vortex, 'Cuse basketball and the Buffalo Bills. We conversed about how damn cold it had been up in Western New York, and it felt good.

I wrote a little more that night, and, again exhausted, I fell asleep early like a six-year-old after a day at the Magic Kingdom. Apparently the majority of Senior Bowl observers had already left or were flying home early the next morning, so I didn't think I was missing much out on the town. 

On Thursday, I left, which might seem odd, but I guess everyone leaves before Saturday's televised game. 

The Senior Bowl takes over the small, charming city of Mobile every January, as NFL team logos and credential lanyards can be spotted on every block.

The old-boy network is palpable, Credential Scanning is ubiquitous and tweeting is a must.

It certainly is an intriguingly unique football convention.