This week marks the start of the NFL Scouting Combine when collegiate football players from across the country visit Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis to be poked, prodded, and questioned by NFL coaches, executives, doctors, and the media.
No, it's not the glamorous event it may appear to be on TV when 40-yard-dash times are overanalyzed by the talking heads that be. Instead, players are put on display in their underwear (remember the awkward Tom Brady picture?) for a room full of scouts to take notes on every nook and cranny, questioned and cross-examined by a number of coaches and executives, and then put on display for cameras at a podium or round table.
It reminds me of a Lifetime Original Movie I once saw with Jenna Von Oy of Blossom fame. She was pledging a sorority and one of their hazing activities was to parade the girls on a bar in bikinis and circle their flaws with permanent markers.
Those with low self esteem need not apply.
It's A Team Game … Literally
As much as players are the focal point of the NFL, they have little control.
The NFL Combine is a 180-degree shift from the days of being recruited by colleges. The athletes hold all the cards during that process (hence Jim Harbaugh holding recruiting sleepovers), unlike the NFL Draft when the teams have all the power.
I have obviously never experienced it myself and I can't imagine what it must be like to be stripped down, on stage, and watching a room full of people taking notes on your flaws like you're a slab of beef.
It really does take a unique blend of pride and humility to play in the NFL.
Be Good … But Don't Hurt Yourself
The NFL Combine is the big stage before the big stage (Training Camp) before the big stage (the NFL season). Though it makes up one short week, it can unfortunately break players. I say it can break players and not “make or break” players because the way an athlete performs at the combine will rarely catapult him to star status, despite what the talking heads may lead you to believe.
What can happen, however, are injuries. That is the saddest thing to see, because a player's entire future can be changed or altered with an ACL tear, pulled muscle, or rolled ankle. Some injuries may not be career-ending, but they can certainly lower a player's draft stock. With all of the competition for limited spots, an injury could mark doom and gloom for a prospective player.
You Better Be Mentally Tough
Think back to any courtroom movie you've seen, then multiply it by 10 and you've got the NFL combine questioning process. No, not every team is hostile or aggressive, but every team is absolutely trying to manipulate players into being their “real selves.”
That means if you had a rough weekend drinking with your buddies your sophomore year of high school and ended up with a suspension, teams will know about it and ask you about it. It's that intense because these teams see players as investments and we've all seen how bad investments can go.
Team personnel is just the beginning. Players must talk to the media.
It's a tightrope to walk for these players who enter the room already labeled and placed into a proverbial box — controversial, superstar, or average. For the players, saying less is more, but don't say too little. Be charming, but not arrogant. Confident, but not cocky.
The players who have been in the spotlight at their respective colleges have a leg up, but many of them still have a lot of work to do.
Enjoy the Ride if You Can
The NFL Scouting Combine is just the first step in a long, long offseason for prospective rookies. It's an exhausting journey that includes workouts, media tours, team visits, and then the draft.
It's a rough road that shows why players who don't hit a rookie wall in October or November are the exception rather than the rule. If these players are lucky, they will have a veteran player take them under their wing and guide them in their first year.
The bottom line: those players you see on Sundays have most definitely paid their dues.