Beep! Beep! Beep! The shrill of the alarm clock rips through the silence of a peaceful night. I look at the clock and it is 2:45 am. It is still dark outside, but if I want to make it to the 2013 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on time, I need to get out of bed. As great as another few hours of sleep would feel, I don’t want to miss the rare opportunity to experience an event that very few people outside of the NFL and the media have ever been invited to witness.
It all started with an article I read about a month ago. The article was about how, for only the second time in the history of the NFL Combine, they were allowing a very limited number of fans to attend and get a behind the scenes look at the event.
The Combine has always been a special and almost magical event for fans for three reasons. First, it signals the start of a new season of NFL football. It really is the first major event of the new season. Second, stars have been made and broken at this event. If you are a rabid fan of an NFL team, every year when reports from the combine come out, there are probably some guys you hear about that you hope your team will draft and some guys you hope they won’t. The combine really is the first step for some of these young men in developing a fan base as an NFL player. Third, there is a sense of mystery about the event because so few people are actually allowed to witness it. Only the NFL Network broadcasts coverage of the event. You have to be invited to the combine. You can’t buy your way in. It is an exclusive event and very few fans have ever been allowed to peer behind the curtain that is the NFL Combine.
This is only the second year that the NFL was allowing a select group of fans to attend the Combine. The NFL partnered with a casting service named 1iota to give around 300 fans the chance to experience a day at the NFL Combine. You had to apply on the 1iota website and tell them why you think they should pick you to attend. When I applied, I was put on a waiting list. I didn’t actually know I had been selected until about 4 days before the event.
At 2:45 am, my wife and I rolled out of bed. After our showers we dressed in our Atlanta Falcons jerseys (and I threw on a University of Cincinnati Bearcats Football cap for good measure) and headed out the door at 3:30 am. It was bitterly cold and windy. We had a two hour drive ahead of us from Dayton, Ohio to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana. Lucas Oil Stadium is the home of the Indianapolis Colts.
We arrived at the stadium at about 5:40 am. We parked and proceeded through the icy winds to the opposite side of the building from where we were asked to park. Once we found the right door, we were greeted by an employee of Lucas Oil Stadium who told us what line we needed to be in. Thankfully, our line was actually inside the stadium and not the one in the breezeway where it was much colder. We were actually the first ones in our line. We were soon joined by a couple who were Colts fans who had attended the day before also. They were able to fill us in on what to expect.
We soon met some of the people from 1iota. They were very friendly and the event seemed well organized. After a while of waiting in line, the 1iota folks checked our tickets and ID, put wrist bands on us and sent us in groups into a very large banquette room inside the stadium. I am not exactly sure what the room is used for, but I know that as a regular working stiff, it was not the kind of room I was ever likely to see again. I believe it was a room where people who own sky-boxes or luxury suites are pampered and mingle with those of similar ilk. Most of the people in attendance were just regular blue collar fans like us. We were all a bit like wieners in a steakhouse.
Bridgestone was the corporate sponsor for the event. They had a huge breakfast buffet set up. It was an impressive spread. Bacon, sausage, scrambled eggs, hash browns, and just about any kind of bread or Danish you could want for a breakfast were abundantly available. I am sure I cost the NFL and Bridgestone a good thirty dollars in bacon alone.
We were given a packet on our way in that contained a release form, a scouting booklet where you could keep track of all the athletes and events of the day and a small FM radio receiver that you wore around your ear. The immediate question of everyone at my table was, “Do we get to keep these radios”. Yes we did.
At my table were a mother and her son who were from the area and were Colts fans. He looked to be around 18 years old. There were two guys that looked to be in their early 20’s. One was a Michigan Wolverine’s fan and the other was an Ohio State Buckeyes fan. They were both from Ohio. There was also a younger couple that looked to be in their early 20’s that were both Colts fans and I assume from the area. Everyone was very nice.
Looking around, it was obvious that Colts fans outnumbered everyone else by at least four to one. I did see some Bengals, Bears, Lions, Buccaneers, Cardinals, Saints and a few other NFL jerseys. Oh, and there was a cheesehead… there is always at least one of those. There were also a lot of college fans. I remember seeing Oregon, Perdue, Notre Dame and Colorado jerseys among others. We were the only Falcons fans in the building that I saw.
As we ate, an NFL executive explained to us the rules we had to follow and why they were doing this. One of their marketing executives had the idea to make the Combine available to be attended by fans but many of the other executives and others inside the NFL hated the idea. They felt like it would be letting the public attend a job interview. So, the NFL wanted to run some tests to see if it is feasible to allow the public to attend the Combine.
We were told that this was the most important event in these young men’s careers. We were given a set of rules to follow that was basically like those you learned as a kid about going to the library. We were asked to whisper, to stay in our seats as much as possible and to not cheer or make any kind of sudden large movements. We all understood the rules and why they were in place. I don’t think anyone had a problem with what they were asking of us.
While we ate, offensive tackle for the Indianapolis Colts, Anthony Castonzo, came around to some of the tables to talk to fans and sign autographs. We were given instructions on how to use the radio they provided. They then led us out into the club seats of Lucas Oil Stadium right in front of the sideline where the athletes run the forty yard dash.
Many of the athletes were already on the field warming up and getting instructions about what they were going to be doing. By turning your radio on, you could hear the NFL Network broadcast with Rich Eisen, Mike Mayock and Michael Irvin. You could see the actual broadcast on the jumbo-tron to our left. We were told the jumbo-tron to the right would not be showing the broadcast because this is the screen the athletes could see while going through most of the drills and events and that in the past it has been a distraction for some athletes.
One of the best things about this experience was that Marshall Faulk was our personal Combine guide. When the NFL Network went to a commercial, Marshall Faulk would talk directly to us through our radio and tell us what was going on and what we should be looking at in each drill. He was a very nice host and really helped us understand what was going on all over the field.
There is a lot going on all at once. At any one time there could be four different events or drills happening. I remember at one point, someone was running a forty yard dash, while someone else was doing the broad jump, while someone else was doing a vertical jump and a group of players were running through some type of cone drill. I really don’t know how, if you are scouting these players, you could possibly keep track of everything that was going on.
It was really amazing to see so many NFL coaches all in one place and the same time. From our seats, we could see Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin, Jim Harbaugh, John Harbaugh and Pete Carroll sitting in the stands. Others like the Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff were up in the luxury boxes where they had access to the broadcast on several TV screens in addition to watching with the naked eye.
We watched the first group of quarterbacks and wide receivers run their forty yard dash twice. There was excitement in the crowd and among the NFL Network staff when two wide receivers ran unofficial 4.25 second forty yard dashes. It had never been done by two people in the same group in the history of the Combine. Both Marquise Goodwin and Tavon Austin ran what the NFL Network had unofficially timed a 4.25.
Later, when those times were adjusted to the official times, they were changed to Marquise Goodwin running a 4.27 and Tavon Austin running a 4.34. I am certainly no expert in timing forty yard dashes, but several people around me had stop watches and timed Austin’s run in the 4.25 to 4.29 range. I really don’t know how all those people could have been off by almost a tenth of a second. Also, when they showed both Austin and Goodwin’s first runs overlaid on top of each other, it sure did not look like there was nearly a tenth of a second difference in their times.
It really won’t matter in the end. Tavon Austin was the definite standout in the first group. He did very well the rest of the day in addition to running one of the fastest official times.
After watching the running, the group moved to some actually throwing drills. The staff used cones to set up some different receiving routes including a nine route, an in route and an out route among others. My favorite drill was one Marshall Faulk called “the gauntlet”. In this drill receivers run from one side of the field to the other while catching multiple balls from quarterbacks coming from both their left and right sides. Marshall explained that you don’t want to see a receiver jump or hop when he catches the ball. You want them to catch it in stride without speeding up or slowing down.
Tavon Austin ran the drill perfectly. He also ran most of the other receiving routes very well. He is a small, fast receiver with very good hands. He seemed to be the one guy that impressed everyone the most and definitely helped his draft stock.
We watched the Combine drills for three hours. Former Tennessee Titan Jevon Kearse and former Jacksonville Jaguar Fred Taylor came around to sign autographs. I happened to be lucky and seated near the end of the row and there was an empty seat in front of me where both Kearse and Taylor sat to take a break and chat with a few of us around them. Kearse was a very nice guy and a cutup. He liked to joke around, especially with the ladies. Taylor was also a super nice guy and talked to us a bit about the combine and how it has changed since he was in it. He told us the worst part is the medical exams. He said that you spend hours being poked and prodded by team doctors and that if you have any sore spots or injuries, they will concentrate on them and make them ten times worse before you are expected to go out and run.
After about three hours we were led back into the banquet room. We were served lunch which consisted of salad, potato salad, ham sandwiches, roast beef sandwiches, barbecue pulled-pork sandwiches, cookies and brownies. The food was good, though I didn’t care for the pork at all. They had Colts defensive back Antoine Bethea come around to some of the tables and sign autographs and meet people. Neither of the Colts players ever made it to my table or any table around me. After lunch we were thanked for our participation and given a bag with a mini football on our way out.
It was an interesting experience. You couldn’t help but feel like an NFL insider to be sitting in a mostly empty stadium filled with coaches and scouts. I would go again if invited.
1iota and the NFL did a really good job with the event. We were treated like V.I.P.s and the experience as a whole was top notch. If I had any critique at all, it would be that I wish we could have at least watched the rest of the second group do their drills. I understand that this was a focus group type event and they were on a schedule. They probably didn’t have the personnel to baby-sit us beyond the allotted time.
My one other critique would be to Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff. We were told the day before the owner and some staff of the Chicago Bears came over and talked to a couple fans wearing Bears jerseys. We were the only people in the building wearing Falcons jerseys. I know you saw us. There were two empty seats for you to come sit with us. I am just kidding. I know they were working. Maybe if the Bears staff had been working that hard they wouldn't miss the playoffs. HA!
If you have any questions about my experience, you can comment below or talk to me on twitter @cavemangamer. If you were one of the people that intended, I would like to hear what you thought about it too.