INDIANAPOLIS— In New York City, on April 28, one lucky player will be the first overall pick of the NFL and will begin his career with the Carolina Panthers. He will hear his name called by Commissioner Roger Goodell, receive a Panthers jersey and hat on stage and pose for a picture before a national television audience.
With the exception of players invited to the NFL Draft ceremonies in the Big Apple, other athletes will receive a phone call from teams with the announcement they have been drafted. Some players will cry, others will rejoice in jubilation and most will have finally fulfilled their lifelong dream of playing in front of NFL fans.
Before the draft begins, more than 300 players were invited to showcase their skills at the NFL Scouting Combine held here at Lucas Oil Stadium from Feb. 24 to March 1. An array of endowed players from NCAA Division I and I-A colleges were on hand to prove they belonged in the NFL.
Some players are guaranteed to be taken in the first round, such as Auburn University’s quarterback Cam Newton and defensive tackle Nick Fairley. Others have to fight to avoid the anguish of not being selected in any of the seven rounds of the draft.
Unlike the NBA, NHL or MLB, NFL players have to play three years of collegiate football before they can be signed. Some players take advantage of this opportunity when they’re a junior and opt to take care of their family sooner rather than later.
“Two things came to mind: I’m married, I have a wife and kid,” said former University of Florida defensive back Will Hill. “I talked to my wife, I talked to my mother and father, and they said the decision is up to me. I have a family to provide for.”
Hill said the sudden retirement of Florida Head Coach Urban Meyer ultimately led him to declare for the draft. He said he didn’t want to learn a new coaching scheme in his final year in Gainesville, Fla.
The 20-year-old finished his Gators career with 144 tackles and four interceptions as a safety in Meyer’s defense. Hill excelled at the scouting combine for safeties in the broad jump and 20-yard shuttle.
The broad jump is a standing long jump, which tests a player’s lower-body strength and explosion. The shuttle run showcases a player’s quickness and agility. For the shuttle, a player begins in a 3-point stance, runs right 5 yards, backpedals left 10 yards, touches a line while pivoting and turns 5 yards to finish the drill.
Other workouts at the NFL scouting combine include the 40-yard dash, bench pressing, vertical jumping and the 3-cone drill. These drills can sometimes be the measuring stick determining whether a player will be drafted in a high round or relegated to the lower draft bracket.
The NFL Scouting Combine isn’t a platform for players to showcase their various talents, but it gives all 32 team representatives the opportunity to interview players before they invest in a draft pick. Players are evaluated on character, toughness, work ethic and game preparation.
“They want to know about me and my character,” Hill said. “Am I a party guy? How am I with my family, and who did I grow up with?”
While some players have the advantage of playing at bigger colleges, those from smaller institutions appreciated the opportunity to prove their merit before NFL scouts.
Jaiquawn Jarrett, safety from Temple University in Philadelphia, which is part of the Mid-American Conference, is a native of Brooklyn, N.Y. and said his success was attributable to his parents.
Jarrett said he came to the combine to show he’s capable of competing with some of college football’s best players.
“I think coming from the MAC you always have to bring your pride,” Jarrett said. “Just coming from any conference, any player is going to bring his best on any given day. The MAC may seem like a small conference, but we produce some of the best players.”
Most NFL experts said this year’s draft doesn’t have a strong class of versatile safeties who could excel at the NFL level. Jarrett said eventually those experts will be proven wrong by the displays from the group of safeties entering the draft.
Fairley, who shined with the Auburn Tigers and was an instrumental cog in the team’s defense en route to a national championship, has been regarded as a passive player with high value. The defensive tackle also received harping from experts about his work ethic and showing promise in one Auburn season.
“I’m going to basically show them that what I did at Auburn, hopefully I can do [in the NFL],” Fairley said. “We’re just going have to wait and see.”
The 6-foot-4-inch, 291-pound Alabama native had 12 sacks last season for the Tigers’ national championship team. Fairley played two seasons at Auburn after transferring from a junior college at the end of his sophomore year.
Expectations for a first-round pick are sometimes burdensome, and there are players who aren’t on par with other players. Fairley said he won’t be able to let his future wealth get the best of him because his mother will help maintain his humility.
The love of football wasn’t lost on one participant of the scouting combine. The pitfalls and achievements in the game are reflective of society, according to Byron Maxwell, cornerback from Clemson University.
“Football is just competing. You can be at your highest of highs or lowest of lows, but you just have to keep going. It teaches you a lot about life,” Maxwell said.
Playing football professionally is more rigorous than college and demands more from an athlete with training camp, minicamps and the preseason.
Athletes looking to make the mental preparation for the NFL will depend on the leadership of veterans in the locker room.
“I’m going to have to lean on the veterans,” Maxwell said. “I’m going to have to watch what they do in the locker room, and I think that’s how you learn.”