Origins of the Workout Warrior: Mike Mamula changed combine

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Mike Mamula wasn't the first player to have his draft stock supersized by Mike Boyle.

The former Boston Bruins and Boston University strength coach readied little-known BU receiver Darvell Huffman in 1990, setting the stage for Huffman's unlikely two-year cup of coffee with the Indianapolis Colts. The next year, Boyle trained Eric Swann, a mammoth semi-pro defensive tackle who didn't qualify academically to play collegiately; Swann became the sixth overall pick in the draft, then a two-time All-Pro.

A monster combine performance helped Mike Mamula -- a projected second- or third-round pick -- become the seventh overall selection in the 1995 NFL Draft.
A monster combine performance helped Mike Mamula -- a projected second- or third-round pick -- become the seventh overall selection in the 1995 NFL Draft. (Associated Press)

But it was Mamula who really put Boyle -- and, by extension, the cottage industry of creating the combine freak -- on the NFL map. And an even 20 years after the Boston College Eagle set the old RCA Dome ablaze, some still see Mamula as the ultimate combine cautionary tale.

Boyle looks at it differently. To him, the fact that the presence of this workout warrior still looms over every NFL Scouting Combine is most certainly something to be proud of.

"That's the job I was given, to put the guy in the best light possible," said Boyle, who now runs a training center in Woburn, Massachusetts. "You do that now. I wouldn't change a thing. The best examples were guys like (ex-Eagle) Greg Jefferson, (ex-Falcon) Shannon Brown. They killed the combine. And I'm really proud of that. That was the job someone paid me to do."

Now, so many years later, Boyle can concede that Mamula's star turn constituted a "perfect storm."

And he points to three major factors. First, and most obvious, is that fewer players were doing then what everyone is doing now: training specifically for what's essentially a track meet. Second, Mamula came out as a fourth-year junior, and he didn't run for scouts the previous spring, so his measurables were new. "If they had the data," Boyle said, "they wouldn't have been surprised." Third, Mamula underachieved as a player at BC, where he had a reputation as a party guy.

Of course, NFL teams looked past all of that, basically saying, "Wow. I can work with that." That might be what some team is doing now with Connecticut cornerback Byron Jones, who might have actually unofficially broken the world broad jump record on Monday. Maybe someone else is thinking the same about Kentucky linebacker Bud Dupree, who posted a 4.56-second 40-yard dash at 269 pounds.

Mamula had been projected as a second- or third-rounder. He went seventh overall. The rest is history.

But that doesn't mean there aren't any modern-day Mamulas ...

Troy Williamson, No. 7 overall pick in 2005, Minnesota Vikings: Best known as the guy drafted to replace Randy Moss, Williamson's holes on tape were washed away with a 4.32 40-yard dash at 6-foot-1, 203 pounds. To the surprise of many, he went ahead of USC's Mike Williams. Three years later, he was dealt to Jacksonville for a sixth-rounder. Of course, the Jaguars were another team that whiffed on a receiver in the '05 draft ...

Matt Jones, No. 21 pick in 2005, Jacksonville Jaguars: A quarterback at Arkansas, Jones checked in at 6-6, 242, ran a 4.37 40 and posted a 39.5-inch vertical, prompting the Jags to deem him worthy of a first-round pick as a conversion project. He showed some promise early, but substance-abuse issues that were well-known pre-draft derailed that progress. Jones played four NFL seasons.

Chris Henry, No. 50 pick in 2007, Tennessee Titans: Henry never topped 600 yards in any of his four seasons in college, but he ran a 4.40 40 as a 230-pound specimen, becoming the fourth running back taken in Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch's class. He served a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy his rookie season, and he lasted just two years in Tennessee. He had 32 carries in his 11-game, four-year career.

Amobi Okoye, No. 10 pick in 2007, Houston Texans: Okoye was a good player at Louisville, but his youth (19 during the draft process) and athleticism at 302 pounds (4.85 40, 29 reps on the bench) led teams to believe there was more to be unlocked with a guy who moved to the U.S. from Nigeria at 12 years old. He keeps getting shots, but he's started just one game since the Texans released him following his fourth season.

Vernon Gholston, No. 6 pick in 2008, New York Jets: Probably would've gone in the first round regardless after an up-and-down career on a loaded Ohio State team, even with questions about how much he liked football. A 4.58 40 at 266 pounds and a combine-high 37 reps on the bench propelled him into the top 10. Gholston lasted just three years with the Jets, and he hasn't played in an NFL game since.

Darrius Heyward-Bey, No. 7 pick in 2009, Oakland Raiders: Heyward-Bey came to the combine as a borderline first-rounder, posted a 4.30 40-yard dash at 210 pounds and wound up being the first of six receivers taken in Round 1. He spent four years in Oakland, with his best season (by far) being a 64-catch, 975-yard campaign in 2011. Last year, he was at the end of the Steelers' roster.

Stephen Hill, No. 43 pick in 2012, New York Jets: He turned heads by running a 4.36 at 6-4, 215, and he sent scouts looking for answers as to why he only caught 49 passes in four years at Georgia Tech, an option program that had just produced Demaryius Thomas. Hill was released by the Jets in his third training camp and spent last season on the Panthers' practice squad.

What do many of these guys have in common? Well, for one thing, if they had been drafted where they were originally projected, they wouldn't have been seen as catastrophic picks. And that's where you can bring it back to Mamula, who had 31.5 sacks in six seasons before injuries ended his career.

"If he goes in the second round," Boyle said, "people probably say he had a good career."

What's more, it's not like every combine freak washes out. Vernon Davis hasn't. Neither has Dontari Poe. Boyle, in fact, has a good one of his own: Marcellus Wiley, an Ivy Leaguer who used the 1997 combine as a springboard to a second-round selection, and a very lucrative 10-year NFL career.

As is the case with the larger draft process, the key with guys who make this stage a commodity is that there isn't one. It's just ... complicated.

"The answer, I think, is that ultimately, these mistakes, the teams are responsible," Boyle said. " 'Big Daddy' (Dan Wilkinson) is another good one, guys who torched the combine but aren't great players. That's on the team. If you're picking, it's like being in a bar. You can find the best-looking girl, and decide you're not gonna worry about her background. And that's what guys do sometimes."

Twenty years later, the combine-training business has largely come and gone for Boyle. About a decade ago, major training centers started popping up in more attractive winter climates, and he had to decide whether to move South/West or scale back on football training. He stayed in the Boston area, and now trains people of all ages. He worked for the Red Sox in 2012 and '13 and got a World Series ring out of it. And he's been working with Boston College safety Dominique Williams, his only draft prospect this year, ahead of the Eagles' pro day.

But the things that went down in Indy over the last week still have Boyle's fingerprints all over them -- and the trainer proudly points out that Mamula's numbers (4.58 40-yard dash at 6-4 and 248 pounds, 38.5-inch vertical, 28 bench reps, 49 in the Wonderlic) still hold up as remarkable.

And as for any great lessons learned two decades later, well, there really aren't any.

"It's pretty simple," Boyle said. "If the film doesn't make you think he's player, he's not a player."

Which seems like pretty good advice, coming from a guy famous for making decision-makers think otherwise.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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