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Prospects bring passion to Houston regional combine

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  • By John Harris Special to NFL.com
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The NFL Scouting Combine takes place this week in Indianapolis with hundreds of scouts, coaches and media in attendance. Very few, if any, of the attendees think about their football mortality, as they know they'll be drafted or, at worst, signed as an undrafted free agent.

Then, there are those who trekked to Houston for the NFL's Regional Combine on Saturday. Unlike the event in Indianapolis, nearly 95 percent or more of the attendees won't get a call from an NFL team. As such, it'll be the last time that many of them ever put on the football cleats.

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Although that's the harsh reality of the situation, it's not what Saturday was about. It was each player's story. These weren't players with the most traditional of backgrounds. There were approximately 175 players in attendance and less than 15 percent played FBS football.

They came from places like Belhaven, Bacone, Dordt and Faulkner. When strung together, it sounds like a law firm but players from those universities got the same opportunity as those from Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Cincinnati and Rutgers.

They came with baggage. Super Bowl XLIX hero Malcolm Butler's road trip roommate at West Alabama was Fred Barnes. Butler's roomie strung together two solid years at FBS Georgia State before off-the-field issues forced him to transfer. After transferring from Oklahoma State, Lamar All-American punt/kick returner/S Kevin Johnson was dismissed from the team at midseason.

"I missed class and didn't take care of my responsibilities," Johnson noted.

Both were amazingly candid about their pasts and were impressive during the workouts.

They came from other sports. Former Maryland lacrosse All-American Jake Bernhardt hadn't played football since his days at Lake Brantley High School in Florida.

But, his father, Jim, noted "Jake just can't get it (football) out of his system."

The younger Bernhardt was as impressive at WR as any player on Saturday. Wide receiver prospect Justin Sims was once the 2011 C-USA 100-meter champion and a Southern Miss home run hitting wide out, but an ACL tear in 2013 forced him to transfer to North Alabama for his senior year. He played one game in 2014, but his 4.36 (unofficial) 40-yard dash time should get a bit of attention. Shorter University RB Kirk Wilson was also a track star on a national championship team and blazed a 4.37 (unofficial) 40 on Saturday as well.

Terrell Hartsfield's productive 2014 season at Cincinnati didn't earn him an invite to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
Terrell Hartsfield's productive 2014 season at Cincinnati didn't earn him an invite to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

They were overshadowed. Cincinnati DE Terrell Hartsfield led the Bearcats with 12.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks during the 2014 season, yet his teammate Jeff Luc received the nod to go to the Senior Bowl. Rutgers C Betim Bujari was a second-team All-AAC player in 2013 and a three-year starter on a bowl team in 2014.

There were record-breakers. Although Wisconsin star Melvin Gordon and Oklahoma stud freshman Samaje Perine broke the FBS single-game rushing record in back-to-back weeks in 2014, the REAL champ -- Heidelberg RB Cartel Brooks -- was in Houston wearing the number 131 on his chest.

"My phone was blowing up both weeks when they got close," Brooks laughed.

He ran for 465 yards in a game in 2013, setting the all-levels single-game mark, but he knew that it'd be his workout, this one workout, that got the scouts' attention.

They came for redemption. Harvard WR Ricky Zorn entered 2014 as one of the most decorated pass catchers in school history. He was top 10 in nearly every category and aimed to shatter every record while playing on a 10-0 team. But, a hamstring injury essentially eliminated his season, all but for one amazing catch on the final drive of Harvard's stirring 31-24 win over Yale. Zorn noted that he felt he had to give it one last shot while healthy and he strung together a solid workout.

They all came to Houston on Saturday with a story. But, the one that resonated most was that of former UAB tight end Tristan Henderson. Looking at the player listing prior to the event, very few names stood out initially. But, the birthdate of each player is on the player listing and Henderson was the oldest, having turned 27 in December. It was enough to want to know his story and it's when the entire day came into focus.

"I wasn't mature at all after high school so I decided to jump boots in, as we say," Henderson said, describing his decision to enter the military.

His military stint included an 18-month split tour duty of Iraq, but the game of football was still in his heart. After enrolling at Cerritos College in California, he asked if he could play on the squad. He did so well enough to get the attention of FBS coaches, even though he was older than most graduating seniors. After having his hopes for a FBS scholarship come and go initially, he eventually got the scholarship call from UAB head coach Garrick McGee.

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In 2014, the Blazers got a new head coach, Bill Clark, and a new start. It showed as the Blazers went 6-6 and made noise initially as a potential surprise bowl contender. Unfortunately, what made national news was that the powers that be wanted to shut down the UAB program, leaving a slew of players and coaches looking for schools and work. Upon receiving the disastrous news from the UAB president Ray Watts, the now 27 year old with a wife and three year old stood up and delivered one of the most stirring, passionate soliloquies in recent memory. Over the next few days, the video went viral and all anyone could talk about was "THAT UAB player."

That UAB player was Henderson. That speech, as he noted, was for the young guys in the room, for his brothers, for his team and for his game. Mostly, though, it was a man passionate about others and football, speaking honestly from his heart.

Thinking about Henderson and that speech, he became the one true symbol of this entire day. Why?

Passion.

Henderson said he's realistic about where this goes, but there wasn't a chance in Hades that he wasn't going to at least give it a shot. Much like the rest of the group in attendance, he loved football too much to not be in Houston, no matter how old he is.

No matter the school, the baggage, the other sports, being overshadowed, the record setting, or seeking redemption, there was one thing that tied them all together.

They all came to Houston with passion for this game.

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