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Former Pro Bowler Alex Bannister attempting NFL comeback

RENTON, Wash. -- It's been more than seven years since Alex Bannister last suited up in an NFL game.

So what in the world was the former wide receiver and special-teams standout doing out here a month shy of his 35th birthday?

Well like everyone else on hand for the Seattle regional combine, Bannister was here trying to show that, despite seemingly long odds, he can play in the NFL. Most of the long-shots and dreamers at Seahawks headquarters, many of whom were born in the 1990s, will never see NFL action, let alone know sustained success in the league, but then there was Bannister, a man born during the Jimmy Carter administration, and a football player with a Pro Bowl appearance on his résumé.

Bannister, a fifth-round pick in 2001 who spent five season with the Seahawks, realizes he's trying something unusual, and yes, unlikely to succeed, but this isn't some sort of stunt; he absolutely believes he can still play in the NFL.

"I'm in good shape," he said. "I wouldn't be out here if I didn't think I could do it. ... I'm not going to take no for an answer. Hopefully I did a good enough job to make it past this to go to the Super Regional and keep it going. It would be almost history in sports -- retire for eight years, come back better and stronger than you were when you retired."

Bannister's decision to attempt this unusual comeback started simply enough. Like a lot of 30-something guys, he watches football on the weekends, but unlike most 30-somethings, Bannister happened to be a 6-foot-5 former player who by his own estimation is stronger and in better shape than he ever was as a player. Bannister and his wife, who live in Bellingham, a town 90 miles north of Seattle, run fitness boot camps, which has allowed him to stay fit despite years away from the league. So when he kept hearing analysts and announcers talking about how much NFL teams covet big, physical receivers, Bannister decided he could be that big, physical receiver.

"I've been in good shape, and it's hard for me to watch TV and hear commentators say, 'Everybody is looking for that guy who's 6-5, 220, 230 pounds,'" Bannister said. "I've put on 20 pounds of muscle since I left the league. I'm in good shape, I can still run, can still play, and I like to prove people wrong who say I can't play because I'm older."

Bannister hasn't had so much as a tryout since spending the 2006 season with the Baltimore Ravens, and he acknowledges he has lost a little bit of the speed that helped him excel on special teams, but he by no means felt like an old man while going through workouts with players more than a decade younger than him.

"I felt young. I still feel young mentally," he said. "I don't feel like I'm creaking and hobbling around. I feel young, I feel like I can do it, it's just a matter of getting a shot."

And that shot is all everyone in attendance is looking to get out of these Regional Combines. These dreamers came from programs as decorated as Auburn, and from schools without football, like the Art Institute of Seattle -- no, really, that was one cornerback's listed school -- and each of them now hopes for an invite to the Super Regional Combine in Detroit later this spring.

No matter how long the odds are for some of these prospects, all can take a bit of hope out of the fact that there were 76 players on NFL active rosters as of Feb. 8 who were regional combine participants, including Seahawks defensive end Benson Mayowa, quarterback B.J. Daniels and tackle Caylin Hauptmann. Mayowa, for example, got the attention of Seahawks scouts at last year's Seattle regional combine, earned an invitation to Seattle's rookie minicamp as a tryout player, and performed well enough to earn a contract. Following that rookie minicamp, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll referred to Mayowa as "that kid from Idaho" when asked about the tryout players, yet four months later, he had a spot on Seattle's 53-man roster, where he would stick for the entire season.

"We're just guys still trying to make the dream happen, so it's been a good experience," said cornerback Tre Watson, a dreamer who began his University of Washington career as a walk-on and ended it as a starter.

The reality of a regional combine is that most of these players will never make it to training camp, let alone a regular-season game. In the case of Bannister, however, an unusually accomplished regional combine attendee, the goal isn't to show he's an NFL-caliber talent, but rather that he still is after a seven-year hiatus.

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