Since the 1995 NFL Scouting Combine, when Mike Mamula turned heads with his spectacular workouts but upset stomachs with his eventual pro career, the Boston College defensive end/linebacker has served as the primary, cautionary combine tale. The lesson stressed was for teams to be leery of falling in love with collegiate players in shorts who fanatically prep for and then shine in Indianapolis.
It is a piece of their job interview, not the total picture, teams reminded themselves. Look deeper. Look for that innate football passion. Gauge and link it all with game video that does not lie and on-field production in pads that is measurable.
Mamula still frequently strikes that kind of conversation among NFL personnel executives and scouts, especially when the combine arrives.
New York Jets linebacker Vernon Gholston does not seek to replace Mamula as that guy, that example, the freshest reminder. But based on his riveting 2008 combine and his undistinguished rookie season that followed, in some circles, Gholston already has.
"Safe to say," one long-time NFL personnel executive said last week, requesting anonymity, "that Vernon Gholston is the bust of the 2008 draft."
Harsh. And given the fact that he is only 23, left Ohio State as a junior, missed early offseason work a year ago because of his class obligations with the Buckeyes, was moved from aligning as a college down defensive end to a pro stand-up linebacker, was part of a struggling Jets defense overall and has a new defensive-minded head coach (Rex Ryan) and new scheme, it is too early to define Gholston as a bust.
Not too early, however, to examine his rookie season -- zero starts, zero sacks and 13 tackles (most of them on special teams) -- and realize that from the 2008 combine to year two as a pro, Gholston requires renovation.
"That's why I'm here working out at the facility, getting my mind and body right, and I'll be doing that until we have our first camp next month," Gholston said last Thursday via telephone while en route to a workout. "Football is at the top of my life. I entered the combine last year and knew it was big. I trained for weeks in Phoenix. I got my weight, meals, everything right. I gave it everything there, and when I left, I was mentally and physically tired. That's what you have to do there. Show a lot."
From Gholston's fastest time of 4.65 seconds in the 40-yard dash to his 37 bench-press repetitions of 225 pounds, he did.
He shot up to the sixth overall pick. He signed a five-year, $50 million contract with $21 million guaranteed from the Jets.
But early in training camp last July, Gholston began to doubt himself, saying he hoped to "one day be a good player" and that "right now, I'm definitely not." His coaches said he was "swimming" trying to learn his new job, and Gholston added that he was "drowning." It continued into August for this player who earned 22.5 career sacks in 25 starts at Ohio State, who the Jets grabbed to spark their pass rush, changed his position and watched him flounder. On into December it went, with Gholston's coaches and teammates criticizing him publicly and privately.
Here is how one veteran Jets player, requesting anonymity, described it: "You heard more guys in the locker room upset about Vernon than you did anything Brett Favre did or didn't do. Vernon is talented and athletic, but that is not the issue. It is more about him believing in himself and caring about the game. What, he got something like $20 million guaranteed? Guys were asking, 'What's up with that?'
"For that, you expect something right now. The attitude has to get better. He walked around like, sure, he's got the money, but you wondered did he want to play for 10 or 20 years and be a champion and make Pro Bowls? I saw it. I heard the reaction to it. And if a player tells you he doesn't hear those kind of whispers, he is lying. Any player that gives a damn is not going to play around with that. You have to do what you have to do to prove people wrong. You have to earn that locker-room respect. Go out and knock somebody's head off this year. Have a 10-sack year, and people will forget about his rookie year. Right now, he's built like Tarzan, plays like Jane. But he's young. He has the size and speed to do damage."
When Gholston was asked his reaction to this view, he replied: "No problem with any of those feelings."
He says that because he views his rookie season as a wash, history. That his combine performance was real, but his first year was only a learning experience. A new and difficult situation that required adjustment.
Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers was selected three slots below Gholston and in a shortened, injury-plagued season outplayed him. So did New England Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo, the Defensive Rookie of the Year, though he was selected four slots behind Gholston. Buffalo Bills cornerback Leodis McKelvin was the No. 11 pick and an instant contributor. Arizona Cardinals cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie went 16th overall and helped his team reach the Super Bowl. And Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, the No. 18 selection, reached the AFC Championship Game.
"I can't comment on those guys and their situations," Gholston said. "But I am a fan of the game and I watch it, too. I watched a lot of those guys. As for me, it was a new situation and a different position played. A lot was put on me, but every day, I learned and grew."
Coaches who have worked closely with Ryan say that Gholston is lucky. He has a new coach who puts his players in position to do what they do best. If Gholston is a down end who rushes the backfield and pursues the ball, if that is what he does foremost, that is what he will do, Ryan's peers say. And if that is all Gholston can do, that is how he will be used, as a situational player in Ryan's schemes, they insist.
The money, the pressure, the youth, the scrutiny. The first-season flop. The questions of if he really loves football.
Vernon Gholston seems a long way from his 2008 combine uprising.
He says the only tale of caution for this year's combine, as far as his story goes, is that if you are mesmerized by a junior player at this event and eventually draft him and then change his position in his NFL initiation, expect struggle.
The other stuff, Gholston says he can, indeed, do something about.
"I'm not sure what the new coaching staff will do with me," Gholston said. "But the feedback I got back so far from Coach Ryan is that we will be an attack defense. I should do well in that."