It was nine years ago when I arrived in Indianapolis for the 2007 NFL Scouting Combine. I was undoubtedly nervous, but optimistic about my future. My goal was to solidify myself as one of the top available players in the draft, but there were a couple of big names that stood in my way.
I met Adrian Peterson at the weigh-ins on the first day. He was coming off a spectacular collegiate career -- placing second in the Heisman race as a true freshman and running for 4,245 yards in three seasons at Oklahoma. I remember thinking as I stood next to him that he was a bit taller than I expected. His noticeably upright posture was a result of his muscular physique -- extremely lean with massive biceps. His entire body seemed as if it had been sculpted for the cover of DC Comics. I reminded myself to not be impressed. Quite honestly, I wasn't a fan because I recognized him for what he was -- my competition -- and I had to prove my worth.
This is the same reality for most of the 300-plus prospects that are embarking on the road to the pros at the NFL Scouting combine this week in Indianapolis -- the vast majority aren't hailed as future superstars. As I reflect on my own experience, three key points have become salient in my mind, which I wish I had realized when I was in their shoes.
1. The top prospects are already solidified: Meeting A.D. and Beast Mode
Scouts have identified who they believe are the best players at each position well before the combine begins. They've watched countless hours of film and have spoken to insiders across the country about character traits and work ethic. Performances at the combine merely serve as confirmation to insight that's already been gathered.
For my class, Adrian Peterson was the No. 1-rated running back. I met the No. 2-rated RB shortly before our first skill competition. He was wearing a dark beanie and sleeveless shirt. I watched his highlights the week before, and analysts raved about his toughness and unique ability to break tackles. Most players were quiet and kept to themselves, so it was surprising when he came over and introduced himself. "What's up bro?" he said. "I'm Marshawn Lynch."
From Day 1, Peterson and Lynch got the bulk of the attention from scouts. All eyes were on them as our group proceeded through each session. I have to admit watching them cycle through position drills was astounding. They could cut, jump, run, and catch like well-oiled machines who seemingly had done this all before. It was undeniable – they were clearly on another level. I laugh to myself that their nicknames – "A.D." (short for All Day because he could run all day) for Peterson and "Beast Mode" for Lynch suited them perfectly, even back then.
2. Distractions come in many forms
At the combine, every single moment is intense. Each performance can make or break your career. Dealing with this pressure is certainly one of the most difficult elements of the combine, which means it's extremely important to be singularly focused on the task at hand, and to avoid interruptions at all costs. Unfortunately, sometimes the thing you least expect ends up being the biggest distraction.
For me, it was watching everyone marvel over the No. 1-rated overall prospect, LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell, who went on to become the No. 1 overall pick of the Oakland Raiders. He was tall and extremely confident, but I had a hard time seeing past what I discovered during the medical evaluations, when we were all instructed to strip down to our under garments.
As I looked at Russell, I realized he didn't have the typical build of an elite football player. His body wasn't nearly as defined, and, frankly, he looked completely out of shape. For whatever reason, this stuck with me for days while I was competing. I struggled with rationalizing how the scouts considered him to be the best player in the draft -- which ultimately proved to be an unnecessary distraction for me.
3. Preparation only goes so far
The amount of training that prospects go through to prepare for the combine is mind blowing. Most players uproot and relocate to specialized facilities across the country. They live, eat, sleep, and workout for months in an effort to be at their peak at the combine. While the training staff does their best to prepare each player, it's virtually impossible to replicate the experience in Indianapolis.
After three days of position drills and one-on-one meetings, I was physically and emotionally exhausted. Not only had I fully exerted myself for months prior, but the uncertainty and pressure of every moment was starting to get to me. There is no rest, solace, or intermission. It's work the entire time.
Scheduling for each day includes a mix of physical tests, one-on-one interviews, and the infamous multiple-choice exam called the Wonderlic. The exam can be challenging for some but the interviews are even more complex. Players are tasked with deciphering coverages, schemes and protections based on simulated information from coaches. Each of the 32 teams can request individual meetings, so a prospect generally has multiple interviews throughout the day. Sometimes a head coach conducts the sessions. Imagine being grilled by Bill Belichick for 15 minutes -- it's not easy.
Ultimately, players are aiming to present themselves as fully capable of handling the transition to the NFL. To achieve this, they'll have to effectively juggle the rigorous physical and mental demands while staying grounded during the most important week of their lives. It'll be interesting to see who shines, and who falters, in the spotlight at this year's combine.