MARTINSVILLE, N.J. — More than 300 NFL hopefuls will be poked, prodded and tested perhaps more than any other job applicant at the annual scouting combine in Indianapolis this week.
One result can make all the difference.
A slower-than-expected time in the 40-yard dash can see a prospect (Maurice Clarett, Tom Brady) tumble in the draft. An impressive all-around performance can help a player (Mike Mamula) rocket up the board.
Millions of dollars are at stake and even careers. Some players won't get a call on draft day. Others will have to pursue their dream in the CFL or Arena League.
That's why college players across the country spend weeks preparing for the combine at training centers such as TEST Parisi Football Academy.
“The experience is something I can't explain,” said LSU wide receiver Kadron Boone, who only saw snow once in his life before spending the past two months in New Jersey.
Kevin Dunn, the CEO and owner, and his staff put players through a rigorous program, working on improving their speed, strength, agility, quickness and much more.
“This is a careful, calculated, science-based design to take an athlete and make them everything they could be,” Dunn said.
Joe Flacco, Patrick Peterson, Demario Davis and other NFL stars trained here. Boone, Notre Dame linebacker Carlo Calabrese and Rutgers wide receiver-safety Jeremy Deering are among dozens of players who worked out with Dunn, hoping to make it in the NFL and get their banner on the wall at TEST Sports Clubs.
“I'm learning new things, just trying to get my technique down, get better numbers in my 40 and my agility stuff,” Calabrese said.
How much emphasis do NFL organizations put on a player's combine results? It varies, depending on a team's draft philosophy and needs.
“We use it is as a deal-breaker,” Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said. “If you have a running back that runs a 4.9 in the 40 and our research says no fullback in history that ran a 4.9 has ever started, now you're playing against the odds. Maybe that's the one guy that can do it but you are really fighting the odds. We're not building a team of exceptions.”
Veteran players consider the combine a measuring stick; not a defining end-all.
“The combine should just be used as a tool for teams to evaluate players,” Eagles All-Pro guard Evan Mathis said. “There have been plenty of players that have performed terribly at the combine yet had great NFL careers and vice versa. Football ability and potential is best seen on game film.”
There's more to it than running a fast 40, high reps in the 225-pound bench press or strong numbers in the vertical jump.
The mental aspect of testing plays an important role in determining whether a team wants to take a player in the first round or lower, or even at all.
Players must impress general managers in interviews, score well in the intelligence test and attempt to prove they won't be a troublemaker on and off the field.
Don Yaeger, owner and president of 180 Communications, started a program six years ago that helps players prepare for interviews, how to deal with the media and handle social media. Yaeger and his team have worked with athletes at EXOS (formerly Athletes Performance) for several years. They've also helped the University of Michigan, Atlanta Braves and Buffalo Bills.
“You may run a fast 40 but there's going to be another guy that runs it just as fast as you, so the guy that stands out sometimes is the one who answers questions better,” Yaeger said. “The tangibles are often really close but it's the intangibles that can make or break these guys. We challenge them the same way trainers are challenging them and it's working.”
Andrew Luck and Matt Ryan are among the NFL stars that worked with 180 Communications. More than 60 players drafted in 2013 took part in the program, including Dion Jordan by the Miami Dolphins.
Elton Gumbel, the company's director of multimedia, flew to Los Angeles to personally work with Jordan last year.
“We do mock interviews and we grill them with random questions, football questions, red-flag questions,” Gumbel said. “We record it for them, play it back and show them where they messed up, didn't make eye contact, stared down, looked nervous. We let them know to approach those 10 or 15 minutes like a job interview with millions of dollars on the line.”
At TEST, Dr. Robert Price prepares players for everything from the Wonderlic test to mental skills. He meets twice with players in a group and three times in individual sessions during the program.
“This whole process is a crash course,” Price said.
Boston College tight end Mike Naples made sure to get himself ready for every aspect of the combine on the advice of good friend and former teammate Luke Kuechly, the Carolina Panthers linebacker and 2013 AP Defensive Player of the Year.
“If a team is deciding between you and another player and they decide to interview both of you, you want that to become a positive thing for you, not a negative,” Naples said.