- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2017

INDIANAPOLIS — On a Wednesday afternoon on the second floor of the Indiana Convention Center, quarterback draft prospect Davis Webb practiced 40-yard dash starts in the middle of a hallway between conference rooms and the bathroom.

“Ready, go!” shouted a member of Webb’s posse, standing to the side with a timer in one hand and a video camera in the other.

Webb burst off the line, in this case a stripe of masking tape on the Convention Center’s maroon, brown and orange carpeting, and then slowed, letting momentum carry him a few strides further before stopping. He walked back to his group where the man with the camera was shaking his head in frustration. A passerby toting a bag full of merchandise had walked in front of the camera on her way to the bathroom.

This is, in a nutshell, the NFL Scouting Combine. Around 300 of the nation’s best college players roll into Indianapolis, nervous and excited, to pursue their dreams of playing in the NFL. When they arrive, they find that their four-day tryout is as much an outlandish marketing ploy for the league as it is a scouting opportunity for its teams.

The results are often silly and comical but, for most prospects, they’ll happily endure it all in hopes of launching their professional careers.

Illinois defensive lineman Chunky Clements, who described the combine as “a good summer camp,” said he laughed when he arrived and saw fans running the 40-yard dash. He eventually settled in, though.

“It took some time,” Clements said. “Once you get here you’re kind of like, you’ve got to sit back and relax and actually take it in and once you take it in it’s nice. It’s fun to be here, it’s a blessing to be here. I said, ‘There’s not many guys who get to come to this’.”

The players and teams’ pursuit of on-field success and the league’s pursuit attention coexist peacefully, for the most part. On Friday, however, they came into conflict when the NFL staged a public event to decide which team would own the No. 14 overall pick in the upcoming draft.

You see, the Vikings and Colts tied for the pick based on their results over the course of the season. The order was to be determined by flipping a coin. The Vikings, though, had shipped the pick to the Eagles as part of the Sam Bradford trade, so it was actually Philadelphia and Indianapolis who stood to lose or gain from the toss.

This all could have been dealt with the day after the Super Bowl but, again, this is the NFL we’re talking about. Everything is an opportunity for spectacle.

The plan: stage a coin toss and invite fans to watch. The league gathered Eagles Executive Vice President Howie Roseman, Colts general manager Chris Ballard, and, for no reason at all, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman on the stage normally reserved for the bench press.

Understandably, given that time reserved for work at the most important pre-draft scouting event of the year had been taken away from them, none of them were pleased to take part in the charade.

“How long before we flip this damn thing?” Spielman asked. Again, he had no reason to be there.

“I just want to flip the coin,” Ballard grumbled.

A crowd of about 50 watched from the stands. A few cheered when the Eagles won the toss. Most played on their phones.

To help ensure that the NFL still dominates sports shows and headlines even in the month of March, events like the combine are extremely media friendly. Credentials are not hard to come by which, for better or for worse, means that interview rooms are full of reporters with a variety of needs from the players.

Former Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas, one of the top prospects in this year’s draft class, found this out during one particular exchange. It went like this:

Reporter: I hear you’re a big Star Wars fan. Are you more of a Sith or a Jedi?

Thomas: A Jedi.

Reporter: What Star Wars character would you base your game off of?

Thomas: I would say Mace Windu.

Reporter: OK. And have you spoken to the Denver Broncos?

A few other reporters couldn’t help cracking up at the shift in questioning. Thomas was noticeably confused, but collected himself quickly and smiled. He hadn’t talked to Denver yet, he said.

Most prospects take all of this in stride, admirable considering the breadth of topics they’re asked to address. The quarterback formerly known as Mitch Trubisky was grilled over why he wants to be called “Mitchell” instead. (His mom likes it that way.) Defensive end Myles Garrett had to say that he’d apologize to the Browns for joking that he wanted to be drafted by the Cowboys — and that’s just in the media interviews.

There’s still the interviews with teams, where some conversations flow and others are strenuous. Clements joked that he thought a few of the coaches needed to chill out.

“Most of the questions are the same but some of them the delivery is different,” Clements said. “Some of them grill you. I got grilled the other night — I was like, “Woah!” You know what I mean? I was thinking like, ‘Dang, relax a little bit!” But it’s all good.”

Clements posited that, with long hours every day, some brought the intensity just to keep their energy up. Tight end Hayden Plinke, another prospect, said that the same was true in the medical testing rooms.

Plinke said he thought some of the doctors were trying to break up the monotony by messing with the prospects. One physician had joked with him, pretending that Plinke needed a second MRI because of an issue with his back.

“They tried to screw with us a little bit. I’m like, ‘I’ve never had a back problem!’,” Plinke said.

Still, Plinke was smiling and joking as he told the story. He could have been angry or upset or scared — an undiagnosed back issue could impact his draft stock, and thus his ability to make money, significantly — but he wasn’t. He was still just happy to be there, whatever was happening.

The days are long, the questions are odd and the sights to see are often strange. There are certainly stories of meltdowns and fights but, overall, most players smile as they’re shepherded from one test to the next with their buddies who, at least, are in the same boat.

“You get to see people that’s here fighting for their dreams just like you are,” Clements said. “That’s the biggest thing. These other people here, like me, I’ve been playing football since I was five. I was saying I wanted to go to the NFL when I was six, you know what I mean?

“It has been a dream and there’s other people who have been doing the same thing their whole life, this is what they’ve been going to do. And to actually have a chance, you know what I mean? We’re closer than a lot of guys. A lot of guys don’t get this far. So this is great.”

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