Like anyone, I was intrigued to hear that 1iota.com, an online ticketing/casting company, offered the opportunity for fans to 'go behind the scenes' of the NFL Combine for just the second time in history. I remembered the first time well.... I was there, too. I figured that this may be my only chance at getting in and requested a ticket for both days. A few days later I got the confirmation that I was waiting for...
So, what's it like being at the NFL Scouting Combine? Not as sexy as you may think, but here's a look at my experience:
Saturday, 4:30 AM
That's right.... if you want to go to the combine you need to wake up early. My 'priority' tickets were great and guaranteed my entry but required that I be at Lucas Oil Stadium by 5:45. I had already been told that there would be appearances by former Jacksonville Jaguars RB Fred Taylor, former Tennessee Titans DE Jevon Kearse and 'current Colts players' and decided to make the most of my visits - being a blogger doesn't get you many exclusive question and answer sessions and I was determined to get an interview or two.
I rolled out of bed, showered and packed the essentials for covering the combine - pen and paper. You see, the NFL won't allow any type of camera or recording device - that means I had to do this the old fashioned way. I wasn't sure who to expect to attend from the Colts but I knew it woudn't be the 'stars' - Andrew Luck, Reggie Wayne, Robert Mathis, Adam Vinatieri and soon-to-be-gone Dwight Freeney. I drove to LOS thinking about who it might be and figured it would probably be one of the rookies (like LaVon Brazill or Dwayne Allen) forced to 'pay their dues' and mingle with the fans.
I arrived at the stadium and took my place in line among the other 'lucky' fans getting a chance to attend. It was early and I was in no mood to chit-chat about the miraculous 11-5 season or argue with the guys behind me who said that this day would be 'awesome'. Look - I had been here before and it's interesting... but definitely not 'awesome'.
There are guys who write for this site that are really into the draft - I mean, REALLY into the draft - and I'm not one of them. I probably couldn't list ten guys eligible for the draft this year if you put a gun to my head. I approach the draft like I do NCAA March Madness - I'm a casual observer for most of the season, taking note of the teams that attract national attention. Then, when the bracket of 64 (or 66 now, I guess) is announced, I'm in. I'll research some of the smaller schools and not miss a minute of the action. The NFL Combine is when the brackets are announced - my attention to the event and players involved begins now.
After checking my ticket, I was taken back to a lounge area that only high-priced season ticket holders usually get to see. A full breakfast was served (eggs, bacon, sausage, fruit, danishes, bagels, juice, coffee, etc.) and Ray Anderson (NFL Vice President of Football Operations) addressed us about their 'expectations' for the day. He said that there has been a lot of push-back from the teams to keep fans out of this event and they will look for anything negative that happens today as ammunition to end this event in the future. He told everyone to use their 'library voices' and that cheering or large movements were not allowed - anyone that broke these rules would be removed from LOS. See what I mean? FUN.
A Chance Meeting with Reggie Wayne
As we were eating our breakfast it was announced that the Colts player had arrived and would be making his way around the room to sign autographs and meet/talk with everyone. I took a deep breath and turned to see who it would be that walked in.
This may not be so bad after all, I thought. Immediately I started thinking what I wanted to ask Wayne. He started just a few seats away from me so this period was brief....
Ummm.... (Reggie approaches)
Got it. I introduced myself as a writer for Stampede Blue and he nodded as if he knew what 'Stampede Blue' was (who knows, maybe he does). I told him I didn't expect to see him but I had one question for him.
Reggie again nodded, "Shoot."
"Ed Reed," I said. "How much do you want to see him in a Colts uniform next year?"
Reggie paused. It's the kind of pause you get from someone who knows they are answering 'on the record'. I've asked these types of questions of Peyton Manning at training camps over the years as a fan ('Peyton, do you want the Colts to go after Randy Moss?') and you get playful answers that really say nothing. This was already different.
"I wouldn't mind, that's for sure. That's my old roommate, you know. I don't get involved in that stuff too much but he definitely couldn't hurt."
He answered with a smile - knowing that he gave the 'vanilla' answer I expected. And that was fine. I could see it in his eyes that this was a thought he had entertained on his own. I know, he has no say in this type of decision but it doesn't mean the couldn't play 'recruiter' if the Colts asked him. I wondered if they had but wasn't comfortable enough to ask.
We chatted briefly about the season, Andrew Luck and how excited fans are for the new season. Nothing else 'quote worthy' but pleasant in all aspects. A few minutes later he continued on his tour around the room and I scribbled down the information - still shocked, but impressed, that the Colts sent Wayne to this event.
After stuffing my face with WAY too much food we were escorted to our seats. Even though we were 'privileged' and 'lucky' to have access to this event our seats didn't reflect it. We weren't sitting street level - we were sitting in the 200 level seats. Now, if you're attending a Colts game these would be PRIME seats - but this wasn't a game. This was the NFL Combine where you want to judge reaction time, hip movement and raw athletic ability - let's just say that there weren't any scouts taking seats next to us for our great view.
This session was going to be focused on the offensive linemen and tight ends - not exactly a high profile bunch. Some of the names that I heard I recognized like Luke Joeckel (impressive), D.J. Fluker (not so much) and Jonathan Cooper (solid). Others, like Kyle Long (I like him), seemed familiar because he is related to Howie Long and the Rams' Chris Long.
The guy I liked the most that no one was talking about prior to the combine?
Terron Armstead of Arkansas-Pinebluff.
Armstead set a record for the fasted 40 time at the combine for an offensive lineman at 4.71. Yes I know, save your comments, 'when is a lineman ever going to run 40 yards?". This is about burst and strength - both, I'm sure you agree, will factor heavily at the next level. The man got his 6-5, 307 pound frame moving VERY fast (faster than Manti T'eo and Alec Ogletree),was also tops of the broad jump and eighth in bench press. The guy could be a steal in later rounds.
Fred Taylor sat with the group as we watched the combine. He walked up and down the aisles signing autographs and shaking hands. As he walked out to the lobby I decided to follow.
"Hey Fred," I said as I approached, "tell me about the Colts/Jags game in 2006". Every Colts fan remembers this game. The Jaguars rushed for 375 yards and blew out the Colts 44-17. Some fans think this game was a wake-up call for the Colts entering the playoffs - they went on to win the Super Bowl.
Taylor laughed. "Colts fans always bring that game up, man. You guys should be thanking me."
He reminisced about how he had to leave the game early because of a sore hamstring and mused about how many yards he could of had. He said that their gameplan worked 'perfectly' that day.
"We exposed every weakness you guys had," he said, still laughing. "Hats off to Coach Dungy, though. He tightened things up, man, got them to a Super Bowl."
He continued to talk about how he knew going into the playoffs that teams would try and run on the Colts - and that it would be a mistake.
"I've always said I never wanted to run against a team that got ran over the week before. They know where their weaknesses are now. That's why Colts fans should be thanking me."
We talked for a few more minutes about his career, especially his time in New England with the Patriots. I thanked him for his time and returned to my seat. I always liked Fred Taylor as a player and he's even more likable after talking to him for a few minutes.
We left our seats at noon and headed back down to have lunch. It was another nice buffet line of hamburgers, hot dogs, deli sandwiches, potato salad, salad, cookies, brownies, tea and lemonade. Once again I ate more than I should have. They passed out some door prizes (I wasn't a winner) and announced that Antoine Bethea would be making his rounds now. It was almost one o'clock and I was exhausted. I turned to one of the workers at the event to ask which players would be at the event tomorrow.
"Reggie and Antoine?" I asked. He nodded and I convinced myself that I could talk to Bethea tomorrow when I did this all over again. The day was done and I was headed for the exit.
"Don't forget your swag bag," one of the young ladies working the event called after me. She was toting a bag with 'Bridgestone' (who sponsored the event) plastered on the side of it.
"Oh. Thanks." Swag bag? Now we're talking - isn't this what famous people look forward to at the Oscars and other big events, the swag? I eagerly looked inside to find.... a miniature Bridgestone nerf-like football. That was all.
Swag bag? Hardly.
Saturday, 6:00 PM
I was lucky enough to snag three tickets to a 'Tweetup' (I had to Google it) at Emmis Studios on Monument Circle downtown. Peter King, Adam Schefter, Albert Breer, Bob Kravitz, Mike Chappell and others were all scheduled to be there and I thought it would be a fun night to pick the brains of some of the guys who've been in the business a long time. Because I'm new in town (that's what I tell myself) I don't have a lot of, what you may call, 'friends' - at least not any that would want to go listen to sportswriters talk about the NFL for 2 hours. So, who did I invite to this Who's Who of sportswriters?
That's right.... Mama and Papa Predictificationist. As we started to enter the event I turned to the people that created me.
"I know that parents like to brag about their children. You are not permitted to say a word about me at this event." You see, this is necessary because my dad seems to think I'm just an interview away from being lead anchor on Sportscenter - and he will do anything in his power to get me that interview. He once told Sam Ryan (who used to cover NBC's Sunday Night Football as a sideline reporter) that she should 'read my stuff' and 'he could work for you guys' - you gotta love parents.
They agreed to the rule and we joined in with the other tweeting, sports-loving, blogging nerds. Once again, there was free food everywhere. You see, this is a problem because in college I trained myself that if there was free food around you eat it - regardless if you are hungry or not. I was still full from the food at the combine but it didn't stop me from loading up on pulled pork from Weber Grill and eating a chicken tender or two (or six).
The event was well organized. All the sportswriters sat at a table and took questions from the people in attendance and online via Google Hangout. My question? Well, it's no secret that I would love the Colts to pursue a playmaker like Reggie Bush and I wanted to know where he would end up. Albert Breer handled my question.
I didn't like the answer but I knew he was right. The Colts aren't getting Bush in free agency and deep down I know that. The Lions make a lot more sense - besides Bush probably doesn't want to be a role player like Darren Sproles. He still wants to be a lead back somewhere and Detroit would give him that.
After the event there was mingling between all the involved parties. I made my way over to Bob Kravitz (who I've always admired) to introduce myself. A few months ago I was shocked that Bob had started following me on Twitter and I wasn't sure if he knew who I was or not.
"Bob Kravitz - My name is Nick Ragsdale. I write for Stampede Blue. Just wanted to say that I've been a fan of your writing style for years and I appreciate what you do."
It was loud in the room. He smiled and said, "What was your last name again?"
I could be making this up (probably) but I could swear I saw a hint of recognition in his face. "Oh yeah, Ragsdale. I like your stuff. You're a good writer."
Now - this may not seem like a big deal to those of you who have no aspirations as a writer, and for all I know he may not have truly had a clue who I was - but this made my night. We talked for a few more minutes before he excused himself to grab a Sun King beer.
I next made my way over to Peter King. We talked briefly about football, the Colts and other odds and ends. Before leaving I asked him if he remembered an interview that he gave to a blogger a few years back before the Colts/Saints Super Bowl.
"I do remember that."
Good for you, Brad Wells. You made an impression.
I had another early day tomorrow and decided to call it a night.
Sunday, 4:45 AM
Waking up seemed harder this time. I already knew what I was in for - only today it would be QB's and WR's running around on the field. I dragged myself out of bed, got into my car and headed to LOS.
Once again I stood in line with excited football fans who couldn't wait to sit in complete silence and watch men go through skill drills to impress NFL scouts. Once again I was too tired to chit-chat about the Colts season or anticipate what may be in store for us today. I wondered how many people were here for the second straight day. Not many, I thought. To pull off the feat I had to create two separate accounts - a little underhanded perhaps, but I pride myself in making the most of every opportunity.
We were escorted into the same room, had the same breakfast and heard the same speech from Ray Anderson. It was almost like deja vu until the representative from 1iota got up to introduce the Colts player that would be spending time with us during breakfast. I waited to hear the excited swell around the room when Reggie Wayne was announced - but I was thrown a curveball.
"Please welcome, Anthony Castonzo."
OK - this was a little different script. I was a little disappointed because I had prepared some questions for Wayne with the expectation that I'd get to see him again. The interesting thing was that Castonzo had come up in conversations the night before at the Tweetup. Mike Chappell had stated that he thought the Colts would ask Castonzo to move to RT and pursue one of the big-name free agent LT's with their cap space. Worth asking him about, I thought.
I nibbled on my eggs and bacon as Castonzo made his rounds. I was sitting by myself (I planned it this way) and went over some of the questions I wanted to ask him. Finally, Castonzo approached. I congratulated him on a great season, introduced myself as a writer for Stampede Blue and told him I had a few questions. He nodded.
'Start slow' I told myself. 'Warm him up a little.'
"Do you anticipate any scheme changes for the offensive line now that Pep Hamilton has been named offensive coordinator?"
Castonzo responded quickly and freely, "I haven't actually been able to talk to Pep yet, so I don't really know. I don't think that there would be any major changes - at least not for us on the o-line."
"Have you talked with Andrew Luck yet about it, picked his brain about what to expect?" I asked.
He smiled and said, "I actually tried to call him the other day and I couldn't reach him. Then, he tried to call me and left me a message. We've been playing phone tag for a few days but I will talk to him about it soon."
Now it was time to go for it.
"Obviously, with the amount of room the Colts have in free agency, there is speculation that the Colts may try to upgrade the offensive line." He nodded. "Some people think that they may go after one of the big-name free agent left tackles. Would you be willing to move to right tackle if the Colts asked?"
I hoped this question wasn't offensive to Castonzo. In all honesty he was the most consistent player on the OL this past season.
"Yeah. I'm willing to do what they want me to do if it'll help us win, as long as I'm playing and I get to start." He then added, "I'd be surprised if they did that, though."
I figured that was enough. I thanked him for his time and told him that, in my opinion, he was the best player the Colts had on the OL and I was looking forward to seeing him play again this season.
As he left two things stood out to me. First, it was nice to hear his willingness to move if it would help the team. I know that it was the answer you would expect, but it was still good to hear. The second thing was the 'I'd be surprised if they did that, though' part. It was subtle, and perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but it almost seemed like he never considered this a possibility. I thought this had been openly talked about (at least in the blog world) but he gave the impression though it had never crossed his mind.
We made our way up to our seats for the combine shortly after that and I considered the morning a success.
The seats were the same as they were the day before and I settled in to watch the quarterbacks and receivers run. I had missed my opportunity to talk with Jevon Kearse yesterday and decided that I would remedy that today. I was impressed the most with WR Tavon Austin - very explosive. The Colts already have T.Y. Hilton to fill this role but it didn't make him any less impressive. At quarterback, Marqueis Grey looked completely lost - his throws were all over the place.
Kearse made his way to my section just as a couple sitting next to me decided they needed a snack break (there were a lot of these going on... trust me, this whole thing isn't as thrilling as it sounds). This left two open seats directly to my right that Jevon was more than happy to sit in - for nearly 20 minutes. He was upbeat, fun, engaging and entertaining. I took the opportunity to pick his brain about everything.
Best quarterback he's ever played against? Peyton Manning. Duh.
"Peyton's got this internal clock in his head, it was so tough to get to him," Kearse said in a very low booming voice. "You know, the five of us," he said pointing around to the small crowd that was listening to him speak "we could have blocked for him and he still would have been one of the least sacked quarterbacks in the league. Sometimes he'd call things out at the line that I didn't even know we were doing - but he was right."
"I played with Steve McNair and the guys on the offensive line would say they liked it better with Neil O'Donnell back there because he got rid of the ball when he was supposed to. Steve would try to keep plays alive and make them look bad. Peyton knew how to get rid of the ball."
How about when you got to Peyton - was it satisfying?
"Oh yeah. I got a few on him. He knew how to get in the ref's ear, though. He and Brady know how to work those refs, man."
What does he think about the new crackdown on defenseless players and helmet to helmet hits?
"It's become touch football."
Does he suffer any lingering injuries from his football career - any lasting effects from concussions?
"Nah. Not that I know of. I didn't really play that way, though. I got these long arms and I used them."
Best offensive lineman he ever faced?
"Probably Tony Boselli."
What did he think of Albert Haynesworth. Does he deserve his reputation?
On this one Kearse paused for a minute with a grin, considering what he should say. "I liked Albert, but he'd give you hell, though. He'd stare down the coaches during practice in the middle of a play if he didn't like something. Yeah, he probably deserves it."
Best coach he ever played for? I almost didn't ask this assuming that Jeff Fisher was the obvious answer. I forgot that he spent time in Philadelphia.
"Andy Reid. Jeff was so 'by the book' all the time. Andy was more of a player's coach. When we'd have a bye week in Tennessee we'd get like three days off. Andy gave us the whole week - but I was too afraid to do anything with it because it almost felt like he was testing you!"
We were laughing and having such a good time that someone from the NFL actually came over to tell us to be quiet - for a moment I forgot that we were in the hallowed halls of the NFL's most protected event - the combine. We finished up talking about the devastating knee injury he had in an overtime game against the Giants and what he hoped to do with the rest of his life. He seemed to be leaning towards coaching but wouldn't rule out a career in broadcasting.
Soon after our time at the combine was done. They herded us back downstairs for lunch.
As I headed back down for lunch I thought about how I skipped out early yesterday and missed my chance to talk to Antoine Bethea. I was under the impression that the same guys were returning today, but that didn't ring true this morning as Anthony Castonzo replaced Reggie Wayne. I wondered who'd we get to see next and was preparing myself for anything.
The lunch was the same as it was the day before. They drew names for door prizes - and once again I didn't win. After that they announced that another Colts player would spend some time with us during our lunch.
It was Antoine Bethea. Whew.
Antoine started just a few seats from me, so it didn't seem like I would have to wait long. Once again I had strategically sat by myself (this is a thing that people with no friends do) so I could ask several questions to Bethea without monopolizing his time from other fans.
As he approached I again introduced myself as a writer for Stampede Blue and, as was becoming common, he seemed to know about the site. I started asking about the defensive transition and how things were going.
"I think it's going well. It's just going to take time. You know, the 49ers and Ravens, they've run it for awhile. We'll get there. It takes time to learn to react quickly - until it's second nature."
I told him how Colts fans are excited about all the cap space this season and how it appears that they will be spenders in free agency. "Play GM for a second and tell me who you would sign on defense."
"You don't have to give me name. What position would you go for?"
He smiled. "Well, first, let me give you the political answer and say 'whoever can help us win'. If I was going to give you a name... I don't know. I love Ed Reed."
I smiled because I want the Colts to sign Ed Reed. "I talked to Reggie Wayne about him yesterday," I said. "Don't you guys play the same position? Would you slide over if they signed him?"
Bethea smiled again and said, "Man, I play SAFETY. I'll slide over, play in the box, whatever. Whatever it takes. I'll let Ed Reed do his thing."
This was good stuff. I know that Reggie Wayne and Antoine Bethea aren't the ones that will be signing free agents, but if Wayne starts recruiting and Bethea willing to 'do whatever' it seems like a real possibility.
I said goodbye to Antoine and finished my lunch.
Leaving the Combine
I decided to leave the combine after that. There wasn't much left to gain. I was eager to get to my cell phone and tweet some of what I had learned to the world. None of the things I found out are 'groundbreaking' news by any means but it didn't make it any less fun. I was exhausted from the early mornings but decided the weekend was worth it.
I walked into the lobby past the 1iota representatives and towards the stadium doors. I was already planning the long nap I was going to take the afternoon. I wondered if there was anything else that could have made the weekend better - what could possibly go wrong? I got all the way to my car before I realized it.
I had forgotten my Bridgestone Souvenir Swag Bag.