INDIANAPOLIS — An NFL general manager stands in his suite at Lucas Oil Stadium watching the combine workouts. I’m not using his name; even though he’s merely admitting what everyone privately acknowledges, he worries about saying it aloud because the combine is such a growth industry for the NFL. After years of coming to Indianapolis, he now understands that his presence here — everyone’s presence — is simply to play a small part in a televised show, even if real futures are at stake. The players are running on the field down below, and they are running on the screens playing all around him, broadcast by the NFL Network. From his suite, this GM can barely read the names and numbers on their jerseys, so he watches on TV. Like most guys, he has an iPad where the stats and scores and results automatically update in his draft software. Except the results are always posted faster on the live television broadcast than in his own system. That’s what cues his sense of dull dread: If I can just watch this on television, and if I don’t even really care about the results anyway, then why exactly am I here?
Day One, Part I
Wednesday night, my first at the combine, first stop, first drink: a Guinness at the J.W. Marriott hotel bar, the front porch of the NFL combine. I nursed the beer and watched the football world stalk the room, looking for someone who might have information or want information. An agent named Kyle Strongin pulled up a chair. A long time ago, he worked at Ole Miss, which is in the town where I live, so we swapped Coach O stories and caught up on life. This year, he had three clients at the combine: Wisconsin running back Alec Ingold, South Carolina lineman Zack Bailey and Clemson cult hero receiver Hunter Renfrow.
He liked his guys, and he pulled out his phone to show me a picture that kind of sums up the singular question hovering over the combine: What can a team tell about a player by looking at him run, lift weights and flex? Kyle’s photo showed the now-viral image of Ole Miss’ D.K. Metcalf standing with his shirt off, his chest swollen and rippled. D.K. sent me two crying-laughing emojis when I texted him after it first hit Twitter, when his 1.9 percent body fat melted the internet. In Kyle’s photoshopped version, next to him iwas Renfrow, short and skinny, looking exactly like the kind of player a teammate might mistake for a manager, or maybe a waterboy — which actually happened his freshman year at Clemson.
Then Kyle’s photo listed both their stats against Alabama.
Renfrow put up better numbers.
All Renfrow has ever done is catch big passes in big games and help his team win. The most recent Super Bowl MVP, Julian Edelman, is a player like him. And still, Renfrow’s agent spent the week of the combine working to convince people to trust themselves and not a series of athletic tests that don’t actually reveal much about a football player’s future. That’s the funny thing. The combine is a place where you can watch the battle between facts and narrative play out: Even though the smart football minds said they didn’t learn much from the results, the drills being broadcast created an image that a player would have to struggle to shed. Hunter was in town fighting group-think about his size and speed. One scouting guy told Renfrow’s agent, “I wouldn’t draft him but he’d start for us.”
So Renfrow needed to do well enough to let his career define him instead of these times and reps. Strongin told me that Hunter would run his 40-yard dash on Saturday. If he could score in the low 4.5s, then a team will draft him in the third or fourth round as a starting slot receiver.
If he ran much slower than that, he might not get drafted at all.
Day One, Part II
This year’s combine was my first, which made me not quite prepared for the daily marathon: from morning coffee at the J.W. Starbucks, where the new Browns head coach would ask for his coffee cool enough to chug — “kids’ temperature,” one barista said to another; to the convention center where nearly a thousand reporters look for state secrets about hamstrings and muscle cramps; to one of several wood-paneled, masculine steakhouses like St. Elmo, with its horseradish-spiked shrimp cocktail; to a restaurant bar named Prime 47, where nearly every night ends up in a haze of passed business cards, whispered gossip and behavior some coaches would rather not hit the internet. A lot of secrets get told, news broken. Alcohol numbs everyone’s deeply hardwired urge to lie.
The NFL is famously secretive and paranoid, so these bars in Indianapolis are among the few places in the world where you can actually ask a straight question and get a true answer. The curtain gets yanked back and, like in the movie, the guy pulling the levers always seems smaller up close. There’s John Elway eating at P.F. Chang’s. There’s Dan Marino drinking chardonnay. There’s Sean Payton dining with two reporters in a dark steakhouse. There’s every agent and scout and general manager moving in a carefully defined orbit around downtown Indianapolis. Prime awaits at the end of the night. It’s a verb. Let’s Prime.
Women react strongly to the predatory energy at Prime — “Soooo many men,” a female reporter said, standing next to me in a corner — and most of the women I work with have stories, some of which make you roll your eyes and some of which make you ball up your firsts. Around 2 a.m., I sat at the bar and watched someone grab the waitress’ ass. When I pulled the waitress aside to ask if she was OK, she smiled thinly and said, “Welcome to the combine.”
There is the leering, meat-market side of the bar, especially after 1 a.m., but the place has many other faces, too. It’s a job fair and coaching clinic and, for a lot of people, an annual chance to hold court. Legendary agent Bob LaMonte greeted me one night in the far back corner at the round table he reserves every evening during the combine. A rotating cast of coaches and reporters and agents and general managers came and went from his orbit. “This is my table,” he said, sweeping his arm in invitation, drinking wine out of a glass bearing the four-leaf clover logo of his firm. He offered me a drink.
“You can’t pay for anything here,” he said and then smiled, a king in his castle.
For reporters and coaches and scouts, the combine is part work and part play, like a legal convention in Las Vegas or something. Yes, there’s combine stuff to do, but that all feels secondary on the ground to drinking expensive wine and eating big steaks at places like St. Elmo’s — the emotional center of Indy during the combine, with its great light and high ceilings.
Normally their most popular steak is the filet. The week of the combine it was the dry-aged Tomahawk ribeye. Big cabernets flew out of the cellar, Jerry Jones buying his large formats of Silver Oak — jeroboams and methuselahs, son — while smaller fish pop for 750s of Caymus. A St Elmo’s staff member said the combine crowds don’t buy the really great wine, just wine that normal people will recognize as expensive. The strut is more important than the taste. Drinks flowed. Shrimp cocktails arrived, and huge steaks, too: bone-in, medium rare. A reporter sent a round of tequila shots to a table of Patriots PR people. They’d had quite the week, after the Orchids of Asia. Outside, some NFL guys walked down the street joking about needing to find a massage parlor to get a “Krafty.”
“If TMZ shows up at this f—ing joint … ,” said author and longtime front office guy Michael Lombardi, laughing. “I have no idea how TMZ hasn’t gotten there. There’s more drunk coaches and owners walking down Illinois Avenue than you can imagine. It’s a power trip. These people that have the power are walking around, and you can feel it.”
Day Two, Part I
The next morning — White Castle for breakfast, if that tells you anything about how the first night ended — I walked a few blocks to the Conrad Hotel for my noon appointment with the sports agent Tom Condon. He and I knew each other when we both lived in Kansas City and I hadn’t seen him in years. He’s represented Peyton and Eli Manning, among other huge stars, and back when I met him, he was one of the most powerful men in the NFL.
He got into town this morning, coming for the same reason as everyone else in football: because he has to be here, because he helped create this madness the NFL now markets and sells. We found a table in the empty hotel bar, and he made sure to sit on my right, as usual, because he can only hear on that side. During the middle of his playing career for the Chiefs he’d just boarded a team charter home from a game. His best friend, roommate — and later business partner — Fuzzy Kremer sat next to him.
“I got some bad news,” Fuzzy told him.
“You got blood coming out of your ear.”
Then the plane took off and when he got home, he was deaf in his right ear. He’s still not sure what happened.
“It was before they outlawed the head slap,” he said in Indy, laughing.
He looks like the NFL player he used to be, with intense blue eyes and a suntan and the crooked walk of someone who took a lot of hits. He’s been coming to Indy since the beginning; his first year as an agent, 1987, was the same year this event started here. In the beginning, the combine was relaxed. He’s seen the change and, in many ways, helped drive it. After he and Kremer retired, they became agents, and they helped invent the pre-combine training that’s become standard. That first year, the two of them walked the halls of the players’ hotel and showed guys they weren’t even representing how to do the cone drills. They saw a way to gain an advantage. His guys got Wonderlic training and coaching for the personality testing and interviews. Condon got world-class coaches to help with the physical stuff.
One year he called Olympic champion Michael Johnson.
“If you had to make somebody faster in the 40-yard dash, do you think you could do it?” Condon asked.
“I’d drop them by a tenth of a second in a weekend,” Johnson said.
Condon hired him.
Now speed and strength coaches set up shop in hotel ballrooms and in rented houses all around Indianapolis. Prospects come here to work, and hope that the lack of sleep and the stress don’t keep them from performing well. It’s stunning what it’s become, even in the last few years. Now fans can watch the bench press in person, walking past all those bars and restaurants where the real insider business of the league is being conducted to take a seat for drills. Hundreds of thousands tune in at home.
The scouts know this week doesn’t matter, but the league knows that fans will watch on television and that talk radio and popular culture will turn this into an essential event on the annual sporting calendar. That’s the tension that everyone can feel even if they can’t articulate it. The whole thing has the whiff of reality television, with a twist: As these kinds of drills become less and less relevant to the best minds in the game, they become more and more important in the culture. Imagine if getting kicked off “The Bachelor” meant you had to stay single forever.
Sitting in the Conrad, Condon pulled out his schedule to show me his next 48 hours. That day, he had a noon with me, then a 1 p.m., a 2 p.m, a 3 p.m., a 4 p.m., a 6:30 p.m, a 7:30 p.m and a 9 p.m. The next day, a 10 a.m., a 2 p.m., a 3 p.m., a 4 p.m., a 5 p.m., an 8 p.m. and, finally, an 11:15 p.m. That’s pretty typical for everyone here. The combine often means two lunches and two dinners. Sometimes at the same restaurant.
This year, Condon has three of the biggest players in Indy: Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa, Missouri quarterback Drew Lock and Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson.
He repped all three of their dads, too. That makes him laugh wistfully. When he starts getting grandsons of clients, he says, he’s gonna put himself out to pasture. Eras come and go. An entire subculture has sprung up around this event and this city in the years since Condon first became an agent, but a lot of people believe that this might be the last combine fully held here, with the idea floated of moving the workouts to Los Angeles or even Dallas. Condon booked the last flight out Friday night, bound for Kansas City, to attend the wedding of his goddaughter, Allison Kremer — daughter of Fuzzy, the guy who saw his ear bleeding all those years ago. Together they’ve been through the wars and have both emerged, hobbled but alive, on the other side. After Indy, Condon had a Bible verse to read and a pew to find so he could watch his best friend walk his daughter down the aisle.
Day Two, Part II
I did my laps like everyone else. Turn left out of the hotel and head south down Illinois Avenue, past Ruth’s Chris and St. Elmo, with its beautiful neon sign that makes the front bar glow, especially on a cold winter evening. There’s a microbrewery and the 24-hour-a-day Steak & Shake, where NFL coaches mainline grease at sunrise before crashing and then starting their own laps again. The hardest part of walking around, to paraphrase the great Dan Jenkins, is that you never know when you’re done. The information exchanged in these restaurants and bars is the lifeblood of those who make their living in pro football: tips for stories, whispers about job openings or character issues, debates about strategy or technique, little pieces of information that create wedges of leverage.
The days repeat themselves over and over. J.W. Starbucks to the Indy convention center, where you navigated the sparse hallways and prefab walls until, behind an unremarkable door, a world revealed itself: metal detectors and bomb dogs, the whole thing more corporate and locked down every year, as Bill Belichick walked like a famous alum on his college campus and rookie head coach Kliff Kingsbury looked around in confusion.
“Where’s the Crowne Plaza?” he asked.
“Two hotels away,” a television guy said, pointing.
I walked back over to the J.W. Starbucks and listened to mid-level staffers work hard at their small part of the sprawling ecosystem.
They got granular on electrolytes. “General data or sweat test?” one asked.
Every little edge matters and a lot of time gets spent on the smallest of details, maybe because the single most important part of the game — predicting who will be successful and who will not — still evades everyone. From the past 10 years, for instance, only 23 drafted players remain on the Patriots’ roster, eight of them from a year ago — and New England is the best at this.
Those at the top choose players by shrinking the pool of potential picks as much as possible and by spending a true lifetime developing educated hunches and theories. They succeed by understanding what they don’t know: namely, how or why 11 people work in concert together when the ball is snapped. An NFL team on the field is an organism, which is why baseball-style analytics don’t work. There isn’t a duel baked into the center of the game that can be studied. There isn’t a Moneyball solution waiting on a Wall Street quant to get rid of all the scratching and spitting. This is more about human behavior and tolerance for pain. At every moment on a football field, 22 Xs and Os are in constant motion. Actually, 22 human beings are in motion, and that’s where the problems begin. The combine treats players like animals, which they aren’t. If they were, all this would be easy.
Researchers at the cutting edge of the thoroughbred business believe speed itself is less a predictor of future success than certain measurements, like body length-to-stride ratio. Jay Kilgore of Data Track, who sells information to investor syndicates, has a theory about the physical traits winning horses have in common. He can record a 2-year-old horse run and, after checking about two dozen measurements and angles, tell with a reasonable degree of accuracy if that horse will have a chance to be great at 3 and 4.
But horses aren’t people. Human beings walk through the world with fear, anxiety and doubt. Human beings self-destruct, nearly all of us at one time or another. Bench pressing and sprinting don’t tell a team what they really need to know, and neither would Kilgore’s measurements, and so the combine at its core is an elaborate piece of theater that can’t answer its animating question because it isn’t looking in the right place.
“We operate as if it’s still 1980,” Lombardi says. “That’s the problem. It’s almost like, you can see, we have not let the future into the scouting process. There’s a billion-dollar industry and there’s a 10-cent industry and it’s all wrapped up into one.”
The combine, like the draft, currently works better as a means of motivation rather than evaluation. If Tom Brady had been picked in the second round by the Cardinals rather than in the sixth by the Patriots, would he be the most accomplished quarterback ever today? He now haunts the scouts who measured him like a horse and not like a complicated person with reservoirs of unseen drive and rage. It’s such a simple systems breakdown: The teams know which qualities they want, and they know every football player on every college team in America, and yet the mechanism between these two things is scouting, which is broken. That’s why Brady slipped to the sixth round.
The teams wanted what he had inside but didn’t know how to look for it. It’s so clear the NFL cannot rely on merely rating speed, size and strength, the things measured at the combine. There must be a code to be cracked here, to understand once and for all how to identify a complex human being with greatness beneath the surface, and to understand the ways in which that greatness is amplified or diminished by all the complex human beings moving at full speed around them on a field. The man or woman who makes that discovery will render all this obsolete. The NFL hasn’t yet found its Bill James; at MIT’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference happening at the same time as the combine, there wasn’t a single piece of research presented about identifying or predicting success in the NFL.
Very smart people don’t know where to begin with this.
Day Three, Part I
Three days in, it hit me that I’d been around NFL Hall of Famers and coaches and big-time agents and all sorts of famous television personalities, but I hadn’t seen any football player do any sort of football activity. The NFL told me reporters can’t watch the 40-yard dash. I hadn’t even really talked to a player. So when Kyle Strongin called, I invited myself to dinner with him and his guys. We met at Harry and Izzy’s, the sister restaurant to St. Elmo, where you can get the same insanely spicy shrimp cocktail. The players are the stars of the combine, at least in theory. Really they’re meat on the hoof, superstars like Kyler Murray next to anonymous guys whose dads are driving from Chicago to pick them up when it’s over. They wandered the streets with everyone else, staying two to a room at the Crowne Plaza. A lot of time was spent getting poked and pricked by doctors; the medical evaluations are the most valuable part to teams. To pass the time, prospects did push-ups and sit-ups in the halls. In their rooms, they practiced the first three steps of their 40-yard dash. This is a stressful week, and the most successful at it are often the ones who don’t care. When Deion Sanders attended the combine as a prospect, he walked around in a full-length leather jacket and sunglasses handing out $20 bills to his fellow invitees, telling them to go buy themselves a sandwich. The night before he ran, he and Louis Oliver played bourré until 3 in the morning and then the next day Deion went out and ran a 4.27. The future NFL star in the next room hated him for years after that, telling me, “I was jealous he could be so carefree.”
You could spot them wearing matching sweat suits — the players have to find FedEx stores in town to ship all this gear home, bags full of it — that only had numbers and positions. They got 5 a.m. wakeup calls to give blood and pee in cups and then stayed up until midnight answering questions about everything from their spirit animal to their mom’s past brush with crack cocaine and prostitution. The vast gulf between famous head coaches holding court around town and the anonymous athletes exists in direct opposition to their actual importance in the game itself.
This is a league built on talent.
Great players matter, and therefore the people who can find them do, too. Coaches, for the most part, do not. The handful of great coaches in each generation are experts at maximizing the talent they find by work or luck — like, say, drafting the greatest quarterback ever in the sixth round. Everyone else is basically taking credit for stuff other people do. Only three Hall of Fame coaches in the Super Bowl era didn’t coach a Hall of Fame quarterback. One, Tony Dungy, will fall from the list the first year Peyton Manning is eligible.
The other two are Bill Parcells and Joe Gibbs. Both had teams led by vicious defenses and franchise quarterbacks who landed just shy of the threshold to Canton. It’s clear: The key to a great coach and a great team is finding a great quarterback. At any one time in the league, there are maybe five of them. A billion-dollar industry hinges on being able to tell which young men will be great, which will be good and which will fail. And yet, according to Lombardi’s book “Gridiron Genius,” teams find functioning NFL quarterbacks on about 40 percent of their picks in the first two rounds and the numbers go down after that. (He deems a pick successful if he started for three years and, generally, helped his team win games.)
The scouting combine doesn’t do much to help answer the single most important scouting question in the NFL. The truth is, you could cancel the combine and fire all the scouts and front-office people and get the owner’s grandson to pull names out of a hat, and the kid would do better than most teams currently do in the NFL.
No wonder everyone gets so drunk at Prime.
Day Three, Part II
I left another bar in the combine rotation, this one at the Westin — it used to be called Shula’s, and even though it isn’t now, the NFL people who hate change still call it that — and headed across town to find Strongin and his players at the restaurant.
He was standing by the hostess with o-lineman Zack Bailey and running back Alec Ingold, who had been working all day. They were tired and amused at all the strange stuff they were being asked to do. For the past four years, most players have worked for a limited wage in college football, and the moment their season ends, they’ve got to start training for all these events — which exist now mostly so that they can be televised. For coaches and executives, the combine is an annoying thing they have to do every winter. For the players, the kabuki still holds the power to make or break their dreams.
Earlier that day, a team put an enormous air conditioner behind Zack to test his reaction times when cold and then, with his hands literally numb, he had to bench press 15 minutes later. His left quad cramped up and he got 24 reps. They both got that it’s part of the game, that the weirdness isn’t a byproduct of the combine but the point.
“I’m just rolling,” Alec said.
We sat on the backside of the circular bar. NFL Network reporters were to our right. Alec scanned the menu and then pumped his fist.
They’ve got salmon!
Kyle told them about the St. Elmo’s shrimp cocktail, which is loaded with fresh horseradish — and on this menu, too. “Gotta order,” he said. “It’s a life experience. It’ll clear your sinuses but you’ll run faster.”
They were waiting on Kyle’s partner and Hunter Renfrow to order so they just downed glasses of water and caught up. Alec was leaving the next day after he finished to go see his sister’s dance competition in Chicago. He’s been to a lot of recitals, just like she’s been to a lot of games. Their dad was a high school wrestling coach which tells you everything you need to know about what Alec is willing to give. Alec and Zack were talking about the bench press monitors, and how some watch your hips and some don’t, when the last two arrived.
Renfrow and Ingold shook hands. They hadn’t met. They’d stood opposite one another on a football field but never seen each other without pads.
The agents gave Renfrow crap about eating burgers through his training.
“I eat healthy!” he insisted. “I ate feta cheese for the first time the other day!”
The conversation was fun and light. The players asked their agents how bad their parents are bothering them. One guy at the table said his girlfriend’s dad is bugging Kyle constantly. Soon they were talking about a guy Hunter knows from Clemson who once wrestled a bear, and Zack offered up he’d wrestle a bear. This admission came minutes after he refused the spicy shrimp.
“You won’t eat a shrimp but you’d fight a bear?” someone asked.
Everyone laughed again.
Ingold was scheduled to run his 40 the next day and Renfrow the day after that. Renfrow had been working hard. He met Wes Welker that day and was still floating after the interaction — to be face to face with a hero and with proof that he can find a home in his league. He’s been working hard. Three days after Clemson won the national title, he ran around a 4.7. Since then he’d shaved a tenth of a second off that, working toward the times that Kyle has told him will impress the teams. In his heart of hearts, Renfrow was hoping for a 4.5-something.
“What do you need to run?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said, sounding a little tired of the topic, eager for the conversation to return to hunting and food, which is much better at the combine than the Senior Bowl, all the players agreed.
Day Four, Part I
The teams correctly assume that the answers they seek lie hidden inside the players, and yet the combine gives them all just 15-minute interviews amid the circus of other activity. Some teams would rather the entire week be devoted to interviews, along with the invaluable medicals exams. Franchises are forever fumbling in the dark for clues. They all try a forever-changing system of interrogations, mock-therapy sessions and psych evals. A few, like the Colts and the Patriots, have utilized non-football leadership and character experts who are fully integrated into their facility and staff. Most, however, have not.
When I asked around in Indy, I was told the reason is shockingly simple: many coaches believe their own myth about being leaders of men and experts in the realms of character and motivation. They cannot admit in public that they really don’t know much about any of those things. Maybe in every NFL facility there is a person or a group of people who could win games, maybe even The Game, if the people above them could stop preening long enough to listen.
Since the interviews are where a team stands to gain the most insight, I wondered what it is possible to learn in 15 minutes — or at least what would be possible if you got a trained professional and didn’t leave this up to coaches and general managers. I decided to get a psychological evaluation. A few calls later, I was hooked up with Dana Sterling, who has done the tests for the Lions, Seahawks and, for years, the Colts. She worked for Dungy and Jim Caldwell, and then she left, and now the team has hired a Green Beret, still looking for different ways to answer the same question.
I fired off a text.
WWT: The combine makes me full of existential dread. Like: why are we here and by “here” I don’t mean Indianapolis. I need help!
DS: HA!! Call me if you have a moment
We talked about my time in Indy. I told her I had already pushed up my travel a day, leaving Saturday now instead of Sunday. She laughed hard.
“I’ve spent a lot of years at the combine,” she said, “and I hate it.”
She said that teams expected her to give each prospect a questionnaire and use that to guide her 15-minute interview. Afterward she gave one of four grades: outstanding, satisfactory, flag, red flag. To her, a red flag meant “do not draft,” no matter how fast or strong. She saw a lot of athletes who’d been schooled in how to hide their flaws and avoid exposing any flaws. “People are coached,” she said. “I have colleagues who get hired by agents to coach guys up for these types of interviews.”
She said her teams took her warnings seriously.
Then Sterling asked, “Can I grill you tomorrow?”
I said yes, tentative and suspicious, and when she sent me the questionnaire, I sat down in a chair outside the Bar Formerly Known as Shula’s and filled it out. Basically, it’s all about choosing words I think describe me and words I think others would use to describe me. It was hard to cheat or to figure out what combination of words are the “right” answer to an NFL team who wants a model citizen off the field but a psycho killer on it.
My wife laughed when I told her what I was doing. “I feel like this is gonna confirm so many suspicions I have,” she said.
Dana called me the next afternoon. I told her about the team with the air conditioner.
She laughed hard.
“They’re throwing things against the wall,” she said.
Dana started asking me questions, about my habits and fears and vanities, some of them dangerously on point, and I tried to give honest, vulnerable answers. She asked how I’d respond in various situations and then, suddenly, we were done.
I took a deep breath.
She told me that I’m scared of failure and that I am most motivated by a need to please. She said I struggle to say no and find peace in wearing myself out. She said this unrelenting pace is my worst enemy and the thing that keeps me from fully maximizing my own potential.
I hung up. I was a little stunned.
(My wife read her assessment and said, simply, “holy s—.”)
Sixteen minutes! It took Dana just 16 minutes to identify the problem I struggle with the most — which I’ve heard about from an actual therapist, by the way — and her ability to do this freaked me out, and made me wonder why she was busy visiting with the Anaheim Ducks this week instead of at the combine. She just nailed me. The inability to escape this self-created breakneck pace is my most serious obstacle — and the most serious obstacle for nearly all the football people in town this week. The ethos of NFL life — manipulation, zero-sum lying, 100-hour weeks, no vacations — leads to tired, angry, bitter, feuding, paranoid, desperate people unable to find the clear head space to rethink their business or even see it clearly as it exists now. They’re hamsters and the combine is a turn of the wheel. If a team skipped Indy and went up to Big Sur to stare at the redwoods and the ocean, maybe they’d find the insights they come to Indianapolis to actively not seek.
As I stood in a hotel room looking out at the buildings and sky and streets that all seem the same color gray, the combine made sense. The coaches and scouts in Indy are prisoners just like the players; they know this isn’t an efficient way to evaluate talent and yet the combine keeps getting bigger and bigger. One team president wondered aloud why he sent 20 people to Indianapolis, even though he knows it’s unnecessary, aside from the bonding of big dinners and bar tabs on the company card. Once the combine served as ground zero for free agency tampering until the league changed the rules to allow a three-day negotiating window before free agency begins.
“You can’t even tamper anymore!” he said with a laugh. Next year he’s considering sending only a handful of people here, which feels like a lie he’s telling himself to get through the week. He’ll almost certainly be back, in force, because that’s where he’s expected to be. All these people have long known what I was only now realizing: Not only is the Combine not the answer, it might be the problem. Or, put another way, the combine is a perfect reflection of the culture that created it. While it doesn’t tell you much about a player, a few days in Indianapolis can tell you everything about the league those players aspire to join.
Day Four, Part II
On Friday, a group of people from ESPN went to Primanti Brothers for lunch. We were waiting on our sandwiches — with fries and slaw on them, obviously, but not the tomatoes, no matter what someone from Pittsburgh might tell you is proper, because the tomatoes slide around and affect the already shaky structural integrity of the sandwich. On the screens around us, some poor guy was running a drill and his shorts kept sliding down, exposing his crack to the world.
On the screen, when the player’s pants fell down again, he didn’t even bother to pull them back up. People at the table winced. I thought about Myron Rolle, whom I wrote about as he prepared for his own combine years ago, and how he told me coming to Indianapolis was more stressful than a Rhodes Scholarship interview and brain surgery, both of which he’s done. He also said standing in your shorts while older men poke and prod and measure and gawk reminded him and all his friends of an auction block. Yes, they all understood that they chose to be here and that there were great rewards at the end. They knew the analogy didn’t pass a logical test, but it’s how they felt and what they talked about at the end of each day.
His interviews taught him NFL people had figured out at least one purity test for future success. In every interview, people asked him if he loved football, if he needed it, or if he wanted to check a box. Coaches and general managers do not like players with options. Teams need people willing to trade everything for a life in this league, just as they have proven themselves willing to do the same. I thought about another city I visited once, Canton, Ohio, on Hall of Fame weekend. I sat in a hotel downtown and watched one legend after another limp or be helped through towards the elevators.
I saw Earl Campbell in a wheelchair.
The NFL is a league built around winnowing, from the hundreds who arrived in Indianapolis last week to the four or five each year who reach Canton. Few if any get away clean and the most important trait isn’t speed or skill but an ability to survive: the practice, the game, the season, the culture itself. Even those ultimate winners in Canton pay a heavy price for their victory, and maybe it’s not such a bad thing for rookies to learn up front what they’ll be expected to give.
You think showing your crack on television is degrading? Just get ready.
The league will answer your prayers, make your dreams come true, but not for free. Maybe the combine isn’t a waste of time or just a big brotastic spring break. Maybe it’s the perfect orientation: a warning, and a promise, and the way a theology is handed from one generation to the next.
After lunch I got on the telephone to Delta Airlines. I moved up my flight again. I was done.
In the airport, I saw prospects wandering around looking for the right security checkpoint. They were anonymous. Some might get famous and others will never be more valued by the sport than they were these past few days. Those bags of gear will be a tangible reminder of the life they almost lived. I heard agents talking, and saw other reporters leaving town, too. Sitting at the airport outpost of Harry and Izzy’s — a chance for one last St. Elmo’s shrimp cocktail — I wondered if this was the last time the circus would ever pass through this old railroad town. Maybe next year, all these drills will happen in LA, Dallas, or somewhere else flashier. People call Indianapolis the “Crossroads City” and that seems about right for the home of the combine. The winnowing has begun: a few people are going to the top and the rest are going back home to start over again.
Just before my plane boarded, someone sent me a tweet by an NFL reporter. In it, he wrote that next year the combine might be spread out over two weeks and the drills shown on primetime television. It doesn’t matter that most football decision makers say they don’t really get anything useful from those drills. As long as the combine exists, no matter what coaches and scouts say in private, the combine will matter. The results from Indianapolis create a narrative that can change someone’s life. The next day at home, I looked up Hunter Renfrow’s 40 time. The lasers clocked him at under 4.6, and some hand times had him at 4.53 and 4.54, just a fraction slower than the most recent Super Bowl MVP and in that strange limbo where nobody is sure how to tell if he should coach football in his hometown or play on Sunday for a decade to come.