Friday, April 10, 2009

Pro Day

On a warm day with a cold breeze in March, I meandered over to Nippert Stadium to witness the closest thing the NFL has to a dog show. For major college football programs, Pro day is an annual event that draws media coverage and fan interest. For UC, this was a new experience as the Bearcats were just getting the hang of looking like a major program.

It was exam week and campus was noticeably vacant. The only people in the stadium were two guys on the field lining up cones. I took a seat in the front row and watched them. One guy would move a cone three feet to the right, take a look down field, remove his baseball hat, scratch his sweaty grey head, and move it back. The other guy then would turn around and point to a place three feet to the right of the cone. The first guy would scratch his head again.

I began to wonder how early I was, when two more guys – high-school aged, in matching grey sweat suits – walked across the field and headed in my direction. I nodded as they approached, but they didn’t even look at me and sat in the next section over. A black Escalade then rolled out from the stadium tunnel and parked. A large man with a straight-billed Dodgers hat that covered the tops of his ears, got out and smiled at the teens. He walked over to them, hugs and hand-pounds all around.

“You sure you can park there?” one of the sweat suits asked him.

“I do every time I’m here,” Dodgers hat replied with swagger.

The three talked and laughed for a bit when another figure appeared from the tunnel. He was carrying a cardboard box. “Where do you want it?” he asked the sweatshirts. They mindlessly waved their hands, indicating anywhere in the general area will do. The man set the box down and soon joined in the laughing.

This man looked familiar; he looked like Caleb Miller. But I thought he was smaller than any NFL linebacker could possibly be. He was dressed casually enough for me to assume that he worked there or was just helping out. I knew he wasn’t playing anywhere at the time. What was Caleb Miller doing there carrying boxes for high-school kids on Pro Day? I couldn’t control my staring.

As a player, Miller always smelled of a failed experiment with the Bengals. Fast but undersized, he was drafted in the same round as Landon Johnson and the pair never materialized into anything special. While Johnson went on to be okay, Miller didn’t learn to tread water in the NFL and drowned.

Before they noticed me spying, a UC cop car pulled up next to the Escalade and a police woman stepped out. Dodgers Hat lost some of his swagger as he trotted back to his soon-to-be-ticketed monster of an automobile, holding up his clownishly sagging pants as he did so. The other three laughed, watching their friend attempt to shmooze and gesticulate his way out of the parking fine. I think I laughed too.

Once the lady had finished procedure (she actually tucked the ticket under the windshield wiper as opposed to handing it to him), she left and Dodgers Hat wandered back, smiling at the other three. Before he could explain what happened, a large flock of men dressed in brightly-colored nylon jogging gear, paraded onto the field. These, of course, were the NFL people, there to see the dogs run and jump and show their stock.

Lo and behold, leading the charge, like the alpha pack-leader establishing his rank, was Marvin Lewis. I didn’t at first notice him, but Dodgers Hat saw him right away.

“Cmon man, let’s go talk to Marvin,” he said to Caleb Miller. Caleb resisted on impulse, shrugging and looking at the ground. “Cmon, man. Let’s go talk to Marvin,” he said again.

Caleb knew he had no choice and trudged behind Dodgers Hat toward the coach. Marvin spotted them quickly, and broke away from the rainbow of scouts, with his hand extended. He shook with Dodgers Hat but barely looked at him, instead he focused on the next one to greet him.

“I know this guy,” Marvin said of Caleb. “He still has his first nickel.” They did the shake/hug maneuver, and Caleb looked immediately relieved. They talked but I moved on.

I began to walk to the other side of the field where I spotted the other press members, smiling and finding reasons to touch each other. The local press is a weird corps of socially awkward men who only have their supreme sports nerdiness in common to yak about until the “action” can spare them from further conversing. They’re always patting backs and shoulders and playfully nudging and pushing one another. I have to stay somewhat nearby as to not miss out on press releases and interviews, but I keep a safe distance from the fratish comradery.

Ryan Kolson, the UC media liaison, did his best to round these guys up like cattle and establish the parameters we were to stay in. Of course, like cattle, these parameters were slowly tested, and he occasionally had to reign them back in. He’s a shepherd of the print media; the camera guys seem to have more range than us. Once Ryan felt satisfied with the amount of pointing and “okaying” he went away to talk with the other AD goons. I really think they feel like the cool kids, god bless em, decked out in everything Bearcats. I imagine their homes and cars are decorated the same way.

Meanwhile, the scouts formed two pockets of socializing around midfield. The Jets & Ravens were talking and laughing and hiding their clipboards from each other. The Bills’ scout was looking for someone to talk to and the Cardinals’ guy had their back to everybody. The Steelers’ scout looked American Indian and had an enormous afro. The Patriots’ scout had a hat with the old snapping New Englander logo. I counted 18 teams total that came to see the dogs run.

Being one the cool kids, Ryan decided to stroll over to the print media section to bless us with some inside information.

“Yeah, as you can see, Marvin Lewis is here, Rex Ryan is here, I don’t know who else.” He nodded to everybody and returned to the AD circle. I had previously seen Rex beaming at those around him and lumbering about. He’s the kind of guy that could get away with being drunk at any time and no one would think he’s acting unusual. To me, he seems like the classic red-faced, back-slapping, in-your-personal-space, extra-loud guy who thinks everything is very funny. I have no factual background on the matter, but I think the Ryan household might do some serious partying during the holidays. Rex’s brother, Rob, looks like a bass player for an old swamp-rock band, plus they’re a family known for crazy blitz-schemes – they gotta be a wild bunch.

I didn’t think there would be any other coaches there I’d recognize, when I heard a sound like a tuba with a thick tongue blabber something out behind me. When I realized I couldn’t understand the words this large thing was saying, I knew it had to have been Mike Tice. The turquoise ogre (now the Jaguars’ offensive assistant) moved past me in long strides and tried his best to fit in with the other bright colors. That was all I recognized; the rest were random faces shrouded under overly-stylized baseball hats.

Finally, the athletes emerged. They were all dressed in the same grey sweatshirts that the two high-school kids were wearing. They immediately began to stretch their limbs and do sudden sprints down-field. The New York Giants scout seemed to be the ringleader of the dog show and announced that the dogs would run in 10 minutes. The scouts huddled around the finish line with their stopwatches and clipboards in hand, and waited. The 10 minutes came and went, then 15 minutes, then 20. Finally, the Giants’ guy yelled out that Connor Barwin would be the first to run.

Barwin was the main attraction to the event. NFL wizards have been salivating over this guy all year. He switched to defensive end from tight end delivered with 11 sacks – best in the Big East. He’s a silly guy with long arms and lots of speed and athleticism (the ability to jump 40 inches from a stand still position is usually spotted on basketball courts: Connor played a season with the UC basketball team, where he rebounded and played near the rim, not fully able to showcase the freakish coordianation, but still contributed on the most basic levels). I’m personally a fan of Connor Barwin because he always gave me the time to talk with him for interviews when I wrote for the student newspaper, The News Record. He seems like a normal guy encased in a superman shell.

Barwin finished his lunges and removed his shirt. Media personality C. Trent Rosencrans, turned to a goateed gentleman I see at every UC event yet I remain unaware of his identity, and remarked about how Barwin was going shirtless as if the goateed man had no eyes to see such a thing for himself. Barwin neared the starting line and the scouts prepared their stopwatches.; they resembled assorted Skittles grouped together on each side of the finish line. Barwin blasted off like a Clydesdale and stomped through the finish line. I had no stopwatch, but I was impressed. I tried to gauge the reaction of the NFL wizards, but they’re a cool-handed bunch who gets down to business when it’s time – poker faces all around. Barwin trotted back along the outside of the track, and Rosencrans gawked at him as a teenage girl would, when he passed. C. Trent smiled at the goateed one through his red beard and nodded. I knew not what was communicated with such a gesture.

Next up was defensive tackle, Terrell Bird. When he stepped to the starting point, everyone present then understood that these athletes were forced to run shirtless, as to reveal to the experts their breed and stock. Certainly no one who appeared to be trapped in a human barrel would volunteer to run shirtless. Bird’s girthy, oblong torso, compared to his bathtub legs, looked so cadywompus that he belonged more to the Weeble People than to the human race. His dash reminded one of the movements of clouds or planets; seemingly slow but with great effort. I think I laughed.

Between the scouts, media, spectators and the dogs themselves, there were easily over a hundred people present, yet everyone remained strangely quiet, speaking in hushed voices when they needed to speak at all; I felt like we were watching people putt from 10 feet out.

There were 15 others who ran. Some, like Dominick Goodman, who hadn’t been invited to the Combine, had plenty to prove to scouts that he was fast enough to be drafted; it turned out that he wasn’t. Others, like Mike Mickens and Dustin Grutza, had to prove their health to the NFL by running well. Grutza was fast, but tweaked a hamstring and couldn’t run a second time – some guys are cursed. Before Mickens took off, some teammates reminded him from the stands that he’s “gotta eat”, which I took to mean that this was his chance to get paid and ultimately fed. He ran well enough to eat.

There are select breeds who aren’t born runners; Canfield and El Ahmin were St. Bernards at a Greyhound track. They provided a sense of scale compared to the fastest runners that participated, which was helpful for a novice like me.

I watched the sprints, then watched the suicide drills then watched the cone drills. I followed the print media closer to the groups of scouts before Ryan Kolston shooed us back. When a grey-haired man with everything from jacket to water bottle proudly boasting a Bengals emblem dared to walk within feet of the press, Rosencrans asked him something out of earshot of everyone else. That’s why Rosencrans is a reporter, and I, when it comes down to it, am not. He has that instinct to get the scoop, I’d rather think it over a minute and ask an important question.

Marvin Lewis, away more than twenty feet and speaking with UC athletic director, Mike Thomas, noticed Rosencrans speaking to one of his people. He shouted at him from across the distance, and put on his best sarcastic grin, which he has collected so carefully over the years.

“There are no rules here, are there?” Lewis asked the reporter. “We oughta have rules and put you guys in a box up there.” He pointed in the air meaning the press box, but it was on the other side of the stadium and he pointed instead to nothing. His smile lingered on Rosencrans for that extra few moments that indicated he wasn’t fucking around. Rosencrans, knowing he was in international waters and immune to Marvin’s ire, smiled confidently back.

After running, changing directions, touching a cone, and grunting and yelling for about an hour, the dogs were given a water break and the scouts mingled a bit. I thought I’d eavesdrop if I could. Artrell Hawkins – lovingly known around these parts as third-and-Hawkins, thanks to the soft cushion he gave every receiver he covered and allowed thousands of successful third-down conversions – was chatting with Rex Ryan along the sidelines. As I walked past, I heard him speaking and was surprised to hear the voice of a basso profondo for such a small man. All I could make out were the words, “that motherfucker can play.” It seemed like a forced statement, as if men needed to display that kind of vulgarity in such a testosterone-charged event like an NFL Pro Day. It sounded like a middle-aged father who had forgotten how to use profanity well. I strolled around the field aimlessly a bit without much excitement and when I returned perhaps three minutes later, I heard him say it to Ryan again, “that motherfucker can play.” I never learned of who he was referring to.

Standing nearby was punter Kevin Huber, talking with Bengals special teams coach, Darren Simmons. I spotted Huber earlier waltzing around in his sweat suit grinning like a guilty fool, perhaps because he wasn’t required to run with the big dogs. In fact, in the few hours I was there, all I saw of him was the ability to walk and talk. Either way, special-teams guys stick together, largely because no one else wants to talk with them, so they kept out of the way and chatted.

Bengals linebackers coach Jeff Fitzgerald was there too, leading the linebackers and d-linemen in position drills. I had heard the guy was a fiery coach, but I think what is meant by that, is that he coaches as if he’s on fire. The man was spastic: running and yelling and clapping and good-jobbing all of the troops. If he were allowed to, I think he’d tape his ears to his head and wrestle each player to really test them. He runs on 20 brand new Energizer D batteries every day – it’s probably expensive (and bad for the Earth), but it keeps him alive.

One of his troops on that day was Ryan Manalac. I’d seen Manalac in uniform before, but he, like all the guys, was shirtless, and what that revealed was a chest and shoulders that he must have stolen from Atlas himself. It wasn’t that he was all that chiseled, it was strictly the immensity of his upper-body that caused me to jot in my notebook: Shit brickhouse, which, of course, is the dyslexic version of brick shithouse. He was also the most powerful runner I noticed in the 40 yard-dash. If the players were cars, Manalac would be a Buick from the late 70's with a fender that stretched along for miles, and when he makes impact on other cars, he leaves scrapheaps in his wake. I would invite Manalac to my training camp this summer if I were an NFL team, but I might be concerned that he’d hurt too many of my other players.

A couple hours had gone by and I was beginning to get antsy. I still needed to conduct some interviews but I also had to leave for work. I didn’t want to interview just anybody, so I waited for Mike Mickens to finish his long conversation with Marvin Lewis and pursued them on the sidelines. I wanted Marvin; I’ve always wanted to talk with Marvin. So many pages on my blog have been written about him, and it was surreal to be in his presence. He sensed me approaching him – he’d been keeping an eye on me all afternoon. He knew the other reporters there, he knew the scouts and coaches and members of the athletic department. He didn’t know me. When he saw me coming, he turned around and walked away. Mickens didn’t though, he likes to talk. Interviewing him felt like asking a boxer how awesome he considered himself.

Hey, Mike, how’s the knee?

“I’m 85 percent and I’m still putting up average numbers for everybody at the Combine, so if I’m 100 percent, I’m only going to be better and show that I am the best corner in the nation.”


I moved on to another cornerback who I’ve always been impressed with and who doesn’t get nearly the attention Mickens the Great receives: DeAngelo Smith. I had interviewed D Smith before over the phone. He’s not a big talker but seems to know what kind of quotes are usable and what are generic cliched answers. He was sitting alone on a bench, drinking water.

When I asked how he felt he did in front of the scouts, he told me that he ran better than he had at the Combine. When I asked how important the day was, he told me it was like leading up to Christmas. I asked him if he was still working with Artrell Hawkins, and he confirmed that he was and added that he was also being tutored by the legendary Redskins corner, Darrell Green. This is the kind of seamless symbiotic relationship journalists and athletes should have. The journalist seeks information from the athlete. The athlete doesn’t need to say much, only something informative. The more concise the athlete can answer the questions, the faster everybody can move on with their lives. D. Smith understands this, and I appreciate that about him. As a player, Smith has shown some nice cover skills and tackling ability; I always thought he’d find a place in the pros. He can return kicks too, which is helpful because in today’s job market, the more one can do for their employer, the better the chance they’ll be hired – or in this case, drafted.

Satisfied with my interviews, I began to leave when I saw Hawkins walking alone in my direction. I stopped him and asked if he could talk about his workouts with Smith. Like a vet, he quickly asked me who I wrote for. Knowing Hawkins is a fellow UC alumnus, I confidently stated that I write for the News Record and watched him relax (no one takes the News Record very seriously, least of all those who work there).

He answered my questions fluently, and seemed more comfortable slipping back into his middle-aged father persona. In fact, after the fourth question or so, he seemed to be enjoying the interview and hesitated answering his cell phone when it interrupted us. I had what I needed; I patted him on the arm and left.

My finished article turned out to be a watered down account of the day, jam-packed with numbers and attributions that tend to make news stories generally more boring. My editor questioned the source of my published times in the 40-yard dash. I explained that AD lackey Ryan Kolson, passed out a photocopied sheet that listed all the players’ times and reps and verticals and so on. I too was dubious of how factual these numbers were when they had Barwin clocked at 4.48 -- faster than most receivers and defensive backs – but the athletic department is the best source a News Record reporter is going to score for factual information, so everybody had to take it as that.

I like football games more than dog shows, or gladiator tryouts or whatever it was I’d seen at Nippert Stadium that day. The NFL seemed a little less glorious after that. I’d been thrust into the actual meat market aspect of the sport and there was very little fun about it. As I walked away, I noticed Caleb Miller standing off by himself. I never figured out his role there; I’m not sure he did either.

Mojokong -- Rather be an ape than a dog.


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