Football's cattle call

In advance of this weekend's NFL draft, doctors inspect the hearts, minds and muscles of top college players.

By Ron Feemster
Published April 12, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

There's a lot at stake when 350 nearly naked buff guys take turns climbing a platform to have their physiques rated by experts. This isn't a dream date on an MTV vacation special. This is professional football. Every year, the National Football League invites top college players to Indianapolis to have their bodies and minds probed and tested by the pro teams.

"It's a medical meat market," said Rob Huizenga, a former team doctor for the Oakland Raiders and author of "You're Okay, It's Just a Bruise: A Doctor's Sideline Secrets About Pro Football's Most Outrageous Team." The test results can make or break an NFL hopeful. Coaches say the medical information is the most valuable intelligence they get at the scouting combine -- even more important than the bellwether 40-yard dash.

The combine is something like a mass job interview for college football players who hope to be selected in the NFL draft, which will be held Saturday and Sunday. The young men who make it to the NFL will last, on average, three to four years. With minimum salaries of more than $190,000 for rookies, and signing bonuses that totaled $142 million for the 31 top picks last year, teams are understandably careful about whom they hire. At the combine, months before the draft, players are put through physical tests to assess their aptitude and durability for one of the most violent of sports.

"It's not a livestock show," says George Young, an NFL executive and former general manager of the New York Giants. "We just have to see the product before we spend that kind of money."

Since 1993, 62 percent of the players invited to the combine have been selected in the NFL draft.

The combine kicks off with the body assessment. "That's where they take your height and weight," said Casey Crawford, a tight end who played for University of Virginia. "But more than that it's walking up on a platform, taking your shirt off, getting into your skivvies or whatever, and having representatives of all 31 teams go through a sheet looking at every body part: shoulders, biceps, trunk, legs." The spectacle is videotaped, and the player is asked to pirouette for the camera so other coaches can look later.

Crawford, 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, is blond, bright-eyed, curious and friendly. After finishing his sociology degree early, he took graduate courses in economics during his final football season. He lives with his parents in Northern Virginia and has interviewed with investment banks and Internet start-ups as well as 31 NFL teams. I met him at the combine in late February, in the bar of the players' hotel adjacent to the stadium -- workouts are closed to journalists.

Coaches checked out Crawford, while about 20 players watched and waited their turns. "Everyone sits around you and looks you up and down and takes their notes," he said. "Then they take your height and call it out. And then they take your weight and yell again: '250 pounds.' And then they measure your hand from the thumb to the pinkie, they measure the length of your arm and they take your body fat and they yell that out."

The inspection continues with a medical examination. Each player goes to a room. League and team physicians scurry in and out. "They just said, 'Lay down,' and then three doctors kind of surrounded me," said Joe Dean Davenport, a tight end from the University of Arkansas who never missed a game or practice due to injury. "They were pushing and pulling and yelling out big words -- 'The medial collateral tendon is bilateral,' these big scientific terms. You're kind of like, What does that mean? I didn't ask them. I didn't want to make 'em think I'm not very bright."

Thorough examinations occur in other professional sports, of course, but the sheer number of new bodies required in the NFL has an effect on the league's methods. Counting undrafted rookie free agents, about 300 new players will make NFL squads this year. That's nearly 10 players per team -- or nearly as many players as suit up in the entire National Basketball Association. In baseball and hockey, both sports with high turnover, players come up through club-affiliated minor-league systems, where team doctors can follow them for years.

The NFL, in contrast, relies primarily on college football to train its young players -- and the rules of amateur sports prohibit pro teams from approaching players until their college eligibility runs out. Teams must examine and interview hundreds of players between the end of the football season in December and the draft in mid-April.

The league centralized the interviews partly because top recruits got exhausted talking with all the teams that wanted to meet them. Gil Brandt, a draft consultant who then headed the Dallas Cowboys personnel staff, remembers interviewing Nolan Cromwell, a Kansas star drafted by Los Angeles in 1977. "He got off a red-eye flight in the morning and could barely keep his eyes open at the morning workout."

Another story, perhaps apocryphal: One top receiver managed to conceal the fact that he was nearly blind in one eye by memorizing the eye chart.

Professional teams have watched some of the prospects at the combine since their teen years. Scouts have attended their games to videotape, analyze and evaluate their performances. College coaches and trainers often share information about injuries. But NFL coaches say that only doctors familiar with the professional game can assess the durability of players.

"Sometimes a player will have no history of injuries but the doctors will say that his knee is a little loose," said Sherman Lewis, the offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings. Lewis is new to the Vikings and was reluctant to speak about the team's medical practices. But Sherman said the doctors at one of his former teams (which include the San Francisco 49ers and
Green Bay Packers) rated the players on a scale of 1 to 3, where 1 was a clean bill of health and 3 indicated some problem that disqualified them as draft picks. Other teams use a 1 to 5 scale. "A lot of this is more of an art than a science," Lewis said. "You just add the medical information to the rest. Some players are so good you have to take a chance on them."

Huizenga, an internist who now practices in Beverly Hills, said the pre-draft checks are supposed to protect teams from unpleasant surprises. But sometimes it's the young player who gets the surprise. Doctors found a quarterback with a rare bleeding disorder. Several times they've discovered cancer.

"Each team gives its doctors a secret sheet of paper with special
requests," Huizenga said. "The scouting team wants specific information on particular players it hopes to draft. But horrible things still happened [at the Raiders]. Once we were drafting a guy and he was in the hospital for back surgery at the time. It had slipped right through."

Dr. Elliott Hershman is the orthopedist for the New York Jets as well as the New York Islanders hockey team. When he takes his turn bending over players on the combine examining
tables, Hershman looks for possible arthritis, unstable joints or old injuries that could be aggravated. "When I started doing this 15 years ago, the players arrived with all kinds of problems," he said. "Now, with the advances in sports medicine -- arthroscopy and MRIs -- we see healthier players coming into the league than 15 years ago."

In addition to the medical exams, which are repeated when players are traded or move around the league as free agents, recruits at the combine take intelligence tests. Here the combine offers teams a unique opportunity, because the NFL Players Association forbids such tests after a player is hired. The league standard is the Illinois Wonderlic test, a 12-minute battery of 50 questions that start out simple and get more difficult. Quarterback Todd Husek of Stanford and defensive back Ahmed Plummer of Ohio State led the field of 327 test-takers with 39 right answers, according to Football Insider, one of many pre-draft Web sites for NFL junkies. According to the site, Crawford scored 31 on the Wonderlic; only 19 test takers at the combine scored 30 or higher. National Invitational Camp, which runs the combine and administers the Wonderlic test, does not comment on scores.

The test may be more useful for raising questions about a player than providing answers. "The test gives us something to investigate," said Young, who began his professional career as a high school coach and served as general manager of the Giants in their Super Bowl seasons in the 1980s. He said that most successful quarterbacks have scored at least a 22 since teams began using the test in 1968. Young distinguishes between schooling and intelligence -- he has given oral exams to players who could not read well enough to take the Wonderlic. For many positions, Young said, the essential question is whether the player has sufficient ability to learn and remember plays, and to remain focused on a task.

Young pioneered the use of personality inventories with the Giants, which still use a 460-question Meyers-Briggs inventory to assess the psyches of prospective players. "Who knows how well balanced a player should be?" Young wonders. "Well-balanced individuals don't usually look for jobs where they have to hit other people as hard as they can. This is just
another tool. We try to talk to them and get a feel for who they are and how they grew up."

Young, who says he had room for no more than two "head
cases" on a team when he was coaching, acknowledges that different teams have different standards -- different cultures of adjustment, if you will.

The Vikings are frequently congratulated for taking All-Pro wide receiver Randy Moss in the first round of the 1998 draft despite the his reputation for trouble off the field. "We did well with Randy, but we got burned on Dimitrius Underwood," said Dennis Green, head coach of the Vikings. Underwood, a 6-foot-6, 280-pound defensive end from Michigan State, left Minnesota's training camp the day after signing a $5 million contract,
telling the team he didn't want to play football anymore. He later signed with the Miami Dolphins, was injured and was reported to have attempted to kill himself before briefly checking into a mental health center.

"Now it is starting to look like Dimitrius' problems were the sort that the medical staff should have caught," Green told me in the lobby of his Indianapolis hotel. The Cowboys also believe Underwood has a treatable malady. The team signed him last month.

Casey Crawford, the tight end from Virginia, was interviewed about his body proportions, not his brain: "They asked me, 'What kind of [weight] lifting do you do?'" he said. "Things like: 'I've noticed you have very developed thighs and calves. But your upper body is not as developed as your lower half. Is that because you focus on your lower half and not your upper half when you
lift?' They start nit-picking: Is that a physical thing? Is that how you were born, your genetics? Or is that something they can try to manipulate and change once you get to the NFL?"

The combine is also the place to spot a gifted athlete who might be molded into a football player. Leif Larson, a 300-pound Norwegian judo and boxing champion is one such candidate. Although he played only two years of football at the University of Texas at El Paso, he created a sensation at the combine when he bench-pressed a 225-pound barbell 45 times without stopping -- a record performance. Many highly regarded recruits his size did fewer than 30 repetitions. With Larson's score of 34 on the Wonderlic test, a team may draft him as a special project.

Ron Feemster

Ron Feemster is a New York writer.

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