The night before the first day of combine training, I can't sleep. It's Sunday January 6, and all of the college players are being picked up at the airport and brought to their apartments. By now I know a couple of their names, Frank Okam (far right) defensive tackle from Texas, Caleb Campbell safety from Army, and a few other vague designations, a tight end from Cal, a linebacker from Illinois. Late at night, unable to sleep, I climb out of bed and go downstairs to the computer where I spend over an hour scanning through player rosters and player bios.
I learn that Frank Okam, a 6'5", 340 pound defensive tackle from Texas is interested in pursuing a career in the law. Similarly I see that the only senior tight end on California's roster, 6"5, 258 pound Craig Stevens, is a pre-law major. I feel like I'm doing a google search on a potential date, and I'm ashamed that I'm doing research so I can engage these guys in an artificial conversation that I know will interest them. "Wait, you're interested in being a lawyer? Really? Because, guess what, I'm a lawyer."
When I climb back into bed I lie staring at the ceiling. Lara is eight months pregnant. Our first child is due exactly one month from today. How in the world did I ever get myself into training for the NFL Combine?
Sometime well after midnight, when I can already see light coming to the sky outside our windows, I fall asleep.
When my alarm goes off at 7:30, I feel just like I'm going to a new elementary school for the first day. My stomach is full of butterflies. I'm nervous about who I'm going to meet, what I should wear, whether my recently purchased cleats look too shiny and new. When I arrive at D1, I'm cursing my decision to carry in a bag filled with copies of Dixieland Delight. I'd been told the guys would be more comfortable with me if they could see what I'd written before. This makes me the first person to show up for NFL Combine training with copies of his own book ... I think.
Thirty minutes before our first workout, I'm given the gear that we'll be training in, Under-Armour apparel, shirts, shorts, and underwear with D1 Combine Training logos. I'm also required to sign waivers disclaiming all liability should I meet with death or serious injury. Wil Santi tells me that my locker is all ready for me. Then I'm off to the VIP locker room.
The VIP locker room at D1 is at the far end of the indoor football field. A large one-way window looks out over the field that allows the players to see out but no one else to see in. During training I'd often watched my own reflection in his window as I tried to get my steps or body lean in the correct position. Now I walk to the door and input the code, 4523, on the key pad. The door swings open before me.
A few guys are already lounging on the large gray couch in the center of the room. A 40 inch flat-screen television plays SportsCenter, a refrigerator stands open stocked with multi-colored bottles of Gatorade, and a table overflowing with bananas, oranges, and apples sits in the corner. Two red leather chairs flank the large couch. No one says anything to me.
I push through the lounge area and into the locker room. Several guys are getting dressed and I'm confronted with my first uncertainty -- which locker is mine? Most of the guys already have their nametags on the lockers. My nametag isn't up. There are a few empty lockers, but I'm afraid of taking the wrong one. For what seems like a long time I stand without moving. I want to turn and leave. This is just like being a freshman in high school all over again.
But then I pick a locker and get dressed. Once I'm dressed, wearing a grey UnderArmour shirt and black shorts, I congratulate myself on doing this correctly. Baby steps, I think, baby steps. As I'm exiting the VIP locker room, I still haven't spoken to a single player. J. (short for Jeremey) Leman, the starting middle linebacker for Illinois against USC in the Rose Bowl three days ago, stops me. "You've got your shirt on backward," he says. Leman's correct. I feel like an idiot. "The tag goes in the back," he says by way of further explanation.
Outside we line up together and do warm-up exercises. This is how we'll begin every morning session. Moving from one end of the indoor field to the other, we windmill our arms while walking on the tips of our toes. Once down to the other end of the field we change drills, lifting up our legs and pulling them into our chests. Soon after come high knee jogs and then we karoaoke -- a football drill where you cross your legs in front of and then back of you while moving sideways. Thanks to my training with Santi I've done all of these warm-up drills before, and for a few moments, I adopt the fantasy that I might be fitting in with everyone else.
We get loose like this because Hester doesn't believe in stretching without getting your body moving first. It's called dynamic stretching and has been shown to be much more effective at preventing injury than the outdated method, likely what you did on your high school team, of laying down on the field and stretching before you're warm.
As we get loose Hester walks among us talking constantly. "Some of your trainers might have you guys all sit still and stretch. Well, they're f***ing idiots. They're trying to get y'all injured. That's stupid."
We close out the warm-up by lining up on the back wall and doing leg swings. You stand up against a wall with your hands supporting you and swing one leg at a time forward and backward while facing left or right. Then you face straight ahead and swing your legs sideways across your body. This helps to loosen up your hips. Which is good. Because I've always thought my hips were way too tight.
While we're doing leg swings Texas defensive tackle Frank Okam approaches me, "I'm Frank," he says, "where'd you play man?"
Frank Okam, all 6'5", 340 pounds of him, the man who helped Vince Young and Texas win the 2006 Rose Bowl as a starting defensive tackle on an undefeated Longhorns team, thinks I'm a future NFL star. Okam has a round dark face, and a light beard, the deep and silky voice of a late-night R&B radio host. His thighs are the size of an average man's chest.
I tell him I'm writing a book and he nods. "I heard about you," he says.
"I'm also a lawyer," I say.
"Cool," he says. "I used to think I wanted to be lawyer."
Swing and a miss.
It turns out that all the guys have already heard about me because my training had to be cleared with the agencies representing the players, Priority Agency out of Chicago and Jimmy Sexton's agency, Athletic Resource Management, out of Memphis. Each of their clients is having the costs of their training fronted by the agencies they've signed with. Once the players sign NFL contracts the agents will take the cost of this training out of their signing bonuses. Our training costs the players more than $2,000 a week, but agencies consider it a bargain because the combine performance is so integral to being drafted. It's a comparatively small investment that can pay big dividends.
Kurt Hester takes this opportunity, before our training really gets going, to introduce me.
"This is Clay Travis, y'all, he'll be writing a book."
I step forward and sort of raise my hand to wave to everyone. There are 15 men splayed out along the length of the indoor football field. Most of them I neither know nor recognize. All around me anonymous large men nod in my direction. The moment lasts all of thirty seconds. Then it's time for speed training.
The first drill of NFL Combine training? Putting on a weight belt, pulling a sled that weighs 75 pounds, and running twenty yards.
For a moment I freeze. I'm not even sure that I'll be able to move the sled when I begin to run. Worst of all, we have to be paired up with someone -- a partner. I end up with J. Leman, the long brown-haired middle linebacker from Illinois. J. sprints the distance and then takes off the belt. It's my turn. I strap in, cinch the belt as tightly as possible, and take off. And by take off, I mean trudge ... slowly. I'm pulling as hard as I can, but the weight is barely budging on the field. For a moment, after my first step, I almost plunge to the ground. The twenty yards seems like an eternity, particularly with aspiring NFL players standing and watching me. I feel like I just showed up for little league baseball practice and covered my head with a glove and squealed when the ball went into the air.
But then, out of nowhere, a tall black man, claps his hands together and calls out, "That's it Book Man. You got it Bookman." I don't know this guy's name yet but his words spur me on through the finish line, and in the process convey a nickname that will be with me for the remainder of training. No longer am I Clay, I'm Bookman. For the next two months I'll receive text messages, phone calls, and the like all identifying me as Bookman. But I don't know that at this moment. I just know that I've completed one set and we've got three more.
The tall black man who gave me the nickname comes over and greets me. "That's the way to do it, Bookman," he says, extending his hand for a low-five. We slap palms. My nicknamer is tall, at least 6'5", with large eyes, extremely long arms and legs, is wearing the all black, shirts and shorts, version of the D1 UnderArmour apparel. He has on ankle socks with an NBA emblem, and he's grinning widely at me.
"Marcus," says my nicknamer, introducing himself.
I stick out my hand to introduce myself, "Clay," I say. Marcus waives his hand in front of you. "You the Bookman," he says.
Then once more we're to the sleds. On our fourth set, I learn that Marcus is Arkansas wide receiver Marcus Monk, the same Marcus Monk who caused me to break a beer bottle in anger during the 2006 UT-Arkansas game.
Monk is 6'6" and weighs 220 pounds. In four years at Arkansas he caught 27 touchdown passes, to rank 7th all-time in the SEC. But only three of those touchdowns came in his senior year. During the offseason, after deciding to return for his senior season, Monk injured his knee. He played just six games in 2007, and needs to demonstrate that he's fully recovered from the two knee surgeries he underwent this past season.
As we take a break from running with the sleds, Hester informs us that every morning will be focused on speed work and that every afternoon will be focused on lifting. "What I needs from y'all more than anything is complete and utter effort. I'm not going to kill y'all with reps. You get in bad habits that way because your body gets tired, and you can't put the right force in the ground. But what I need is 100% effort every time. We're training your bodies. Don't slack off."
In between sets with the sleds, the guys have been introducing themselves to each other. I'm beginning to figure out who my training partners are. Geoff Schwartz, a 6'7" 340 pound bearded white offensive tackle with long hair tied up in a green bandana, answers several questions about how much gear the Oregon Duck football team gets. "Y'all get so much stuff," says Mike Oher, a 6'4", 330 pound left tackle from Mississippi, and the subject of the recent bestseller The Blind Side.
The Oregon's football team's affiliation with Nike, and the vast largesse as a result, is well known. From this point on the conversation turns to how much free sports gear each team gives their players. "The secret is you have to be good friends with the equipment managers," says Schwartz. Everyone nods as if Schwartz is a sage oracle. Many of these guys are future millionaires and they're debating which college gives the most free gear.
Our next drill requires us to pair up with partners once again. One partner holds on to a cord while the other partner runs. The idea is that the partner providing the resistance makes your start much faster. All this partner work, I think, is designed to make me feel even more uncomfortable than I already do.
On the last drill, dragging the sled with the weight added to it, I was paired with J. Leman from Illinois. But when he sees that the resistance is to be provided by the partner, he looks at me and says, "I think I'm going to partner up with Stevens (Craig, tight end from University of California-Berkeley) on this one."
"Good choice," I say.
Then I stand around awkwardly while everyone else pairs up. I'm the odd man out. "You're with me," says Hester gesturing in my direction. When I take off with Hester behind me, he jerks so hard on the cord that I almost tumble backwards. It's tough, very tough. But after the partner work Hester has us run one free (without any pulling or partner work) start and already I feel faster. Of course I'm not any faster, but it's important that I feel that way.
During the break after the resistance training, I talk with Michael Oher. Oher is a junior offensive tackle from Ole Miss who is considering making himself eligible for the NFL Draft. He has until January 16 (ten days from now) to make his decision. His eyes are small and pinched inside a large oval face, his cheeks large and round, as if he's storing food inside his mouth. Oher has thick legs, no waist to speak of, and shoulders that are as wide as his hips. His overall appearance, thick from shoulders to feet, is that of a walking tree trunk.
Oher has a strong southern accent, and he drawls everything he says. He's wearing old school 1989 Air Jordan classics, a white pair that I remember having back in fourth or fifth grade, when all of life seemed to ride upon which kind of tennis shoes you had. "They're my favorites," Oher drawls.
After a short break Kurt Hester reclaims our attention. We all stand in a line on the field and watch as he instructs us. As he talks Hester is constantly moving, arms swinging, leg muscles poised as if at any moment he might have to hop over a charging alligator. "Alright," he says, "let's work on our forty stances." There's a dull murmur among the guys. Talking about the forty with would-be NFL players is like talking about the bar exam with would-be lawyers. All talk ceases, attention focuses on Hester.
"Y'all all line up," Hester says.
He instructs us to place our right foot back farthest and then inch our left foot up until it's about midway-even with our right foot. Then we're to reach out our right hand, place it on the turf, and incline our weight forward. We all attempt to line up at the end of the artificial turf, 15 right hands poised near white lines. Hester walks along in front of us adjusting our stances. "Y'all should fall forward if you pick up your right hand. That's how much I want y'all leaned forward. Cock that left hand back behind you."
He has us stand and then reset ourselves. "Alright now," he says, "look where your right hands are."
We all look down. Many of us have placed our right hands behind the white line in front of us. "I want every single one of you motherf***ers to put your hands on that white line."
We all do.
Hester bounces approvingly down the line. "My goal is to let you cheat as much as they'll let you cheat to get your time down. Sometimes those combine guys will let you get away with it (creeping your right hand forward) as the day goes on. If they will, you've got to do it. You've got to put your hand up as far forward as you can. Because when you get lined up that's a few less inches you have to cover."
From these positions we sprint ten yards while holding our breaths. "I want your f***ing eyes on the ground and don't raise up those heads at all. Don't worry about breathing, you'll breathe at the 15. I'm training you guys to do this entire drill in just one breath." We each do a full-speed start, and Hester has something to add after every few starts. "Stay low, if you fall over trying to stay low out of your start, that's fine."
Wake Forest center Steve Justice obliges, tumbling forward and rolling across the field. "That's the way to stay low, Justice!" screams Hester.
For the first time, I watch the other guys starting for the forty. Up close, the speed and explosiveness is shocking. Jaw dropping. I can't see myself start, but I can tell how much slower I am off the line than these guys are. Standing beside someone like Marcus Monk, you can almost feel the air crackle when they spring off the start. These are not just big men, these are fast men. Referencing the size and speed of NFL players is a cliché now, but that doesn't make it any less awe-inspiring to see up close.
We do four starts, and when we're finished Hester pulls us together and says, "If y'all give me one inch every five yards I can take .1 off your forty time. That's the difference, and that's big money. We can get that inch."
Hester dismisses us to lunch, but then changes his mind as we're about to separate. Instead he has us do abs and then stretch. While we're doing a set of 100 crunches, Hester struts above us, a constant soundtrack to our exertions. His voice is full of inflection, scratchy, it has to carry over the rap music that blares out over the football field. His speech patterns are staccato, like the bursts from a machine gun, raw and unrestrained. Hester can begin speaking without being angry and then work himself into a fit of rage. Like this rant as we knock out abdominal exercises: "This ain't about the schools anymore. This is about getting that paper. This is your money. Get those damn water jugs up here. I'm counting now 7, 8, where are the rest of the jugs?" The transition to water jugs is completely unexpected. Hester has been insistent on the need to hydrate as we work out. Now he hammers us for not having enough of them. "Y'all bastards gotta listen to me." Then just as quickly this lecture passes and he returns to his prior message: "This is about money guys. All y'all are going to get paid now. More money for football than you've ever gotten before." He pauses and walks over near Frank Okam, "Except for you guys went to Texas. Y'all going to make less."
We hit the showers then. While we take turns using the two showers, J. Leman fills up the tub with ice and begins to soak himself. Several of the guys are talking about how sore they're going to be the next day. Geoff Schwartz, tackle from Oregon looks at me and says, "You're not going to be able to walk tomorrow, Bookman." Schwartz is wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan "Every fat boy's dream." This was the rallying cry of the Oregon offensive line in 2006. I've just passed out copies of my book and Schwartz is interested in the girls of the SEC. I ask him about the girls of the Pac-10.
Fifteen minutes later, after Schwartz, the self-proclaimed largest Jew on earth, has run through a solid analysis of each campus while waving his hands and gesticulating wildly, he comes to this finale, "I'd have to say Arizona or Arizona State is the best. Those girls just lay out all year long in their bikinis and then get up and walk into class. They wear bikinis to class! They have a main street at ASU where there are signs that say no suntanning because there were so many accidents."
Frank Okam sinks down onto the couch in the locker room. "Bookman, huh?" he says.
"You got a nickname?" I ask.
"I don't really like it, but they gave me one at Texas. Some people."
"What is it?" I ask.
Okam shrugs, "They call me, 'The Nightmare,' he says.
Lunch is quiet. Most of the players don't know each other, and quietly pick at their salads. Hester points out everything on the menu at Jonathan's Grille, next door to the D1 training facility, that is healthy. None of the players, for instance, are allowed to order sodas. During lunch, I talk with Hester about NFL Combine training. Hester can't sit still as he answers, he lifts his water, sits it back down on the table, grabs a knife, twirls it from one hand to another.
"We just gotta get better every day," he says, "every damn day."
Improvement is an obsession of Hester's. Making guys faster and stronger than they were, and just as importantly making guys faster and stronger than the scouts expect them to be. "The key about training these guys is how much you improve them. Lots of places say they made a guy run a 4.3. But the key is what was that guy running when he got to you? If he was already a 4.3 guy, then you haven't really done much for him. Same thing with the rounds that people get drafted in. Anyone could take a top 10 guy and keep him a top 10 guy. It's taking people from nowhere and making them a lot of money. A guy like Brandon Stokley (a fourth round pick of the Baltimore Ravens out of La.Lafeyette) who wasn't even on the radar. Ryan Moats (a third round pick by the Philadelphia Eagles out of Louisiana Tech) who comes out of nowhere and runs a 4.3 after training with me. Those are difference-makers, taking guys who aren't supposed to be drafted in certain rounds and shooting them up. Lots of these guys take fast guys and run them the times they were running when they started. Well, big f***ing deal."
Raised in the Cajun back country, Hester is an adrenaline junkie who enjoys hunting wild hogs and alligators. In particular he likes to kill animals when they have a chance to kill him as well. Now, our conversation shifts from training for the NFL Combine to hunting. "Do you kill the hogs with guns?"
Kurt Hester looks at me sideways, shakes his head vigorously, as if I've just offered him a peppermint martini. "Naw, I don't kill hogs with guns. That ain't hunting. Guys go out in the woods and sit around all day and then shoot something from 400 yards away. S**t. We use dogs to corner the hogs, and then wait until the right moment and run up beside the hog and stab it in the throat with a knife. You've got to watch the tusks or they'll kill you. I like it because it's dangerous."
Similarly, Hester goes alligator hunting in the swamps with a knife, a small boat, and some rope. "I see an alligator and I just jump out of the boat on top of him and hold him down. Wrap that son of a b***h up. Because, you see, alligators can't really get you once you've clamped down their jaws. Well, they can get you with their tails, but that's why you lay on top of them."
Occasionally, to get a high school team fired up when they're training in his Louisiana gym, Hester releases wild alligators he's caught in the swamps in the weight room. He's put camouflage tape around the alligator's mouth, but the kids don't know this and go wild thinking the thrashing gator is about to attack them. After he's gotten them fired up, Hester sprints across the weight room, pulls out a knife, and stabs the gator in the head with a large hunting knife. He did this before a Louisiana high school football game recently, his team was playing a team nicknamed the Gators, and the team he trains won by four touchdowns. When I tell Eastern Michigan defensive end Jason Jones this story in the locker room a few minutes later, Jones nods, "That's a good idea," he says.
After lunch Oher and I talk about the Michael Lewis book, The Blind Side, that was a New York Times bestseller and made Oher a star. The book chronicled the rise of Oher from obscurity in the inner city of Memphis, his adoption by a wealthy white family in suburban Memphis, his struggle to become academically eligible, and Oher's rise to become one of the top left tackles in the nation. In the process of telling Oher's story, Lewis examined the surging importance of the left tackle position in football; the left tackle protects the quarterback's blind side on pass plays.
As we're talking a bit about the book Arkansas wide receiver Marcus Monk comes up to us. "They wrote a book about you?" Monk asks.
"Not about me," says Oher, "I was just in it. I was the example."
"It was about him," I say to Monk.
"They're making a movie now," Oher says.
"Who's playing you?" Monk asks.
"Do you get to choose?" I pile on.
"Naw," drawls Oher.
"How about Denzel in a fat suit?" I ask.
Oher laughs. "I don't think he can handle the role," he says.
"Is the book good?" Monk asks.
"Ask him," I say, "I haven't read it."
Monk turns to Oher. "How about it Big Mike?"
Oher is silent for a moment, and then he grins. "Naw, man, I haven't read it yet either. I heard it was pretty good. Someday I'll read it."
During the lifting session that afternoon, talk focuses on the post-season bowl games that the guys have an opportunity to play in to raise their stock. The games give scouts an opportunity to see how the players do lining up against other top draft picks, and there's a definite pecking order. The most sought after invite is to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. Here the top four players at each position (as voted by NFL scouts) come to compete. If a player isn't invited to the Senior Bowl, then the East/West Game is the next best, followed by the Hula Bowl and a new addition to this year's gathering, Texas vs. the Nation. We have guys participating in every game but the Hula Bowl. Each of these games features a week's worth of practice culminating in a game. But the games themselves are relatively unimportant. It's the practices leading up to the games, when the scouts arrive to assess the player talents.
"Most of the scouts leave before the actual game even gets played," says Schwartz.
The players' strength is, if anything, more overwhelming than their speed. Initially there was an idea that I'd do every single rep in the weight room that these guys did. But that was before their warm-up sets featured more weight on the bench than I could do on my final set. Kurt Hester pulls me aside, "We'll set up a Bookman training regimen, too," he says, gently consoling me.
Hester passes out a white notebook with all the workouts for the entire session already mapped out. The NFL Combine is unique in that there is only one test of measurable strength, how many repetitions can you do of 225 pounds? This test is, in Hester's mind, one of the least important of the combine. "It's pass/fail," he says, "you can do 20 reps, you pass. Anything less and you don't pass; guys (scouts and teams) worry about you because they don't know if you've put in the time in the weight room."
Hester's goal is to add one 225 repetition for each week that the guys train with him. "If we can get a guy from 13 to 21, that's huge. That's what we need." But training for the combine bench press test requires a unique set of practice. "They don't test for how much you can bench," says Hester, "they test you for how many times you can do a certain weight, 225. Well, that's weird. Because the only way to get stronger is to do more weight, but you also have to train your body for the endurance of doing that many reps. So it's somewhere in between. You can't just do one thing."
Hester has found that the best way to increase performance in the bench is to do bench press on two days of each week, Monday and Friday. On Monday we'll be doing as many reps as possible, starting the first week at 225, the next week going to 235, and the week after that going to 245. Then repeating the cycle beginning with 225 again and working our way back up. Every Friday will be a maximum bench day, where players try to bench as much weight as they possibly can. The goal is to be cycled onto peak bench performance by the time the combine day arrives.
Having said all that, Hester also recognizes that tremendous strength is undervalued by NFL scouts. "If you run the numbers, the guys who are the strongest at the combine every year don't get drafted. They just don't. Because most NFL teams aren't focused on strength. The fastest guys get drafted every year, but the strongest, they're free agents at best. It's speed the NFL's after."
The most brutal lift of the first day doesn't, however, feature large amounts of weight. Instead, the players each have 45 pound weights on each side of the bar, place it on their shoulders, and do squat lunges for twenty yards. Four sets. I do this alongside them with only 10 pounds on the bar. Just enough weight to kill me. As I lean forward and almost touch my knee to the turf, my legs wobble. I can feel the muscles in my butt (yes, there are some) stretching in a way they've never stretched before as I cover the 20 yards. It's miserable, excruciating. Alongside me the other guys are cursing as they go. It's the final exercise of the afternoon lift and we're done.
Back in the VIP locker room after the lifting session, Caleb Campbell, a white safety from Army with close-cropped brown hair, sits filling out his 2008 NFL Combine questionnaire. He passes it to me to look at. "Read it, I don't care." Along with many questions about his family, his career, his hopes and dreams and other clichéd information that the NFL will then share with the world, the questionnaire asks for Campbell's biggest regret. "Never having beaten Navy," Campbell scrawls. As he fills out his paperwork, Campbell a 6'2", 225 pound safety drops a bombshell on me, "Bookman," he says, "these guys are worried about how much money they're going to get. If I don't get drafted, I get sent to Iraq."
One of FanHouse's newest additions, Clay Travis is the author of Dixieland Delight and the forthcoming On Rocky Top: A Front-Row Seat to the End of an Era. For several years he wrote the ClayNation column for CBS Sportsline, worked as an editor for Deadspin.com, and practiced law, where his love for the billable hour rivaled only his love for the WNBA. He's convinced that his 40 time is much better than yours.