College football players are amateurs, right? Amateurs are usually broke, right? So how can training former collegiate players for the world's most over-hyped job interview become a burgeoning industry?
When the 2013 NFL Combine "kicks off" next weekend, football junkies nationwide will appease their post-Super Bowl withdrawal by watching prospective rookies engage in drills that bear debatable relevance to incipient professional careers. As with seemingly all things NFL, the Combine has mushroomed into big business and big bucks. In good trickle-down fashion, the dollars made by the NFL have indeed been partially recycled through player salaries into player representatives' agencies and now into systematized, professional NFL Combine training programs.
Holding similarly jaded recession-driven thoughts, I arrived at the Athletes' Performance training facility inside the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles. Deep beneath the stadium where LA Galaxy players thrill Southern California soccer fans is a labyrinth of hallways. No directions needed -- just follow the pounding beat of music echoing off the cinderblocks.
Outside the AP weight room is the first indication that this is a ship-shape outfit. A sign hangs above the door: "Please do not bounce medicine balls above the green line." As far as the eye can see, not a single bounce-mark mars the pristine white paint. This is a place where folks take instructions seriously.
Inside, a row of bench press stations fills the wall. Young men in rather spectacular condition execute reps, gripping bars hung with weights that would crush the average human. True to today's football anatomy, defensive backs, linebackers, receivers and defensive linemen are easily identifiable by height and physique.
On the other side of the room, several very different young men are sweating through the push-up version of "wax on; wax off" with sliders under their palms. Next to their bench-pressing brethren these guys resemble Kobe Bryant standing next to Haloti Ngata. Ah, it must be the quarterbacks. They may lack lineman bulk or linebacker definition, but each one could meet a pass rusher at eye-level: no Russell Wilson's in this room.
There must be two dozen young men between 21 and 23 years old: not an age group known for their mature focus. And yet, aside from the occasional good-natured remark, there is zero clowning or distraction. When not working their rotation on the weights, the NFL prospects look silently and intensely into space, at the floor or at the walls -- clearly concentrating on an inner landscape featuring their personal roadmap to the NFL Draft.
And then there is Coach Brent. If Jon Gruden and John Harbaugh had a son, it would be Brent Callaway (Performance Director -- International for AP). He's even got that "coach walk": balls of the feet, shoulders working, tilting slightly forward to send his caged-cougar energy into the room. He has a complete mastery of the drill-sergeant-meets-your-best-buddy coaching demeanor employed world-wide by grown men charged with training young men as they channel testosterone into performance. What you see in Coach Callaway is the clear-eyed fire of the true believer.
Athletes' Performance has assembled a small army of true believers to deliver a holistic training model designed to surround the athlete with a completely integrated set of services based on their "Four Pillars" approach: Mindset, Movement, Nutrition and Recovery. Sports psychology, mental and physical conditioning, position coaching and injury prevention are all priorities.
So are sessions designed to help very young men enter the world of media hyper-scrutiny where one tweet can cancel endorsements and one ill-advised sound-byte or strip club visit can ruin a lifetime of hard work. The best advice? "You can never go wrong quoting John Wooden." (Lee Gordon, Director of Corporate Communications, 180 Communications)
In one four-day event, a few extra pounds of muscle, tenths of a sprinting second or inches of vertical leap can literally mean the difference between a contract below $60,000 and one measured with six, seven or even eight digits. Only the biggest names and most gifted athletes can afford to skip any advantage available with NFL contracts on the line.
Sports agencies make the considerable investment of sending their prospects to all-inclusive programs that average $2,000 per week. Athletes' Performance works in unofficial partnership with sports agents such as Octagon's Senior Client Director Doug Hendrickson, who are committed to giving their clients the best possible chance at becoming members of the National Football League. Unrepresented college hopefuls "on the bubble" of draftability frequently raise the money to pay for their own training as a means to shoot for their dream.
Athletes' Performance is probably the most well known NFL Combine preparation program in this exploding performance industry. That reputation reflects a client list featuring the biggest young names in the NFL: Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Sam Bradford all trained here. In 2012, 63 draft picks honed their considerable skills at one of AP's four locations (Phoenix, Los Angeles, Texas and Florida). Fourteen of those were first-rounders and included the top three selections (Luck, Griffin and RB Trent Richardson).
Given only a few short weeks, NFL Combine prep programs take on the daunting task of equipping college athletes with enough psychological, physical, social and self-preservation tools to withstand sudden immersion in the biggest business in American sports. That they succeed at all is a marvel.
The extent to which they do succeed is not ultimately due to first-rate equipment or constantly evolving technology or even cutting-edge sports science. The success is based on the commitment of professionals like Trevor Moawad (AP's Vice President of Mindset Programs). Mr. Moawad was formerly Nick Saban's sports psychology consultant for the Crimson Tide. In the week leading up to one of Alabama's three recent national championships he gave each player a pocket-sized mirror. "That's the guy who can make a difference; what he does is the most important thing today."
AP's team includes other professionals like Adam Farrand (NFL Combine and Football Business Development Manager), who believes in the three C's: Choice, Chance, Change. They contract with former NFL players (such as WR Rocket Ismail) to bring first-hand, credible mentorship and position coaching. There are legions of massage and physical therapists, media experts, sports medicine specialists and nutritionists. AP researches every supplement taken by athletes to insure compliance with NFL regulations and clears each one through the National Sanitation Foundation. And they send a team of eight to the NFL Combine, setting up an "on the road" workout facility in Indianapolis so that their athletes have access to the full complement of services throughout this televised and thoroughly dissected hybrid of audition, competition, speed dating and job interview.
Amidst raging debates about the amateur status of college athletes whose football labors fund universities, the too-often unchecked power of college coaches, the prominently corrupt antics of some agents and the all-too-frequent cavalier disregard for player safety at all levels, this "true believerism" is somewhat perplexing to your average skeptic. What is one to think when a profit-based company is rife with authentically sincere employees who genuinely seem to care about their clients?
"We're a part of our clients' success -- an important part." -- Brent Callaway
"We work with agents who have the athletes' best interests in mind." -- Adam Farrand
"Never put anything online that you don't want your mother or a judge to see." -- Lee Gordon
"These young men recognize that this is an important moment and they don't want to waste it." -- Trevor Moawad
"We take a young man and help mold them into their own business. We meet them as a rough 21-year-old and by the time they are 32, they are set for life; they are good for their family, they are good for their community. Sometimes they are the first person in their family to go to college and ten years later their sister of brother has graduated. You know that you were a part of that and it's very rewarding." -- Doug Hendrickson
Can this be that magical, almost mythical phenomenon in which everyone wins? Honestly, what's a cynic to do?
"Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful." -- John Wooden
Thanks to all those who gave their time for interviews and to Peggy Iralson of Athletes' Performance.
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