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Millions of dollars can be made or lost during the NFL draft, so players prepare for four days of testing with an on- and off-the-field crash course.
By ERNEST HOOPER and ROGER MILLS
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2001
BRADENTON -- It almost seems unfair.
In four years, Michigan running back Anthony Thomas amassed 4,288 yards and 53 touchdowns, but the four-day grind he is enduring now may have more of an impact on his NFL future than anything he accomplished during his 1,400-plus days as a Wolverine.
The current NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis is as much of a proving ground as any college stadium on a Saturday afternoon.
"That's the way it's been going for a long time, not just for me and not just this year," Thomas said. "There's a lot of things that depend on Indianapolis."
Players such as Thomas no longer are subjecting themselves to the rigors of the combine without preparation. One of several draft hopefuls represented by International Marketing Group, Thomas and several other prospects have spent the past six weeks at the IMG Academies enduring grueling workouts.
The 12-hour days are comprehensive, with workouts aimed at speed work and weight training, as well as position-specific training with former NFL assistant coaches. IMG client and world champion sprinter Michael Johnson spent a few days working with the group, which included Florida State's Chris Weinke, Tay Cody and Tommy Polley, Florida's Kenyatta Walker, Texas Christian's LaDainian Tomlinson and UCLA's Freddie Mitchell.
"I said (to Michael Johnson), "Can you make a guy faster?"' IMG agent Tom Condon said. "He said, "I can make a guy faster in a day.' I said, "Can you stay three days?' "
Although physical workouts comprise a fair share of each workout day for the players, there also are sessions to help players prepare for the psychological examinations and interviews teams give the players during the combine. Weinke believes the approach is a necessity.
"It's not a fun thing to go to. It's a grueling three days," Weinke said. "You don't get much sleep. You're constantly doing something. But that also gives the teams an idea of what you're able to handle, not only physically, but mentally. It's not fun, by no means, but most of the guys realize it's the most important three days."
IMG is not alone. A number of agents have their clients preparing for the rigors of the combine. Bucs Shaun King and Derrick Brooks solicited the help of speed guru Tom Shaw when they came out. The added preparation and the growing number of elite players who choose not to go through the combine's physical workouts are altering the evaluation process. Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick reportedly will not work out at the combine and Condon said Weinke may opt out of the physical workouts because of a nagging ankle injury.
In recent years, players have become more likely to showcase their abilities in personal, on-campus workouts.
Some league officials are less than enthused about the changes. Colts general manager Bill Polian said he can tell when an agent has prepared a client for the interview process.
"You get the same answers from guys who have the same agent," Polian said. "What it does is invalidate the interview."
But Packers general manager Ron Wolf said he understands why players are preparing.
"Everyone says it's a meat market. I say that's baloney," said Wolf, who will retire June 1. "I look at it as a job interview, and this is one heck of a job interview. I don't know who wouldn't prepare for it."
Walker, whose combine experience will be the subject of ESPN's Outside The Lines on Sunday morning, said he understands all the prodding, probing, X-rays, exams and 40-yard dashes he'll have to endure.
"It's one of those processes you have to go through to get drafted," Walker said. "Look, ain't nobody just going to hand you $1-million. So, I look at it like I only have to go through it one time, and let's hurry up and get it over with."
-- Information from Times wires was used in this report.