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A Humbling Experience


A sign of things to come, this was about 225 pounds too much for me.

Exactly whose idea was this anyway?

That was just one of my thoughts last week as I stood at the Packers' equipment counter and hovered pen over injury waiver. I'd agreed to this pursuit months ago at the suggestion of a member of the public relations department who figured that it might make an entertaining, if not enlightening story if the 'Internet Guy' was put through the gauntlet of a Packers tryout.

Sure, I'd go for it, I'd said. I mean, what was there to do? Get timed in the 40-yard dash, maybe run a few pass routes? How bad could that be? Break a little sweat, write a little story . . . no problem.

I'd be a target for a lot of jokes, I knew that, but why not? I mean, if nothing else it would give my friends back home something new to laugh about. Stories of my athletic ineptitude in high school have to get old sometime, right?

Or at least that's what I was thinking then. But as I contemplated signing away my injury rights, this wasn't sounding so benign.

Heck, I could really get hurt at this. Just ask ESPN's Stuart Scott, who took a football to the head that nearly left him blind while working out with the New York Jets in April. And that guy played semi-pro ball!

Me, I'd always considered myself as some sort of an athlete, but never to that degree. In college, I suited up for my fair share of intramural teams with decent success, but the truth is that I haven't really been in any kind of athletic condition since I was a three-sport letterman in high school, more than seven years ago.

Football wasn't among those pursuits, and if you excuse those intramural teams, I haven't played an organized version of the sport since the fifth grade. As a matter of fact, the last time I'd even touched the pigskin was Thanksgiving Day 2000, when me and my equally-out-of-shape high school buddies carved up another ragtag group from the Class of '95 in a friendly game of tackle football on a 70-yard section of parkland that had us winded in less than 10 minutes.

So, indeed, what was I thinking? Why had this sounded like such a good idea? And what exactly is an ACL anyway, and how badly do I need one? Or two?

With those questions still unanswered I scribbled my name on the document and was led across the Packers' state of the art, football-shaped locker room to its adjoining auxiliary locker area where I was to don my workout gear.

As if the experience ahead of me wasn't going to be humbling enough, I was issued a white sleeveless shirt and a pair of gold shorts in sizes extra large, making my already bony frame -- which has '172-pound Weakling' written all over it -- appear all the more scrawny.

This wasn't just my imagination. About a dozen times this training camp I've had autograph requests from youngsters hoping that I might be a person of significance because I wear official team apparel. But this time when I walked through the gate of the player parking lot decked out in Packers practice gear, the handful of autograph seekers sitting curbside didn't even flinch.

We had yet to enter the Don Hutson Center before Packers assistant director of pro personnel Sean Howard and pro personnel assistant Marc Lillibridge began debating how many tests I'd survive before pulling a muscle, or worse (Why not mention that before I signed the waiver?).

The over-under was set at the broad jump, the third test of the day. As I went through about 10 minutes of warm-up strides, I was fairly confident that I could make it that far. Of course such self-assurance was a little premature considering that I'd failed to ask what the first test would be.

"You warm?" Howard asked me.

"I'm ready," I agreed. Actually, I was probably closer to finished than ready, but it was now or never. When Lillibridge beckoned me over to test my strength in the bench press, never was sounding like a very attractive option.

"We'll let you warm up with this," Lillibridge said. In front of him was a 45-pound bar adorned with a pair of 45-pound plates, meaning that the 'warm-up' weight was 90 pounds shy of the standard 225 pounds most recruits are asked to press as many times as they are able at a tryout or scouting combine.

It was also about 90 pounds heavier than I wanted anything to do with, and figuring that I was just as likely to drop 135 pounds across my throat as 225, I passed on any warm-up reps and moved straight to the test. I've heard stories about little old ladies lifting cars to save trapped children and figured that if I had one magical pool of strength lurking in my baby pythons, it was only going to be summoned once.

My spotter helped me lift the bar from the frame, and for a moment I rather confidently held 225 pounds in the air. I even modestly controlled the bar as it descended rather slowly toward my chest. And I'd like to think that, for a slight moment, the bar was headed upward again under my own power.

But fantasies of a miracle moment were quickly dashed when the 225-pound bar began to feel as heavy as, well, 225 pounds. Thus, the rest of my solitary rep was completed with about 99 percent assistance from my spotter.

Now, maybe most guys would want to hide under the nearest tackling dummy after such a pathetic display, but for someone like me, whose idea of 'heavy lifting' consists of throwing my laptop into the overhead bin on the team plane, the fact that I could still feel air moving through my windpipe made it 'Plays Of The Week' material.

There was no time for celebration however, because I was quickly ushered to another corner of the Hutson Center to have my vertical leap tested.

If you've ever witnessed this procedure you know that the subject stands beneath a series of vertically stacked plastic tags, which extend outwardly from a pole. After the pole is adjusted per the subject's standing reach, the subject leaps upward from a flat-footed position (no half-step or shuffling of the feet) and swats as many of the tags as possible. The number of tags displaced provides the measurement of the subject's vertical leap.

Of course, for this test to be effective the subject has to be able to displace at least one tag. And although I've dunked a basketball exactly 1.5 times in my lifetime, gone are the days that from a flat-footed position I could sky upward and wrap my fingers around the rim. In this case, gone also was the springy wood floor of a basketball gym, which was always good for another inch at least.

Whereas I'd approached this exam with visions of swatting a handful of tags with Shaq-like force, looking upward, I was starting to think that tipping just one tag would be an accomplishment. And so I leapt, swung my arm and made contact, actually displacing a few tags.

Officially, my jump was measured at 25 inches, which might not have anyone hiring me to defend Randy Moss in red zone situations, but validates my ability to be helpful around the neighborhood, should a child's wayward Frisbee become lodged in a small tree.

My legs fresh and my heart warmed by my new purpose in the community, we moved to the broad jump. As with the previous test, the broad jump exam commands that the leap be made from a standing position, merely jumping outward this time instead of upward. The length of the jump is measured from the toe on the takeoff to the back of the heal on the landing.

As I toed the line for my attempt, Howard crouched down with a ruler 70 inches ahead of me to give me something to shoot for. Considering how unimpressive I'd been through two events, I was hoping that I could at least get my toes that far. Instead, and much to my surprise, I launched my body well beyond Howard's conservative mark, registering a froglike leap of 79.5 inches.

Even more impressive, I'd completed my third test with all of my muscles and joints intact, defying the earlier predictions. Howard and Lillibridge were even attempting to be complimentary of my performance, however their ever-enthusiastic 'not bad' remarks lost a little luster when I had to strain to hear them over the laughter of a pair of graduate assistants.

Regardless, with the 20-yard shuttle run and the 40-yard dash up next, I felt ready to rally. See, I've never had strength, and I've never had hops, but I at least once had speed. Not much, but a little.

On the other hand, as I crouched into my three-point stance for the start of my shuttle run, I instantly remembered how earlier this summer I'd learned of my 12-year-old brother's district-winning time in the 400-meter dash and added 'Challenge little brother to foot race' to my list of 'Things Never To Do Again.'

The clock starts in the shuttle run in unison with the runner's first movement in either direction. The runner opens with a five-yard charge one way, before touching the line and heading 10-yards back in the other direction, touching that line and heading back five yards to cross the original starting point.

The key, they tell me, is to stay low, especially on the initial five-yard burst. What the drill tests is not so much raw speed, but the quickness with which one can change direction.

On my run, I found that my problem wasn't so much staying low out of the gate, it was getting my legs back under me to sprint in the opposite direction. One GA assessed it best, saying after my trial, "Yeah, you've got to stay low, but you've also got to run!"

My quickness leaving something to be desired, I clocked in at 4.59 seconds, a time I would have been thrilled to get in the following event: the infamous 40-yard dash.

The 40 is easily the most-discussed of NFL exams. On Draft Day, a player's 40-time is mentioned as often as is his height or weight, if not more. While you can never know for sure if a rookie has the toughness or skill to play at the NFL level, a solid 40-time at least presents the illusion that a player can handle the speed.

Much like the shuttle run, it's all about the start. No one cares how fast a guy is going 20-yards into his sprint, because by that time, the play is over. Thus, saying a receiver has 4.4 speed, is like talking about a car that can go from zero-to-60 in 3.1 seconds.

The 40 was the only test that didn't give me nightmares about rupturing a tendon, but it did have my attention. As I approached the starting line, I thought about trying to stay low and explode off the line like Maurice Greene. I thought about flying down the runway with a rapid turnover of my feet.

I thought, what pressure!

Not for me, of course. So long as I left my workout limber enough to chase down offensive line coach Larry Beightol for post-practice quotes, my career wasn't going to be affected by this fictional tryout.

But for some, a lifetime's worth of hopes and dreams can be dashed in a single 40. A position on an NFL roster ultimately has to be won on the field, sure, but a poor workout can keep a player from ever being fitted for pads.

For example, if you want to be a receiver in the NFL, you'd better run at least a 4.55, unless you've got Jerry Rice-like skills, then you might get away with a 4.6. Any slower than that, you're probably no closer to an NFL career than I am.

As for my 40, I tried to stay low, I tried to fly, but when it took until the 30-yard mark before I was moving swiftly enough to hear the wind whispering past my ears, I knew my time wouldn't be pretty.

As it turned out, my effort was good enough to have defeated Packers wide receivers Donald Driver, Terry Glenn and Javon Walker . . . provided any one of them was carrying the other two on his back. Even then, it would have been close.

In all actuality, my lead-footed 5.23-speed might be good enough to edge 339-pound nose tackle Gilbert Brown these days, as he approaches his ninth NFL season, but it wouldn't have stayed with him in 1993, when at 330 pounds he ran a 5.1 coming out of college.

I'm not sure exactly how fast I expected I'd run my 40, but like any average American male who is delusional about his athletic prowess, 5.23 seemed a little slow.

In fairness to myself, some of this stuff is technique. Lillibridge said I could have easily dropped below 5.1 if my starts weren't so dawdling. And certainly I would have worked myself into better shape and practiced my starts a time or two if anything had really been riding on the tryout.

But in fairness to every NFL player -- every Arena League player for that matter -- sometimes it's easy to forget just how extraordinary these professional athletes are. Consider that a wide receiver can't get away with running the 40 any slower than 4.6, a cornerback no slower than 4.5. Power defensive ends, they go 5.0, offensive tackles, 5.2.

These guys are incredible. On a daily basis they warm up with agility drills that would break the normal man. I know this firsthand, because after my measurables were determined, Lillibridge put me through a series of simple linebacker drills that made me feel guilty for every time I'd yawned while watching the first 20 minutes of a Packers practice.

'Sprint around this bag, backpedal around that one.' 'Shuffle here, shuffle there.' 'Sprint down that line and when I say 'ball' turn around and catch the football at its apex.'

Say what? Like most couch potatoes, my muscles no longer multitask -- these days it's one direction, or none.

Even the most average NFL players are strong, fast, agile, unbelievable. After my tiny glimpse into their world, it's clear I'm not any of those things.

Thanks to those linebacker agility drills, the one thing I am is sore. Still.

Exactly whose idea was this anyway?

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