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Published: Sunday, March 23, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

NFL regional combine draws players dreaming of playing pro football

  • Central Washington defensive back Chris Hemphill tries to keep from falling backward after completing a broad jump while combine staff member Jordan J...

    Stephen Brashear / Associated Press

    Central Washington defensive back Chris Hemphill tries to keep from falling backward after completing a broad jump while combine staff member Jordan Johnson (left) takes a measurement during Saturday's drills at an NFL regional combine held at the Seattle Seahawks' facilities in Renton.

  • Trinity Valley Community College defensive lineman Jeremiah Thomas participates in position drills during Saturday’s drills at an NFL regional combine...

    Stephen Brashear / Associated Press

    Trinity Valley Community College defensive lineman Jeremiah Thomas participates in position drills during Saturday’s drills at an NFL regional combine held at the Seattle Seahawks’ facilities in Renton.

RENTON — Plenty of these guys don't pass the eye test, and many more look anything but NFL ready once it comes time to run, jump or do pretty much anything else required of an NFL hopeful.
Really, they must be crazy for thinking they've got a shot, right?
Yet amongst the dreamers, the long-shots and, yes, the no-shots, there just might be an NFL player or two. The top prospects each year work out at their college pro days, or at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. Yet good players still sometimes slip through the cracks, which is why the NFL holds these regional combines around the country, including the one at the Seattle Seahawks headquarters this weekend. Well tha,t and because each of the more than 200 participants pay $250 to be there.
But while it's easy to be cynical and call these regional combines another cash grab for a league that excels in raking in money, there are some compelling stories, and on occasion, even some NFL-caliber talent unearthed at these things.
According to the NFL, there were 76 players on active rosters as of Feb. 8 who were regional combine participants, including the Seahawks' Benson Mayowa, B.J. Daniels and Caylin Hauptmann. Mayowa, for example, got the attention of Seahawks scouts at this event last year, earned an invitation to Seattle's rookie minicamp as a tryout player and performed well enough to earn a contract and eventually a spot on Seattle's 53-man roster for the entire season.
"We're just guys still trying to make the dream happen, so it's been a good experience," University of Washington cornerback Tre Watson said.
Watson went to Washington as a walk-on, eventually earned a scholarship and finished his senior year starting the final three games of the season. If a regional combine full of players fighting an uphill battle isn't the perfect setting for the winner of the Don James Perseverance Award, then what is?
"It's an interview for the rest of your life," Watson said.
The goal for Watson and everyone else on hand this weekend — kickers and punters work out today — is to stand out enough to get an invitation to the super regional combine in Detroit later this spring. At that event, every team will be represented by scouts, giving these dreamers their best shot yet at earning, if not a contract, at least a chance to try out at a minicamp.
And while most regional combine players are long-shots because they are too small, not quite fast enough, or let's face it, just not good enough, one NFL hopeful on hand was battling father time more than a lack of ability or size, and has no chance of being drafted in May because he's already been drafted and played in the NFL.
Mingling amongst players born in the 1990s Saturday was Alex Bannister, who turns 35 next month. And if that name rings a bell, it's because we're talking about the same Alex Bannister who was a Seahawk from 2001-2005, and who earned Pro Bowl honors as a special teamer in 2003, and who — sorry for bringing this up — was the intended receiver on the fateful play of the "we want the ball and we're gonna score" playoff loss in Green Bay.
Bannister hasn't competed in the NFL since 2006 when he played in Baltimore. But even if you think don't think much of the idea of a 35-year-old making a comeback after seven seasons out of the league, Bannister is dead serious about this.
"I felt young," Bannister said of his workout. "I still feel young mentally. I don't feel like I'm creaking and hobbling around. I feel young, I feel like I can do it, it's just a matter of getting a shot. ... I'm in good shape. I wouldn't be out here if I didn't think I could do it."
The 6-foot-5 receiver runs fitness boot camps with his wife in Bellingham, and said he's 20 pounds heavier than the 207 pounds he played at before. Bannister concedes the added weight has taken away a little bit of his speed, but he absolutely believes he can still play.
"I've been in good shape, and it's hard for me to watch TV and hear commentators say, 'Everybody is looking for that guy who's 6-5, 220, 230 pounds,'" Bannister said. "I've put on 20 pounds of muscle since I left the league. I'm in good shape, I can still run, can still play, and I like to prove people wrong who say I can't play because I'm older.
"I can still play. It's a matter of getting the opportunity."
For players like Bannister and Watson and everyone else on the field Saturday, this weekend's regional combine was the first step towards getting that opportunity. For most, it was also the last step. But if a player like Mayowa can go from being a tryout player whose name Pete Carroll didn't know — Carroll referred to Mayowa as "that kid from Idaho" following his minicamp tryout — to being on a Super Bowl champion roster for an entire season, then maybe these dreamers aren't so crazy after all.
Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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