Combine Brands Its Recruits 'Like Cows'

A.J. Francis
A.J. Francis invests about $1,000 of birthday money and two months of weight lifting and speed workouts into his trip to San Antonio. (Darren Abate - For The Post)
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 11, 2007

SAN ANTONIO -- A.J. Francis, prospect No. 535, walked into the Alamodome flanked by 500 other teenagers. Each wore identical black football shorts, a white T-shirt, Reebok cleats and custom-issued football gloves. A man dressed head-to-toe in camouflage stood on top of a ladder at the stadium entrance and barked instructions through a megaphone. Gold group, go to the locker room! Blue group, form a circle here!

"It feels like we're being herded," Francis said. "Like cows."

Francis, 16, had invested about $1,000 of birthday money and two months of weightlifting and speed workouts into this trip to the U.S. Army National Combine, a sort-of tryout for high school sophomores and juniors hoping to play college football. He had flown from Washington to a strange city, traveling alone for the first time in his life.

For most of the weekend in San Antonio, Francis had waited in long lines to be measured and weighed, to be tested and timed. Now, as he entered the Alamodome for contact drills and scrimmaging, the Gonzaga High junior rubbed his hands together and swayed anxiously from one foot to the other. He looked up at the timer on the Alamodome scoreboard. Two hours to make this trip pay off.

Around him, prospects from 41 states and three continents anticipated the same opportunity: to prove themselves against top competition in front of more than 50 Internet recruiting analysts who would disseminate their accomplishments to college coaches. But standing out had never felt so impossible, prospects said. Their evaluation at the invitation-only combine consisted mainly of a few hours of light-contact drills on crowded fields. For the most part, every player looked like the next -- except for the three-digit number branded on his dry-fit T-shirt.

Because he had so few chances to prove himself here, Francis vowed to treat every activity during his three-day trip as crucial. He walked into the ballroom of his downtown hotel for combine registration early last Thursday morning and twisted the diamond stud in his left ear to achieve, he said, the perfect bling effect for a first impression.

During the next hour, Francis stopped at individual stations where Army volunteers measured his height, weight, wingspan and upward reach. In a chandeliered Marriott ballroom, he stepped onto a scale that read 314.2 pounds -- 10 more than he expected. "That's awesome," Francis said. "For college coaches, it's the bigger the better."

An Army volunteer caught Francis standing on his tiptoes during his upward reach and asked to measure him again. "Can't hate me for trying," Francis said.

Hyperbole on Internet message boards, recruiting Web sites and combine advertisements had convinced Francis that this weekend would largely shape the next six years of his life. He made a mental checklist of weekend goals: prove himself the best defensive end in the country; earn designation as a top 100 recruit; dramatically improve his 40-yard dash time; persuade at least three major universities to offer him full scholarships.

At the last stop of his registration, Francis sat down for a video interview with an Internet recruiting analyst. Why are you here? the recruiter asked. Francis, an experienced actor in school plays, looked confidently into the camera.

"I'm trying to get across that I can hang with anybody," Francis said. "There are people ranked ahead of me who I've flat-out demolished. I know it sounds cocky, but I honestly believe I'm the best lineman in the country. And I want to prove it."

Francis arrived in Texas with a blossoming national reputation. He played on the offensive and defensive lines last fall for Gonzaga, and Francis told college coaches that he felt comfortable playing either position. At 6 feet 4, he carried his weight in gigantic thighs and a sturdy chest. His size 17 shoes forecasted further growth, doctors said. Coaches had told him he already looked like a professional lineman -- except for his silver braces.

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