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.
In the last six months, Francis had received scholarship offers from Maryland, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest. Two dozen other major programs sent him mail almost every week, but Francis often wondered out loud why his favorite college football juggernauts -- Notre Dame, Ohio State, Florida State -- had yet to make him an offer. When he received the invitation to the national combine, Francis sat down with his father, Mike, and decided a good trip to San Antonio could make him a premier national prospect.
"Paying $1,000 for a trip with a chance to get a $100,000 scholarship? That's a no-brainer to me," Mike Francis said. "You have to make an investment. If you think a scholarship offer is just going to fall out of the sky because your kid can play, you've lost it. You have to go out and get it."
Francis had worked to become a good football player: He commutes by train to Gonzaga from his house in Severn -- a 70-minute trip -- to play for an elite high school team. He has analyzed video and remodeled his pass-rushing technique. He quit the basketball team to narrow his focus.
But he could never figure out how to become a superb athlete, and that worried him in San Antonio. Francis moved slowly, which resulted in his school nickname: Fat Man. Despite lifting weights four times each week, Francis's bench press remained average for a player his size.
"The problem is, I'm not a combine-type person," Francis said as he waited in line at registration. "I'm not the fastest. I'm not the strongest. I don't have the longest arms or the best jump. With all that, I'm just average. But everybody's obsessed with that stuff."
Combine director Zach Morolda created this San Antonio event in the image of the NFL Combine, a massive evaluation of professional prospects that occurs each April. Morolda believed that the same trend in evaluating NFL prospects could take hold in high school football: Value would be measured less by football ability than by athletic potential.
"If you see how fast a player runs and how much he lifts, those numbers tell you how good he can be," Morolda said. "It's like a prediction."
In 2003, the U.S. Army National Combine attracted only 150 players. Morolda took over as director, surveyed trends in recruiting and discovered more than 40 major regional combines each spring and summer. "We wanted to create the only true national combine," Morolda said. "We can put the best player from the East against the best from the West. Nobody else does that."
College coaches cannot attend combines under NCAA rules passed last year. Still, 15 players from the Washington area, nine from Hawaii and one from New Zealand traveled to San Antonio. Morolda invited about 1,000 elite players, a list compiled by recruiting analyst Tom Lemming and the staff at Scout.com. Morolda and the company he works for, SportsLink, charged $125 per entry and promised to send combine results to college teams. More than 50 recruiting analysts received press credentials to evaluate players.
Francis sometimes wondered how his actual football skills would be evaluated. Players never wore pads or helmets in San Antonio. Francis's weekend itinerary included a full day for registration, an evening strength competition and two leadership conferences. During an educational seminar Friday morning, Francis raised his hand and asked permission to go to the bathroom. He never came back.
At 6 a.m. on Saturday morning, Francis rolled out of his hotel bed and stretched in preparation for the centerpiece of his weekend. He left the hotel 30 minutes later on a bus bound for a high school in suburban San Antonio. Francis stepped to the 45-yard line of the high school stadium and tried hard not to think about the men with stopwatches who waited for him.
The 40-yard dash. He hated it.
Francis's previous best time in the 40-yard dash -- 5.5 seconds in May -- embarrassed him and scared away recruiters. In a panic to improve quickly, Francis had spent two afternoons each week on the Gonzaga track after football season ended. He learned to lift his head to start faster. He spent a week at a Maryland speed camp, where a coach watched Francis run and told him, apologetically, that some athletes just weren't born with speed.
As an offensive or defensive lineman, Francis knew he might never sprint 40 yards during a football game, but now he'd become obsessed with that task. He hunched into a starting position on the high school field in San Antonio. With a few dozen recruits watching, Francis lifted and took off. He tried to count the seconds in his head as he ran. It felt fast -- like a personal best. It ended in 5.84 disappointing seconds.
"I don't care," Francis said. "But I know all the coaches and scouts do."
The highlight of Francis's weekend came inside Alamodome, where he felt at least remotely connected to football. He got five chances to bulldoze through an offensive lineman and tackle the quarterback -- or, in this case, a blue punching bag. Francis demolished the dummy each time.
At the end of the drill, Lemming and a camera crew walked over to Francis and asked for an interview. The ESPN recruiting analyst wore a tight T-shirt that hugged his biceps. His dark hair was slicked back, his face colored by the sun.
"So A.J.," Lemming said, his red camera light blinking, "Word is you might be the best defensive lineman in this place."
"That's the only reason why I came here," Francis said. "To hear that."