Go to the Head of the Draft

Ken Herock, right, speaks to Auburn punter Kody Bliss, center, and South Florida linebacker Stephen Nicholas during his NFL combine prep class.
Ken Herock, right, speaks to Auburn punter Kody Bliss, center, and South Florida linebacker Stephen Nicholas during his NFL combine prep class. (By Erik S. Lesser For The Washington Post)
By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 22, 2007

DULUTH, Ga., Feb. 21 -- In a conference room of a La Quinta Inn not far from Interstate 85, there operates an NFL draft preparatory course so unique that no one has been able to duplicate it. The course runs just one session, for eight hours of one day, and unlike all other draft preparations there will be no sprints or weightlifting, nor will a football ever be thrown.

There won't even be a written test.

Rather, to those who attend it, the eight-hour session might best be described as a football charm school in which players learn the best salutations, are told how to wear their shirts and discover the art of writing thank-you notes to coaches for interviews at the NFL's annual draft combine, which begins in earnest today in Indianapolis. All of it is learned with a few gentle nudges from the instructor.

"Hello, Mr. Gruden, it's nice to meet you," former University of South Florida linebacker Stephen Nicholas said enthusiastically in a mock introduction to Tampa Bay Buccaneers Coach Jon Gruden.

" Coach Gruden!" thundered Ken Herock, a onetime NFL executive who is the course's inventor and lone instructor.

Nicholas flinched.

"Um, hello, Coach Gruden, it's nice to meet you," he said.

It may seem to be a small thing, but names and titles can be worth thousands of dollars in today's NFL. "Those coaches like to hear their names," Herock reminded the three players gathered in the conference room on this day. "Don't just call them 'Sir.' "

In a league climate where, more than ever, a player's time in handcuffs matters more than his time in a shuttle drill, character will have an impact on the draft, which this year will be held April 28-29. Teams can't afford to make mistakes at the combine, which runs through Tuesday and gives teams the chance to evaluate college players. With many first impressions being made at the combine as teams interview prospects in the evening after workouts, the right walk, answer or handshake could send a candidate zooming up the draft board in a coach's mind.

For the past six years, Herock has made the 50-mile drive from his home to the La Quinta to sit in this room two or three days a week from December through February, preparing giant men to dazzle grizzled old football coaches. Sometimes, at the request of an agent, he travels to do the same thing in a different motel in Phoenix or Newark or Fort Lauderdale, Fla. But the lesson plan almost always is the same: a couple hours of group preparation on what to expect from teams at the combine, and several more hours of personal instruction with a video camera and lists of nearly every conceivable question a player will be asked.

"The most surprising thing was how much I had to sell myself," Jemalle Cornelius, a wide receiver from the University of Florida, said after a recent session. "I came off with a little bit of a swagger. That was uncomfortable. I try to speak modestly about myself."

But the players in the room listen. They do this partly because Herock, a former tight end for Oakland, Cincinnati and New England, has a presence, even at 65 years old, with white hair and a black sports jacket over a black sweater. His voice booms. But he also was a player personnel director or executive for four NFL teams -- Oakland, Tampa Bay, Atlanta and Green Bay -- for close to 30 years before retiring in 2001. It also doesn't hurt that he ran the first combine, in 1982 in Tampa.

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