By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 16, 2009
In a workout room just off the open end of Maryland's Byrd Stadium, Dane Randolph wipes the sweat from his face and begins an assault on an invisible opponent he can not vanquish: the perception he is not good enough to be an NFL player.
An accounting of his life at this moment would seem to render such a notion absurd. He stands 6 feet 5, weighs 300 pounds and often looms over the men across from his position at right tackle. Last month, before an armada of NFL scouts and coaches inside nearby Cole Field House, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.9 seconds, which is almost unheard of for a person of his immense size. That same day he lifted 225 pounds 29 times, fully extending his arms, locking his elbows with each thrust.
He has a gruff strength coach in Arizona who adores him. He has a speed coach who regularly trains Alex Rodriguez and an agent who dotes upon him.
The NFL, it would seem, should covet him.
Only the league's teams appear to have doubts about Randolph's ability to play. So much so that when the draft is held next weekend in New York, his name in all probability will not be called before its final hour on Sunday afternoon. And even then the likeliest scenario is he won't be one of the 256 picked at all, leaving him like hundreds of other prospects, desperate to claw their way on to rosters as undrafted free agents.
"My minimal info says that he has a non-draftable grade," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock wrote in an e-mail. "He is regarded as a [right tackle] only, which is bad unless you are the starter. No versatility."
His problem lies not in the things he can touch, like weights or a track or even a playbook -- which he can replicate in detail upon demand -- but in something far less organic, something in the past he can do nothing to change. His problem is on videotape. Namely the tapes of the 24 Maryland games he started the last three years that reveal a player who is sometimes erratic, brilliant one game and mediocre the next.
"At times he has played very, very well, but what the scouts are looking for is consistency," said Tom Brattan, Maryland's offensive line coach.
But with no games to play there is little he can do to rebut the video evidence. His only recourse is to lift more weights, run more sprints and hope when and if a team calls later this month he will be so fast and so strong the coaches will be tempted enough by his promise that they'll want to keep him around.
"It is what it is," Randolph said.Perception Problem
His words are not angry. Randolph is not one to discourage easily. He laughs merrily as he rests in an easy chair in his mother's townhouse in Owings Mills. In many ways he is not like other athletes. He was an only child raised by a single mother who worked as a cryptologist in the Navy. Together they moved all over the world, from Pensacola, Fla., to Portugal to British Columbia to Maryland, to West Virginia to Jacksonville and eventually back to Columbia. He played sports only because his mother wanted him to be active and out of the house.
He did not burn to be a football player. In fact, he never played the game until he was almost in high school. He had too many other interests. He liked to read science fiction and played the clarinet in school bands. In Canada he learned curling. And when colleges began calling as a result of his football performance at Wilde Lake High School, he was excited by the idea of getting a degree for free. It never occurred to him he might play in the NFL. Not even when he first became a starter on the offensive line at Maryland three years ago.
In many ways, this background and his demeanor as well as the fact he got his degree in criminal justice a year ago might hurt him more than if his record were spotted with arrests and suspensions. The worry for the NFL is he might be too nice and too smart to survive in the league.
It's a perception his agent, Josh Stevens, has to attack constantly when speaking with NFL people. Stevens tries to point out to the scouts and executives that the tapes also show Randolph knocking pass rushers to the ground with his blocks. He reminds them Randolph had a high-ankle sprain last season that factored in his not starting seven games and affected his performance in others.
But professional coaches can get wary of players with other interests, who think openly about careers after football, even as the league itself and the players' union encourage them to have a plan for when they no longer play. The thinking is this: If a player is concentrating too much on something other than football, it must mean he isn't interested in becoming a great football player and thus is not worth an NFL team's time.
Randolph is not naive about his situation. He is well aware of the fact he is going to have to fight like never before on a football field to have a chance at merely making a team's practice squad. But he also figures there are few players at his position who are as big and can run as fast. Maybe teams don't look at him and see a polished offensive lineman who can play three positions, yet he has been an offensive lineman for less than four years after being moved from the defense his redshirt freshman season at Maryland. He will grow, he will learn. He is sure of these things.A Mutual Gamble
Randolph's cellphone buzzes, music chirps, a song called "I'm a Star" spills through the speaker. He glances at the screen. His agent is calling again.
If the NFL seems hesitant to take a chance on Randolph, Stevens is not. The agent phones at least once a day with encouragement or information or simply to chat. This is not a normal thing. Most agents do not have this much contact with a client rated so low. They don't have the time. Usually they make calls to undrafted free agents on a need-to-know basis, informing them, for instance, if an NFL team wants the player to be available for a workout. And even then the agent often has an intern or a secretary make the call.
Randolph didn't want an agent like that, even if the name of the man's firm might add cachet to his draft status. He wanted someone who would give him attention, someone he was certain would be fighting for him with the league's scouts and general managers.
After talking to several prospective agents, he chose Stevens primarily because Stevens has a small agency with another representative, Mike Abadir, and has a roster of only a handful of clients, none elite. A graduate of Maryland who now lives in the New York area, Stevens identified Randolph before his senior season, looking at his size and speed, and decided Randolph had enough promise as a player that it would be worth the investment of his time and money.
In a way they are gambling on each other. Randolph hopes Stevens can help get him into the NFL, and Stevens is counting on Randolph to make it in the league, thus bringing him greater legitimacy as an agent.
"We totally, totally, totally want him to make it," Stevens said.Improvement and Hope
The biggest improvement Randolph made during 10 weeks of intense training in Tempe, Ariz., was with his running. His speed instructor, Gregory "Sweets" Oliver, the one who trains Rodriguez, saw Randolph on the first day they met running on a track at Arizona State. The player's form was wrong, like he was sitting on a chair, but the raw ability to run was too obvious to ignore.
"You know, I watched him on film even before he came to the facility, to see if I even wanted to work with him, and I thought he would have graded higher," said Ethan Banning, co-owner of the Triple Threat Performance gym in Tempe who was a lineman for the Arizona Rattlers of the Arena Football League. "I think people are taking his kindness for softness."
How much all this has helped Randolph doesn't know. People keep telling him there is little difference between being picked in the seventh round and signed as a free agent. In many ways, free agency is better, they said, because he might find himself on a team that really needs him as opposed to one trying to fill slots on a draft chart.
The Jets, Giants, Dolphins, Ravens and Redskins asked him to work out for them, though the Baltimore and Washington tryouts were open for several prospects. The Giants and Jets coaches asked him and Maryland teammate Edwin Williams, a center, to sit in a meeting room before a giant dry-erase board as they wrote chunks of their team's offenses on the board, erased them and asked the players to rewrite as much as they could remember.
With one team, he happened to catch a glimpse of a list that had his name under a category called "Priority Free Agents." This made him hopeful.
Then there was the security director from another club who called and said flatly as a greeting, "Is your name Dane Randolph?"
"It was like a polygraph test," he said, laughing at the list of questions that followed. Had he ever been convicted of a felony? Did he have a valid driver's license? Ever test positive for drugs? Steroids?
Of course, he said, his answers were all no. But did he say the right things? Solve the right problems? Remember the right plays? Lift enough weights? Run fast enough?
It's hard to know when the opponent is invisible. When his future is locked away in the draft rooms of 32 NFL teams, and no one will tell him what's inside. He will not watch the draft on that dreaded Sunday afternoon. Instead he plans on going to a restaurant with some of his teammates who are in similar situations. If they happen to see a television with the draft on the screen, fine. If not that's fine too. He refuses to worry about it.