Brian Jarvis stood beside a worn strip of astroturf in a parking lot behind Washington's RFK Stadium. He had a football jersey on his back, the morning sun in his face and the big time on his mind.
"This is a chance to fulfill one of my dreams," said Jarvis, a 27-year-old computer programmer from Annandale and one of 25 more or less able athletes who paid $50 to run sprints, lift weights and demonstrate agility yesterday for two men representing the Free Agent Scouting Combine.
The combine describes itself as an independent scouting organization that has been traveling the country during the last six months testing athletes who think they are good enough to play professional football. Approximately 1,000 hopefuls in 28 cities have paid to be clocked and otherwise calibrated. The best among them have had those statistics sent to all 49 professional football teams in the National Football League, the Canadian Football League and the newly formed United States Football League.
"This is something we truly believe in," said Chuck Lawrence, the road manager of the mobile scouting business that was in Pittsburgh last week, finishes its Washington run today, then heads to Philadelphia. "There are some very likely candidates out here for a USFL team."
The Chicago-based combine has encountered critics at almost every stop. Some NFL officials say the testing is superficial and the results unreliable. They charge that the combine is in the business of selling dreams that only their paying customers are prepared to buy. Redskins General Manager Bobby Beathard says he never heard of them.
"I think it's a giant waste of money," says Tom Braatz, the general manager of the Atlanta Falcons. "For somebody to find a football player on the street, it's pretty remote."
"They do mail them (the reports), but as far as lookng at them, we don't," says Chicago Bears Personnel Director Bill Tobin. "They're taking advantage of these kids."
And Rick Vaughn, a spokesman for the Washington Federals of the USFL says, "I don't think too many people put much stock in what they're doing."
The major criticism of the combine concerns the testing. While the drills are the same given at professional camps, personnel directors say the results are only valuable as a starting point for measuring professional potential.
"A lot of guys look real nice running around in their shorts, but that doesn't mean they're football players," says Jack Butler, the head of Blesto, one of the three major scouting organizations that rate college players for NFL teams. "You can't evaluate a player in one day."
Ron Real, the 44-year-old president of the combine, says criticism from other scouting organizations is misplaced but understandable.
"Maybe the scouts think we are trying to prove that they didn't do their job or they missed somebody. That's not true," says Real, who is also executive director of the Minor Professional Football Association, an organization of 120 semipro football teams.
Real says his organization is not aimed at college players but at the ones who matured into prospects after they graduated into the world of 9-to-5 jobs and obscure semipro leagues.
"We're kind of like a dating service," says Real. "If a guy really wants to get his numbers in front of scouts there is just no other way of doing it."
Officials in the NFL concede there is that gap in their coverage of potential talent. Even Harry Buffington, who heads United, a scouting combine that serves 16 NFL teams, admits that late bloomers, or players who were injured during significant parts of their college careers, can slip through the scouting cracks. But Buffington doesn't think it happens often enough to support another major scouting service.
The combine claims that in just six months it has been instrumental in getting 14 free agents invitations to NFL training camps. One of them, running back Tom Bennett, made it through a few cuts with Kansas City. Another customer, Al Steinfeld, is currently a center with the Chiefs.
But the Chiefs' director of player personnel, Al Lewis, says he was interested in Steinfeld before he received the combine's report on him.
"Al was with the Eagles at the beginning of last year and was pretty impressive. We had kept in touch," says Lewis. "The fact that he ended up going to one of their tryouts is kind of a coincidence."
Not all the prospects who gathered at RFK yesterday morning were quite sure what connection the combine had with the professional football heirarchy. Frank Holloway, 24, from Alexandria, a 6-foot-2, 228-pound former fullback at T.C. Williams High School, thought the scouts were employed by the USFL.
Brian Jarvis, who played last year for a semipro team in Ohio, said he figured the combine was legitimate after he called the Redskins and was given the time and location of the weekend tryouts.
"I figured if they weren't on the level they (Redskins) would have told me," said Jarvis. Besides, he was willing to take a gamble. "I know I can play football. And I've got the money to spend, or waste, whichever the case may be, to find out." CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, Sam Brown goes through agility drills and weight lifting as other hopefuls take it all in during drills for Free Agent Scouting Combine. The candidates pay $50 for evaluation of their skills and possible recommendations to professional football teams. By Fred Sweets -- The Washington Post