The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Forget the draft. These NFL prospects grew up dreaming of the combine.

Linebacker Trenton Simpson has been dreaming of the NFL combine since he was a kid and watched the event on television. (Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
6 min

FRISCO, Tex. — For as long as he can remember, Trenton Simpson has dreamed of performing at the NFL scouting combine. He watched the event on TV as a kid, marveling at the herculean football players, and “when I got to middle school, I started taking it serious,” he said. He trained hard, like his Army Ranger father, and by the time he reached high school in Charlotte, he was a five-star linebacker recruit, well on his way to becoming a herculean football player himself.

In 2019, Simpson participated in Nike Opening, an elite preps camp that replicates all the combine drills, including the 40-yard dash, vertical jump and broad jump. He compared his results with the prospects he watched on TV and focused especially on the two linebackers who dominated the most recent combine. To this day, he can recite the 40 times for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Devin White (4.42 seconds) and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Devin Bush (4.43).

This spring, Simpson reached the precipice of his NFL dream. He was a decorated linebacker from Clemson, a potential first-round pick in this year’s draft and a trainee at the same Exos facility in suburban Dallas that prepared White to run such a fast 40 and boost his draft stock. Simpson resolved to run a 4.4 in the event.

In February, Simpson said his specific goal was 4.49 seconds. “I feel like 4.49 at 6-3, 235 pounds is truly amazing,” he said. “I know I can do it. God’s given me the ability.” He slipped into a daydream, imagining a distant future in which a child or an old friend might ask him about how fast he once was.

“I'll be a 4.4 guy forever,” he said.

Beyond the 40-yard-dash: How player tracking could modernize the NFL combine

Like Simpson, many prospects in this year’s draft have grown up with the combine as a central part of their NFL dreams. The childhood vision usually crescendos at the draft itself — flashing cameras, daps with the commissioner — but over the past 15 years or so, NFL draft mania has grown into an obsession rivaling the games themselves, and the spotlight on the combine has only grown brighter.

In the late 1980s, the combine wasn’t glamorous. It was a functional event where teams conduced interviews, gathered medical reports and familiarized themselves with prospects. But in 2003, the NFL launched its own TV network, and in the years since, the league has used that platform to popularize the draft, airing aspirational “hero’s journey” shows such as “Path to the Draft” and “Hey Rookie.” This means that for this year’s prospects — most of whom were born between 1999 and 2001 — the combine has been a big deal for pretty much their entire conscious lives.

Nearly a dozen prospects echoed Simpson’s sentiments. Oklahoma State defensive back Jason Taylor II has fond memories of watching with his brother. Boise State defensive back Tyreque Jones said he used to think prospects at the combine looked like “mythical creatures.” Oklahoma running back Eric Gray said he thought training for the combine must be like the Navy SEALs, “the worst eight weeks of your life.”

In 2018, Gray was a high school junior in Memphis when Penn State running back Saquon Barkley ran a 4.4-second 40, posted a vertical jump of 41 inches and bench-pressed 225 pounds 29 times.

“I just remember that vividly,” Gray said. “After the workout, they was talking about how Saquon was the best that they had ever seen — and I always wanted that. When I’m done with the combine, I want them to say: ‘Eric Gray? That was the best workout I’ve ever seen.’ ”

One of the many downstream effects of the combine’s gamification is the rise of combine training. Several prospects said that, long before they could declare for the draft, they knew which facilities they wanted to attend to get faster and prepare for the combine. For the months between the end of the college season and the combine, agents pay tens of thousands of dollars for training, housing, transportation and per diems because a few tenths of a second in a drill could be the difference in a draft slot worth millions.

After Clemson’s season ended, Simpson moved to the Exos facility in Frisco and changed his phone number “so I would only get important calls,” he said. He had a nagging injury and met with doctors to heal in preparation for his training. He took ice baths, wore massage-compression boots and did cupping and dry-needling before he jumped into training. For five weeks, he worked with trainer Brent Callaway to refine his 40 technique and with former NFL defensive end Jacquies Smith on the nuances of the position.

One afternoon, Smith was doing interview prep with Simpson, Pitt linebacker SirVocea Dennis and South Carolina defensive tackle Zacch Pickens. Smith made Simpson stand in front of the bleachers and use a marker to diagram plays onto the plexiglass surrounding the field. Smith warned Simpson that scouts would use film to cross-check his every claim about the Tigers’ defense.

Simpson drew a play based in cover-two.

“This play right here is my best play in college,” Simpson said, outlining his role as the middle linebacker and detailing everyone else’s responsibilities. Smith cut him off. He pointed to the number of players on defense.

“Can’t be your favorite play if you only have 10,” Smith said, grinning. Simpson, ever earnest, didn’t show frustration. He corrected his mistake by drawing in the last defender and finished the explanation. Smith nodded approvingly and told Simpson if he repeated that performance in Indianapolis, he’d be just fine.

From the archives: The combine you don’t see on TV is fueled by info and lubricated by wine

At the end of Simpson’s sixth week of training, Exos put prospects through a mock combine program. The group ripped through long jump and vertical jump drills before going out into the chilly morning to practice the 40. Callaway called Simpson’s name, and he stripped to his boxer briefs to rid himself of drag. Several players hooted, and a couple shook their heads. Simpson leaned over, put his hand in the turf and bent his knees to get in position. He took a deep breath.

He exploded out of his stance, a spring uncoiling, and his cleats ripped through the grass. He flew through the first gate, the second, the third — his speed seeming to justify his confidence in his ability to hit 4.4.

On his way back to the group, Callaway pulled him aside.

“Great job,” Callaway said. “I think you should put your stuff on and be done.”

Thirteen days later, Simpson finally achieved his dream of running the 40 at the combine. His official time: 4.43.