INDIANAPOLIS — Thirty-six NFL-hopeful running backs marched from the players’ hotel to Lucas Oil Stadium last Sunday morning. They were numbered from RB1 to RB36, in alphabetical order according their last names, and all wore the same navy blue and fluorescent green combine-issued workout gear. But RB35 stood out. “How come you’re the only one without headphones on?” asked the group’s escort, a combine staff member.
The morning, RB35 explained, is his quiet time for spiritual reflection. He doesn’t like to begin the day by hearing negative messages embedded in today’s lyrics, so he never listens before noon. He also prefers to get into the zone by focusing on the task at hand instead of losing himself in the music. “Well,” the staffer, a representative from one of the NFL’s 32 teams, said, “it’s definitely being noticed.”
During his senior season at Boston College, RB35—Andre Williams—turned heads by rushing for 2,177 yards and 18 touchdowns, which made him a Heisman finalist and garnered him the Doak Walker Award, given to college football’s best running back. But those numbers would soon be supplanted by what he posted at the combine.
There are the proverbial gaps between college football and the NFL, and then there is the literal one. During the 11 weeks between the NFL Scouting Combine and the 2014 draft, hundreds of young players will lead suspended lives while their pasts are dissected and their fates decided. This is the story of RB35, and the beginning of a series that will follow him through the gauntlet of pre-draft interviews, workouts, phone calls, ups, downs, twists and turns.
A breakout star at BC, Williams is suddenly playing a new game to which the rules seem nebulous at best. But failure is not an option. Early projections have him going anywhere from the third to the fifth round, and he knows every nuanced perception could push his reputation in either direction. He was mindful of how he was sitting, standing, speaking and interacting with people last Thursday when he arrived at the Atlanta airport for his flight to Indianapolis and spotted two Saints scouts and a Dolphins scout at his gate. Despite his successes, he knows an NFL future is neither promised nor guaranteed.
At the combine, Williams felt like he was on an internship. “You have your foot in the door,” he says, “but you’re not really there yet.” There were 4 a.m. wake-up calls for drug tests, and interviews with NFL teams lasting past 10 p.m. While warming up for his workout on the Lucas Oil turf, he noticed dozens of cameras suspended above the players’ heads—a reminder that they’re always being evaluated even when the scouts aren’t hanging around.
The game film from Williams’ college career doesn’t lie. Not only did he come alive as a senior in the Eagles’ power-running game under new coach Steve Addazio, but his performance revived the program’s old-school, smashmouth identity. Paradoxically, that raises questions about his ability to play at the next level, where the passing game is king. (The 2013 draft was the first in history in which a running back wasn’t taken in the first round). Williams also bulked up to 230 pounds for his senior season, knowing all along it would mean a slower time in the 40-yard dash. Last summer, weighing nearly 10 pounds lighter, he was clocked at 4.39 seconds.
On Sunday morning, in lieu of music, Williams thumbed through his Bible and landed on James 3. “It wasn’t really anything specific to the day,” Williams says, but the message about taming the terrible tongue reminded him about the importance of self-control and discipline. Just after 3 p.m., he finally ran the 40-yard dash. The official time for RB35: 4.56 seconds, good for a power runner of his size. He fared even better in the shuttle runs, a test of speed and agility; his time in the 20-yard shuttle was as fast as Dri Archer, the Kent State burner who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.26 seconds. He was a top performer in the broad jump, too, placing third among running backs.
But Williams, who caught only 10 passes during his college career and none last fall, knew the most pressing questions would be about his hands. He dropped two of the eight passes thrown his way during Sunday’s workout—to be fair, they occurred on wheel and corner routes, which aren’t frequently run by tailbacks. Then again, he needed to use his body to snag a few others that should have been plucked from the air by his fingers. “That’s definitely my weakness going into the draft,” Williams, 21, says. “But the fact that I caught more passes than I dropped is a good thing. It’s something that I need to improve on, but it’s not something that I can’t do.”
At this time of year, players are looking for answers from teams just as much as teams are looking to answer questions about players. The combine’s extensive medical exams, for instance, were a convenient reassurance to Williams that the left shoulder he banged up in BC’s bowl game was “stable.” Williams also hoped that the applied psychology and human development bachelor’s degree he finished in December could be put to good use and help him read potential bosses in interviews. But no two meetings were alike, or even what he expected.
His agent, Erik Burkhardt, had made a good suggestion: Bring a notebook to write down the names of all the people you meet with. But in Williams’ first formal meeting, with the Bills on Friday night, he was greeted by eight people upon entering the room. He shook each person’s hand, but there simply wasn’t enough time in the 15-minute window to write down everyone’s name. Teams are allotted 60 formal interviews at the combine, in addition to informal sit-downs, and five other teams reserved a formal slot for Williams: Baltimore, Jacksonville, Cincinnati, San Diego and the Giants. He showed up wearing a polo shirt, khakis and loafers, with the names of the teams he was scheduled to meet helpfully printed on his credential. “You definitely felt like they regarded you as somebody worthy of their time,” Williams says.
The Bills immediately started rolling his game tape from last season, asking him about his pass protection responsibilities and the reads he was making. The Bengals, meanwhile, opened with a version of a psychological test: Williams first had to memorize a list of words, then perform a word association game (how is a fork like a spoon?), then organize a string of words and letters, and finally, recall the original list of words. Williams, who is writing a philosophical memoir called “A King, a Queen and a Conscience,” felt good about these mental gymnastics. More difficult was gleaning clues about what coaches and executives thought about his fortunes at the next level.
“I think teams think I can play an integral role in their offense, but certain teams might see me and my style of play and value me as just a situational back,” Williams says. “I’d be disappointed if I went somewhere just to fill a role as a situational player, because I can think I can be dynamic and play a starting role.”
By 6 p.m. on Sunday, RB35 was on a shuttle bus back to the airport with other running backs. The topic of conversation: 40 times, naturally. Williams says he’ll probably run again at Boston College’s Pro Day on March 12, hoping to crack into the 4.4-range.
Williams headed back to Atlanta, where he’s been working out with trainer Chip Smith and former Doak Walker winner Garrison Hearst. He’s staying with his older brother, a barber and a real estate agent. For the first time in four days, he didn’t have to worry about being watched. But then a different thought quickly set in—the next 11 weeks are all about getting noticed.