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For Would-Be NFL Players, 40 Yards Stand In Their Way


The pro football season is over, so attention now turns to the draft. Though new talent will not be chosen until May, they show off their skills now. Among other things, they attend the annual NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. Sounds like farm equipment, but it's really an even where more than 300 top prospects attend. They'll be evaluated on their strength and speed, specifically the 40-yard dash.

And as Sam Klemet of member station WFYI reports, a tenth of a second can mean all the difference.

SAM KLEMET, BYLINE: This is six-tenths of a second...


KLEMET: It may not seem like much, but for those running towards a career in the NFL, each tenth is magnified.

ZANE FAKES: You can feel it, a little bit off here or there, but you know if you ran fast or not. You feel just smoother when you run faster.

KLEMET: Six foot-three-inch, 235 pound tight-end Zane Fakes is one of 18 former college football players who are braving the frigid Midwest cold and snow to work out at a warehouse-sized Indianapolis sports center. For hours, tiny pieces of rubber tire fly off the indoor artificial turf as their feet furiously pound it. They do lateral dashes, runs with resistance bands and straight sprints while catching balls. Every motion is designed to improve speed

GREG MOORE: All right, double-feet, quick-feet, guys. Double-feet, quick-feet. Lace them up. Make sure we're laced up.

KLEMET: Trainer Greg Moore may be the smallest guy here, but he's the man these athletes look up to for improving their quickness.

MOORE: We see gains, you know, like in the 40, from start to finish. We know that at a minimal goal, we can get two-tenths off if the guy puts in the work and gets it done.

KLEMET: And every tick on a stop watch matters in the NFL.

MOORE: You know, if we're looking at two guys and it's, like, they're pretty similar in skill when it comes to football, who stands out as a better athlete. You know, they sort through it with a fine tooth comb.

KLEMET: The comb is never finer than at the NFL Combine. Players undergo body evaluations, mental test and strength and speed drills. And the marquee event is the 40-yard dash.

DEZMOND SOUTHWARD: And that's basically what you're training for. You're fighting to get your body in the best in possible shape, in order to get those tenths of a second when the combine comes or your pro day comes.

KLEMET: That's Dezmond Southward, a former defensive back at the University of Wisconsin. He has run the 40 as fast as in 4.3 seconds.

SOUTHWARD: I think the biggest thing is the start, just getting out of the blocks, getting on your start and getting the first good two or three steps, having that great drive, and then after that lifting it up and striding it through. I think you can feel the difference between that and then kind of stumbling out, and then trying to feel like you have to make up time.

KLEMET: And time lost can be costly.

DEREK SPEARMAN: It could be a $5 million swing, you know, two to $5 million swing just based upon, you know, your speed.

KLEMET: That's agent Derek Spearmen, who represents about a dozen players in the NFL, including Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Lamaar Thomas, whose fast 40 time catapulted his career.

SPEARMAN: You know, he could have possibly been working, you know, a nine-to-five right now. But because of his able to run that time, he's able to go out here and live his dream, you know, make a nice income.

KLEMET: Rosevelt Colvin has been on the other side. He estimates he lost about $150,000 in signing bonuses because of a poor Combine showing.

ROSEVELT COLVIN: I didn't test well when it came to strength and the 40. The agility stuff I did really well. So, I think I dropped at least one to two rounds. And I think I could have been at least a second-round pick.

KLEMET: Colvin was drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1999, and played nearly a decade in the NFL, winning two Super Bowls with the New England Patriots. Now, Colvin works with players here to help them prepare for the Combine, and tells them they have no time to waste - not even a tenth of a second.

For NPR News, I'm Sam Klemet in Indianapolis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.