Bigger, Faster, Stronger...Into What?

Stanford's NFL Draft prospects looked the part during Thursday's Pro Timing Day festivities. But what are they getting themselves into?

“You have to bypass a lot of human instinct to play the game of football, right? There’s a lot of self-preservation that should tell you not to play.”

That’s what Stanford head football coach David Shaw said early Thursday afternoon. Yet, there we all were – Shaw included – watching a bunch of young Stanford men willingly throw instinct and self-preservation to the wind and continue their individual quests to play football at its highest level.

Under the watchful eyes of numerous scouts, agents, family and friends, curious onlookers, Stanford coaches, and virtually the entire Oakland Raiders organization, the latest crop of Cardinal NFL hopefuls put their best feet forward at the school’s Pro Timing Day. They’re seeking employment at a league under siege on many fronts. Nowhere is the fight more fierce (this week anyway) than when the topic turns to player safety.

Pro football is still buzzing about the surprising retirement of San Francisco 49ers LB Chris Borland, a young man who had a had a great rookie season and was poised to take over for star LB Patrick Willis (who also unexpectedly walked away from the game), but retired due to concussion concerns. The NFL responded with a statement spinning contending that the league is safer than ever.

As hard as it may be to believe, the NFL isn’t entirely wrong. The way the game is played is much safer than it was. The rules are safer. The equipment is safer. From that standpoint, the league is correct. Could you imagine what would happen if clothesline tackles were still legal today?

Everything about the NFL’s on-field product is safer. Except for one key thing: the players. They are bigger, faster, and stronger at every position and in every sense imaginable. That 300-pound kid who can run the 40-yard dash in less than five seconds? He literally did not exist 30 years ago. He does now.

It boggles my mind. David Shaw’s, too. “It’s unbelievable,” he told me during Thursday’s festivities. “You watch Andrus Peat walk around, and his calves are as big as my thighs, if not bigger. That’s the future of football. At 315 pounds, he moves better than the tight ends did five, ten years ago. That’s where it’s going.”

Andrus Peat will be a first-round selection in the draft. Andrus Peat is also a giant. 6-foot-7, 313 pounds, according to his measurements at the NFL Scouting Combine last month. But just because he is huge, that doesn’t mean he’s not athletic. On the contrary. He ran his 40-yard dash in 5.18 seconds.

Peat might do the best job of personifying “bigger, faster, stronger” than any of Stanford’s other draft prospects, but the others are no slouches, either. Henry Anderson is a freak. David Parry looks like a plug. And no matter how good you may look without your shirt on, you will never look as good as Ty Montgomery.

The good news is that Stanford’s players are bigger, faster, stronger, and more explosive (“And we’ve got to keep recruiting them!” Shaw chuckled). But the young men on display on Thursday are joining a league in which everyone – literally everyone – is every bit as big, fast, strong, and explosive.

And there’s something else at work here, too. Not only are all of these NFL players bigger, faster, and stronger, but the overwhelming majority of them are wired to play at any and all costs. That’s how many of them got into the league in the first place.

You’re in pain? Doesn’t matter. Your team needs you. More important, your job is directly at stake. And your family and friends (whom your NFL paychecks are supporting) need you. Get back out there and play. So, many times, if a player needs to lie to a doctor – or himself – to get back on the field, he’ll do it.

That’s why, even though it shouldn’t, it’s a surprise when an NFL player chooses not to go back out there. It’s a shock when an NFL player lets his sense of self-preservation win the day.

Even though the game is safer now, the NFL is still already inherently dangerous. Always has been. Always will be. But all those bigger, faster, stronger players are colliding at higher velocities and with much more force. And a lot of money and pressure ride on each of those collisions. Put those two things together, and a dangerous game is made unsafe at any speed.

But, to paraphrase something a wise man once said, this is the business that Peat, Anderson, Montgomery, and the other soon-to-be-ex-Cardinal are choosing. And it’s not like they’re being forced to do it, either. In Shaw’s own words summing up the Borland situation, “make no mistake about it, there are gonna be thirty guys lined up for his spot, trying like crazy to get it.”

Indeed, as A.J. Tarpley was being put through the paces during his drills, I am willing to guess that he wasn’t giving Chris Borland a second thought. And if Borland was on Tarpley’s mind at all, it was probably only under the premise of taking Borland’s former job, which is now up for grabs.

None of Stanford’s draft prospects took to their workouts with their own football mortality in mind. Why should they have? Their bodies may literally never feel better than they did on Thursday. They’re bigger. They’re faster. And they’re stronger. But the path they’re heading down is more uncertain than it has ever been.

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