In The Wall, you have no name. You are a jersey number. Your greatest asset will be your hunger and willingness to endure. The unglamorous and overlooked duties assigned will measure your level of devotion. The ones willing to use their passion can revive their careers; all others will be humbled into regrets of retirement.
MEASUREMENT DAY! THE DAY OF JUDGMENT that is my first shot to prove to everyone, including myself, I belong in the NFL. Today — March 6, 2008, is NFL Pro Day at Washington State — and I will fill one of NFL’s “boxes” as either a playmaker or wall-maker. It amazes me that years of training, hundreds of practices and 40-plus games are not what will define me at the end of today.
One number will define me. A span of four to five seconds will encompass all I am in our world. What are my chances? A heel touch or missed twitch could be the 1/10-of-a-second difference I need to achieve my NFL dream.
For the past three months, 40 yards has been at the center of my universe. Acquiring an acceptable time in the 40-yard-dash is a first impression onto the NFL stage, the beginning of your job application, and a quick ticket to millions.
The single-most important question for NFL scouts is this: What’s your 40 time?
This measurement will spur conversation by NFL decision makers or permit them to toss my resume onto the pile of dreamers. Comparing the journeys of a player who ran a 4.69 and a player who ran 4.91 is like comparing the chances at Harvard admission between an East Coast prep schooler and an inner-city kid. Both have a chance, but odds are the latter will have to climb The Wall.
Speed may kill but in the NFL it gives life. Tenths of a second can determine your career. The evaluation criterion is the same for every position, but I am submitting my application as a tight end:
- 4.5 - Potential game changer. 1st Round
- 4.6 - Big-play potential. Rounds 2 or 3
- 4.7 - Solid Starter. Rounds 4 or 5
- 4.8 - Must be able to block in line. Rounds 6 or 7
- 4.9 - Wall candidate. Free agent
- 5.0 - Not NFL caliber
My goal today is to run a 4.7, but realistically I hope to just crack into the 4.8s. This would solidify my pre-draft grade of Round 6-7. This number would allow scouts to say “he is fast enough for an outside-zone scheme and can contribute on special teams.”
I have tried to do “whatever it takes,” from giving up alcohol to purchasing the finest track shoes and spandex running suit. This is the commitment required — though in my training I hear stories of guys dipping their testicles into ice water before a lift to attain a personal best, and it makes me ask, “Who am I competing against?”
Before I walk into the weight room, I drop and do some pushups. Time to get fired up. Past those doors the analysis has already begun and I must put my best foot forward.
Walking in I have two thoughts on my mind: 1) Be a Pro! and 2) Prove I have graduated from The Wall!
I get my first boost of confidence when the scout from the Patriots says, “Collins, there is the man I came to see.” Immediately I picture the Patriots’ war room and Bill Belichick saying my name. Being “the man” someone is there to see is encouraging because the list of fellow aspirants includes Ropati Pitoitua, Husain Abdullah, Michael Bumpus and Alex Brink.
Every Washington State senior has shown up for his shot, plus a couple of outgoing WSU basketball players. It doesn’t matter if you played one down or 1,000, you show a glimpse of something today and you could have a chance.
THE WORKOUT BEGINS AS SO MANY OTHERS: we stretch and warm up on the mat. The difference today is in our surroundings. Scouts from 15 NFL teams stand chatting, critiquing, and taking notes on clip boards. I question what they can see while we are warming up, but I guess it is finally putting names to faces. I have seen Alabama or USC pro day’s on TV with large crowds, media and GMs. For a team that didn’t make a bowl game, we are pleased 15 scouts who made the trip to the Palouse.
After some initial tests, Rob Oviatt, our strength coach at WSU, announces that we’re headed over to the indoor practice facility. A spark of hope and fear shivers down my spine. This is where the 40s and shuttles will be run.
The atmosphere inside the practice facility is all focused energy; everyone has begun their routine in preparation for the big event. Guys travel all over the country to train for this day, but most of it revolves around how to beat this one test: the 40. Everyone knows tenths in time means thousands, maybe millions in dollars. After the football season ended, I stayed to train in Pullman and finish my degree in accounting. Was it the right decision? Today we will find out.
As I am doing a traditional hamstring stretch from the 1940s, one of my teammates is connected to an electric-stem machine that is designed to fire up his fast-twitch muscles. I question my preparation.
THE VOICE IS LOUD AND CLEAR: “Collins! Running Back.” I give the scout conducting the event a questioning look — I thought I was a tight end?
Did he not watch my film? I guess they told me I may move to H-back, a position created to fill the void of the dying dinosaur fullback. “Refocus,” I tell myself, “they called your name, now go prove what you are.”
I take the three jumps that will ignite the blood flow and begin to run through my pre-run routine. As I approach the starting line I begin to appreciate the reality that no one and nothing will affect this run but me. For a track athlete, this would be standard operating procedure. For a football player, it is unnerving to perform without having someone to take your aggressions out on. I am so used to team work and focusing on an opponent, but today I am on an island and the only opponent is ME.
I clear my mind while also playing through the sequence of techniques that are supposed to override my natural disability for speed:
- Left foot eight inches behind the line
- Right foot six inches staggered with two inches separation
- Both hands down on the line with thumb and index finger taking as much of the line as possible.
That’s when the voices begin. “You’re too slow to be a Guy. You aren’t tough enough to stand on The Wall.” I block the thoughts by settling back into my routine — the process I have been practicing every day at 6 a.m. Butt up, deep inhale, slow exhale, slight lean to capture every inch before lifting your hand. And then EXPLODE!!!
FOUR YEARS EARLIER I WAS AN INCOMING FRESHMAN, driving through the Palouse to a place I was told wasn’t the end of the world, but you could see it from there.
In high school, I was never introduced to the demands of The Wall. As we pass through the rolling hills, I realize you don’t make it this far if you weren’t “the man” back home. The quickest measurement of incoming freshmen is the list of scholarship offers they attracted. I was no blue chipper with endless options. I had offers from Utah, Wyoming and WSU. Utah wanted me to fit into their scheme as a fullback. Are you kidding? I was an All-State linebacker! The irony will be felt later.
Being recruited by WSU offensive line coach (and one-time star WSU nose tackle) George Yarno was an incredible experience. In my family’s living room he convinced me that being a Coug offered a unique charm; that the memories would be as diverse as its seasons. It helped that this was a 10-year NFL veteran telling me that I belong. If he believes it so should I.
Coach Yarno was a remarkable guy in many ways and his passing last year was a blow to those of us who knew him. I still smile at the thought of him being Tampa Bay’s emergency kicker in 1983 and actually booting a PAT in a game -- no doubt making him the heaviest placekicker in NFL history. He also laid claim to another amazing feat. Between high school, college, the NFL and the USFL, he played 20 years of football without a surgery.
With all that good football fortune, you’d think he might bring a sunny disposition to the practice field. Wrong. At my first Cougar practice in pads, I witnessed the white-hot intensity of the NFL first hand in the form of one Coach Yarno. The man overflowed with the grit of this game and demanded the same form those around him.
Get off the Line! Get off the Line! When it comes to running the 40, no matter whom you get advice from, the moment right after you engage is very simple: get moving. Rip your down-hand back, like you are starting a lawn mower, and then the first step needs to be at least 18 inches in front of the line. In practice, we have a piece of tape I aim for. Today, in front of the scouts, there is no tape or time to consider if I hit it. The only voice I hear now is my own, screaming ‘Drive, Drive’. The first four steps are all power pushes to cover the first five yards in a momentum-propelling way.
STARTERS CALL IT SCRUB TIME. MEMBERS of The Wall call it opportunity time. The last drive of a blowout game is a feeble attempt to get something out of an ass kicking. These were the moments in my sophomore year that I had to show something. Forget the crowd, forget the playbook and don’t look at the scoreboard; just play. I find myself on The Wall because I don't belong on the field as a linebacker. The list of guys in front of me not only includes the starters, but also a few Wall brethren. I need to find ways onto the field and that means I need to stand out on The Wall.
Kickoff Return: starters can’t afford to commit to the reckless abandonment and few are willing to engage in it. To the members of The Wall, it is a rep, a shot, a chance to get into the game we love — a chance to prove ourselves. It is a chance to play some football baby!
My assignment on this rep is a 6-foot-4 inch, 265-pound behemoth who will be targeting me at full 4.7 speed. The phenomenon in question is who wins when the unstoppable force (the wedge buster) meets the immovable object (the wedge)? The tenacity of this event is felt when the whites of your opponent’s eyes come into clear view. You must fight off the natural ping of fear that entices you to contract and embrace for the hit. To win, you must unleash the demons within and explode through your opponent. Your survival on The Wall is being tested in this moment. Will you be the alpha male the uniform requires or cower into submission?
BAM!! I am alive! The rush of not pain but pride in knowing I am cut from a different cloth. Even more than that, my opponent begins to fall backward. Now there are only two ways to finish a block — stay engaged until the whistle blows or drive the defeated into the ground and receive the utmost honor: attention. The latter is what members of The Wall crave. Tomorrow my coach will kick his feet up on a table and circle this collision and my number with his laser pointer. No longer denying the fact, I belong.
It is not lost on me that someday I will tell my kids I paid for college by watching a ball kicked, holding hands with a comrade and forming a human wall.
I have ignited the launch, powered through, now I pull my hips and begin a slow rise to stride. My head pops up to see direction, while my chest remains forward, almost to the point I am off balance. These next steps are where the knee drive is propelled into force and a runner’s stride develops. This is the moment true sprinters unleash their skill and Usain Bolt smiles knowing the race is already won. These next steps are where I begin to separate myself from the 40 pack — but not in a positive way.
Sprinters can run with their knees almost banging against their chest as they reach their heel into outer space to obtain optimal speed. I have the same intensity, but not the flash. I try and get my feet to move as fast as possible but am unable to stretch into the full cycle that achieves the flash everyone is looking for. My hope is I can overcome inflexibility with arm speed or technique. “Rip the carpet; rip the carpet!” I spent hours against a wall working drills on firing my hamstrings and pulling my hips through. Next 15 yards have only one focus, FASTER!
MY JUNIOR YEAR, THE GOLDEN RULE of football arrived: Next Man Up. The longer you stick around a team, the more likely it is you will be needed. Quickly you can go from being ignored down on The Wall to being introduced into The Shine. What no one tells you in the recruiting process is the players actually hold the coaches’ livelihoods in their pads. In the NFL there is a line a mile long that they can replace you with. In college, the coaching staff only has the guys in the room.
The Shine is a brilliant place that says you’re important and depended on to win Saturday’s game. From the moment your name is called on the stadium loud speaker you are ushered into a new frame — the good life.
If you have to ask the purpose of The Shine, football is not the game for you.
How quickly the warmth can make you forget where you came from. Make you feel like you have passed through The Wall, like you are a factor. Whether it is injury, ineligibility, or incapacity to get the job done that knocked someone aside, once they need you, you are welcomed into the light. This new shine can be felt at practice as you get more reps and a new pair of gloves put in your locker. Felt in the classroom as other students who are otherwise strangers recognize you. Felt at a party when all of a sudden you became much better looking. You finally feel a real part of the team as the coach protects and praises you. Then it happens, you go in and make them look prophetic.
UCLA is leading, even though the momentum is in our favor. It’s first-and-10 in the middle of the third quarter; if we hope to get out of here with a win we must move the ball and get points on this drive.
After second down, our starting tight end, Cody Boyd, limps over to the sideline with an ankle injury. And just like that I am thrown into the fire. I may not have earned this job, but on third down and long it is an opportunity to prove my worth. I line up and see that the opposing defensive end is in what we call a 6-technique, tight on our tackle. UCLA is usually a wide-9-technique team and this is the first tell of the Strong Dog blitz that is coming. The safety starts to roll down and I see they are going to pick on the new guy. The ball is snapped -- and for the first time film begins to unfold before my eyes. The Sam linebacker takes the inside gap and the safety is coming to my outside. The difference here is not in my ability but in my intellect. I know with our six-man protection I am the hot receiver when two blitzers come on my side. I slip in between the two attackers and emerge on the other side of the barrage. Alex Brink is tired of getting his bell rung and has already felt the pain of this play once today. The ball releases from his hands quickly.
A simple throw and catch, played in the backyard, seems effortless. But with a stadium around me and imminent danger closing in, my always faithful hands come into question. This is my chance to elevate from The Wall. Second string only gets one chance to make a statement.
The sounds of the grab is clean and pure. I tuck the ball and move up field, even breaking the Mike linebacker’s tackle. A first down is turned into a bona fide big play. My statement is made, my worth is validated. We win and will break into the top 25 the next day.
The horseshoe of men with clipboards begins to come into focus. How much of my future is in the number they are about to record? This is the 40. THE 40 of my life. My chances of making an NFL team, my entire future hangs in the balance. Their job today is to separate applications into three piles: Jump at a chance to get him, give him a chance, or no chance at all. The picture in the draft room is easy to visualize; one of the scout’s is standing on a table yelling, “We have got to get him — he ran a 4.5!” The scout fully understands that if the pick goes south he will have 4.5 to hide behind. I begin to panic. Is this as fast as you can go? It is almost over, you better show them something. With each step the end comes closer and the hope that it is not the end of it all.
BY SENIOR YEAR, I AM NO LONGER JUST recognizing plays as they come; I begin to predict what the calls will be. Third-and-six on their 30-yard line — I bet they bring pressure to knock us out of field-goal range. This new-found confidence makes me feel comfortable enough to walk into pre-game meetings eating an apple and smiling — a taboo gesture when preparing for battle. I live in The Shine now. The plan revolves around me and no one will question anything as long as I perform. It is a proud moment walking past the underclassmen who are the newest members of The Wall. A nod that can show respect and disdain, with just a touch of hope.
This confidence spills out onto the field as the game slows down and I begin to orchestrate the chaos. On the field: “No, we have a triple, the guard will double!” On the sideline: “They are only guarding the 10-yard-out when I am the backside receiver of Cinci (a formation). If they are in man I will pump the out and stay on the seam."
I am now playing the game within the game. The Shine makes everyone forget I was second string and only had a few offers coming out of high school. I took a left onto Easy Street and all the work is paying off. The beauty of this business is you are not only helping your own career but all those wearing a friendly logo. Cinci formation, man-to-man coverage, pumps the out, strike up the band!
Is it fast enough? My 40 is done. I have completed the last box on my check list by running 45 yards and not pulling up early. But was it fast enough? Will every ounce of sweat, every sore muscle, and every night I missed out my senior year add up to the hundredths of a second I need? I am a confirmed sixth-round pick as of four seconds ago, but now I wonder if I can sneak into the fifth round. Regardless, everyone is telling me after the No. 1 and No. 2 fullbacks go off the board I need to grab my phone and be ready for my dream to come to fruition. I see the men in chairs conversing. “This what you got?” asks one scout to another. I think I hear an 8 get mumbled. A 4.8? Not my goal but I will take it. I circle back to a friendly face, my strength coach; he delivers the hammer. I ran the 40 in 5.04 seconds. The news couldn’t be worse. Apparently I'm no longer NFL caliber.
I realize I will be lucky to get any kind of shot at the NFL. My only hope is to take someone’s job on The Wall.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jed Collins did take somebody’s spot on The Wall. In fact, he took many spots on The Wall, spending seven seasons in the NFL with eight teams. He worked his way from undrafted free agent and practice squad player to starting fullback for the New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions. He retired after the 2015 season. From 2004-07 he was an all-everything standout at Washington State, where he played linebacker, fullback and tight end. “Jedzilla,” as Cougar fans affectionately dubbed him, earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors as a senior in 2007 after catching 52 Alex Brink passes for 512 yards. Today he is an advisor with the Seattle-based (and Cougar-owned) wealth management firm Brighton Jones and serves as a regular columnist for Cougfan.com during football season. He is pictured above left with the New Orleans Saints and above right during his Pro Day workout in Pullman in 2008.
Related story: Jed Collins and the realities of an NFL life
From the archives: Story and photos from WSU's 2008 NFL Pro Day