It's nearly impossible to know which player from this year's Senior Bowl will be the next Pro Bowl players early in their careers, and maybe even a few future Pro Football Hall of Famers are among the huddles in Mobile, Ala., this week. But, despite some of the top-ranked names in the nation being juniors, the Senior Bowl has a storied history of showcasing some of the top talent the NFL has enjoyed.
Since 1950, the next big things at the game's highest level have passed through the Senior Bowl, with luminaries like Brett Favre, Dan Marino and Terry Bradshaw not even making the all-time Senior Bowl roster after fans voted in Joe Namath to that quarterback spot. The all-time Senior Bowl roster registers football greatness at every position – Walter Payton, Bo Jackson and Franco Harris at running back, and Steve Largent, Lynn Swann and Art Monk at receiver. The instantly recognizable names translate to the defensive side of the ball, too, with "Mean" Joe Greene and Jack Youngblood as part of the defensive line, Ray Nitschke and Derrick Thomas as part of the linebackers, and Paul Krause to Dale Carter as some of the defensive backs.
Other all-star games have come and gone, and some, like the East-West Shrine game, still exist, but when it comes to top prospects, attendance from NFL team employees and television coverage, the Senior Bowl remains the predraft event for evaluating pro prospects in a pro practice environment.
"As the NFL draft gets bigger and better and more of just a huge event, this event gets bigger," said Kevin McDermond, public relations director for the Senior Bowl the last four years. "It's a trickle-down effect, I guess, because this is such a big piece now and it has been. But the focus now is on the draft that this is really that first step. … Just in the four short years I've been here, absolutely it's grown."
Attendance was never higher than two years ago when University of Florida superstar Tim Tebow decided to attend, to the immense delight of Senior Bowl officials who recognized the boon of media coverage his presence would afford.
NFL fans were exposed to "Tebow Hour" on NFL shows when the Denver Broncos were still in the playoffs earlier this month, but college football fans – especially those in the South – knew all about Tebow and the pop culture/football/religious icon he was before he ever earned a dollar from the NFL.
"That was an unbelievable year. It did nothing but help," said McDermond, recalling the 10,000 tickets the event sold in seven days when Tebow's attendance was announced. "It was unbelievable. That interest there, there was a documentary made of his week here … they followed him around. The week here was part of the documentary, but it was a significant part of it. I think people saw it and they saw the packed stands and just the atmosphere around the Senior Bowl and the week leading up to it. Now the practices have been televised for several years. Who would have thought our practices would have been televised? It's become a really unique, special event."
Die-hard football fans tailgate, some of them even during the practice week, and wait for autographs from players and even NFL coaches who occasionally will stop and pose for pictures.
But if it weren't for the support of the NFL, which views Mobile as an ideal setting to gather about 100 of the top seniors willing to practice in front of scouts and coaches from every team, as well as media from all over the country, the Senior Bowl's impact would be greatly diminished. Event officials know where their bread is buttered and that's why they don't ever envision juniors being part of the week – because the NFL doesn't want that and won't let scouts attend events that promote juniors leaving school early to enter the NFL draft.
"If we were ever to enter into that realm where we're offering underclassmen to come here, then you kind of look like that's an enticement for a guy to leave early – ‘Oh, I can go to the Senior Bowl and I can shine.' Then maybe those relationships sour a little bit," McDermond said. "The NFL has said (they) want to keep their relationship with the colleges strong. That's why we're not going to promote anything that would promote a guy leaving early."
And having an NFL coaching staff working with each of the Senior Bowl teams, the North squad and South squad, throughout the week and during Saturday's game, is an incentive for some seniors to attend.
"That's your first taste of professional football – that does wonders," McDermond said. "And our relationship with the National Football League truly does set us apart."
Not to mention more than 60 years of providing a glimpse into the future stars of the NFL, even those who eventually end up in the Pro Football of Hall.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
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