College Football

NFL Combine delivers the drama factor

The characters, possibilities are endless as the league's workout Olympics begin

Pittsburgh Panthers running back James Conner speaks to the media during the 2017 NFL Combine at the Indiana Convention Center. (Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports)
Pittsburgh Panthers running back James Conner speaks to the media during the 2017 NFL Combine at the Indiana Convention Center. (Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — On one side of the cavernous meeting rooms in the Indiana Convention Center, you could watch the bench press. On the other side, future NFL football players answered questions from gaggles of media.

Neither exercise says a ton in particular about how they actually play the game of football, but this is the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine. This is the time to watch how many times a draft prospect can bench press 225 pounds. This is the time to ask Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey about his abilities on the harmonica.

“Camp is (during his sophomore year), it’s not rough, but you get a little bit lonely,” McCaffrey said, “so I ordered a harmonica on Amazon about $15 and just started messing around with it.”

McCaffrey also plays the piano.

“I’m average, I’m not elite, but I like to play,” he said.

Is there anything you can’t do? (This was the next and totally logical question.)

“There’s a lot I can’t do, don’t let me fool you up here,” McCaffrey said with a laugh. “I can’t sing.”

Four Hawkeyes will run the combine marathon — seriously, it’s a marathon that begins for the nearly 300 prospects in the deep a.m. with feats of strength, speed, interviews and a multitude of medical examinations before scouts, coaches and personnel executives.

Quarterback C.J. Beathard and tight end George Kittle meet with the media Friday. Defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson goes Saturday. Defensive back Desmond King takes his turn on Sunday.

Running backs were in the pits on Thursday. LSU’s Leonard Fournette weighed in at 240 pounds on Wednesday, making him the heaviest back at the combine. That came up in interviews.


“It was surprising,” he said. “I drank a lot of water before I weighed in, so it was water weight. Most definitely a lot of people think I’m just strong. Some people say I lack speed, lack burst. I mean, tomorrow will show it out [in the 40-yard dash].”

McCaffrey was the lively podium for the second session. Reporters asked five different times about his decision to skip Stanford’s appearance in the Sun Bowl to focus on preparing for the draft. (Fournette also skipped LSU’s Citrus Bowl after an injury-riddled season.)

This became a monster debate in December. Is it the end of bowls?!?!?!? Or is it a business decision? McCaffrey called it business.

“I made that decision. It was a career decision,” McCaffrey said. “It was a man decision, to try to protect my dream of playing and succeeding in the NFL. Whether it was an advantage or not, I stuck with it and I’m here now, moving on. That’s probably all I’ll talk about that anymore. I’m moving onto NFL football now.”

McCaffrey said his teammates gave him a “little ovation” when he relayed the news.

“That was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make,” he said. “I was just real lucky to have a bunch of guys who have my back during it.”

Players spent 15 or so minutes at podiums and tables fielding questions from a massive amount of media. This situation is, unfortunately, made for duplication from questioners.

McCaffrey had skipping the bowl. (It’s his life, he said it was a business thing, his teammates supported him and does anyone even remember who Stanford played in the Sun Bowl?)

Pitt running back James Conner answered repeated questions about cancer.

Conner was the ACC player of the year in 2014. He then suffered a knee injury and missed 2015. That’s when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. He returned in 2016 and finished with 1,092 yards. He’s also the ACC’s career touchdown leader.


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And now here he is. He said Thursday that NFL teams haven’t asked him a ton of questions about his condition. Conner said he received a clean scan last week and that his Hodgkin lymphoma remained in remission.

“I’m hearing a lot of congratulations (during his interviews with NFL executives),” Conner said. “I’m up to date. They all got a copy of that, so there’s really no questions about that. Medical has been fine for me. A lot of doctors say I’m healthy.”

Conner has a three-inch scar on the right side of his neck. It’s a remnant of cancer surgery. And, deep breath for Conner’s sake, the only one.

“I ask the coaches, ‘What do you guys want in a RB?’” Conner said. “They want a tough guy. My mental toughness and my physical toughness, I feel, is second to none. I’ve just been through so much and I think I’m more determined than any running back in this class and just willing to make sacrifices and do whatever it takes.”

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