More than 300 of the top college football players in the country will be pulled, prodded, tested and queried almost to the point of exhaustion as the annual NFL meat market known as the combine begins this week.
Unfortunately, the intense pressure to put up outstanding results in Indianapolis, and at the pro days that follow, leads some players to make decisions regarding performance-enhancing drugs that they otherwise might not have made.
I recently spoke with two newly retired NFL players who admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs before and/or after the combine, and they shared with me the basis upon which their decisions were made.
"I hurt my shoulder during my senior season and realized that it would not be healed in time for me to train or perform to the best of my ability at the combine," said the first player, a former Division I-A star who spoke under the condition that he not be named. "I had worked too hard to let one injury negatively affect my dream. I injected HGH [human growth hormone] because a doctor I knew recommended it as the fastest way to heal from my soft-tissue injury."
Given that a test for HGH wasn't available at the time, his act went undetected.
"I had spent seemingly my whole life working toward the opportunity to play in the NFL," he added. "I wanted to be able to bench press at the combine and did not want teams to think that I was either injured or lacked the toughness to fight through an injury."
That said, his time at the combine soured him on the NFL experience.
"It really is like a cattle show," he said. "You are absolutely treated like a piece of meat when you strip down in front of all of the personnel people and then have doctors pulling on every part of your body. It definitely gave me a negative perception of the NFL. The only good part [about the combine] is getting the opportunity to meet with the coaches and interact."
This player continued to take HGH in advance of his pro day and ended up being drafted. After a handful of years in the NFL and a myriad of injuries, his career is now over.
The other player with whom I spoke had a different predraft experience, partly because he was a small-school player who didn't get a combine invitation. As such, he realized he would not be tested for performance-enhancing drugs until he was signed by an NFL team, so he chose to do whatever he possibly could to make sure he even got that opportunity.
"Right after my college season I sat down and weighed the pros and cons of taking steroids," he said, "and ultimately decided that the pros outweighed the cons. I looked at this [my pro day workout] as my one shot in life."
His research told him that the steroids would allow him to work harder in the weight room, recover more quickly and make better gains in terms of the tangible numbers the NFL scouts covet so dearly.
"Taking steroids does not make you a better player, but it does enhance your ability to train. I just knew how hard it was to get legitimate attention being from a smaller school and realized I had to put up really good numbers," said the player, who had brief stints for a couple of NFL teams and in NFL Europe before moving on to his next career.
I have always felt that one of the greatest flaws in the scouting system is the amount of stock teams place on the numbers generated at the combine and pro day events. Those numbers are basically a crutch that poor film evaluators lean on when the time comes to make and defend their decisions regarding a particular player. That overemphasis on testing results places an undue amount of pressure on the players and leads to several unintended consequences that negatively affect the league.
"The pressure to put up good numbers led me to make the decision that I did and I don't regret it at all," said the small-school player, "I put up very solid numbers and got my shot."
He was not overly concerned with how the steroids might affect his health, saying, "I found out that less is more sometimes and you can greatly minimize the chances of negative side effects as long as you don't go overboard with it."
The unintended consequence of his steroid use, however, was that he realized how effective the drugs really could be. He mentioned that "the pressure to put up the numbers really opened my eyes to what was out there and available. The fact that they really worked kind of opened up Pandora's Box for me."
Though I am not naïve enough to think there aren't some players using performance-enhancing drugs during their careers, I have had very few ever admit steroid use to me over my seven-year NFL career. I firmly believe that the number of users is small because of the frequent testing and intense scrutiny we are under once on an NFL roster. The fact that several players mentioned they took performance-enhancing drugs in advance of their combine and pro day activities, however, leads me to conclude that that system is out of whack and needs to be tweaked.
The fact that players can make or lose millions based on one-tenth of a second in a 40-yard dash only serves to increase the likelihood of drug use. Many teams seemingly place almost 50 percent of their evaluation of a player on his raw, physical numbers. This is certainly not a recipe for success.
Some of the perennially good teams, such as New England, Indianapolis and San Diego, realize the testing results are a very small part of their comprehensive evaluation and therefore place perhaps 5-10 percent on the physical-testing component. When comprising a team, the most critical ingredient remains true football prowess garnered from exhaustive evaluation of the game film.
I have played with a plethora of terrible linemen who could bench press more than 500 pounds and an equal number of superb linemen who couldn't sniff a 5.0 40-yard dash. The numbers often lie. Teams are much better served researching players' backgrounds in an attempt to get an accurate assessment of a player's intangibles, such as heart, toughness and football intelligence.
Unfortunately, until an objective test is created to measure the intangibles, teams will continue to overemphasize the physical-testing numbers. The human obsession with natural feats of athleticism and strength is too difficult to overcome for many scouts and personnel people.
As long as the combine and pro day events remain an overly important part of the NFL evaluation process, prospects will continue to find ways to maximize their performances. The unfortunate result is the intense pressure that can sometimes lead to the "Pandora's Box" that is performance-enhancing drugs.