BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Not long after they strapped on those shoulder pads for the first time as kids and snapped that chinstrap on their helmet, Indiana seniors Nick Westbrook, Raekwon Jones and Simon Stepaniak have dreamed of playing in the NFL someday.
And now, when the time has finally come to attempt to realize that dream, the world around them has changed. COVID-19 had changed everything for everybody. And that includes guys trying to prepare for the NFL Draft — and whatever follows — later this month.
It's a hard time to be a college senior looking for a job, even when it's trying to find a home in professional football.
"One thing that's tough for me right now, when I came back home (to Lake Mary, Fla.), there's no place to train. Everything is closed,'' said Westbrook, the wide receiver who had at least 42 catches in each of the past three seasons for the Hoosiers. "There are no local gyms, no facility to go to, and I've just had to try to get creative with my workouts.
"I don't have any dumbbells at home, so I've just been using sand bags. Whatever it takes.''
Whatever it takes really does sum it up perfectly. With the world turned upside down, the usual NFL schedule is in chaos as well. All the things that happen from the end of a college season to the beginning of the draft has changed.
Intensive training to impress scouts has gone away. So have almost all "Pro Days' on college campuses. Indiana's was supposed to take place on Tuesday, but it had to be canceled because of COVID-19. Instead, Westbrook, Jones and Stepaniak, scattered across the country, met with the media by conference call. The draft, which is April 23-25, will go on in some form or fashion, and after that, teams will sign undrafted free agents.
But with all visits and travel canceled, it's difficult for NFL personnel to really get to know all these guys. And it hurts these three a lot, too, because they smart and personable, and they have high football IQs. They would impress NFL executives in one-on-one meetings.
All three have had some contact with NFL people. Westbrook and Jones played in postseason all-star games, and Stepaniak, though recovering from ACL surgery, was invited to the NFL Combine. Since then, they' ve FaceTimed with NFL people, in this new world order.
"The Tropical Bowl (in Daytona Beach in January) was a good experience,'' said Jones, Indiana's standout outside linebacker. "I got to meet a lot of scouts, at practice, and at the hotel. We had meetings with them and got to know some of them, .howcase my character to them.
"I sat down with the Chargers, chatted and talked the season about Indiana in general. They talked about how they liked me, and the energy I played with. We just tried to get to know each other better. It was a great opportunity to do that.''
Jones had been working out in Colorado Springs to prepare for Pro Day, but he went hone to Florida a couple of weeks ago when the pandemic started shutting everything down.
It was the same for Westbrook, who was in Seattle training. Seattle was one of the first cities in America with a big outbreak, so Westbrook cut short his stay and came home to Florida.
"I was really disappointed when I first heard about it because I went out to a training facility in Seattle, and it was like training for that first game of season. There's a build-up for that,'' Westbrook said. I was ready to perform, which was important to me since I didn't get a Combine invite.
"I was worried about travel when the virus was getting bad, and I left early. We did an impromptu Pro Day deal, recorded all those drills that I needed to do, but it was rushed and I would have preferred to have a day to be at my best physically. My agent has been sending them out to the teams, so we made the best of what he had.''
Jones has been trying to do the same thing in Panama City. "We are on lockdown, and we're just trying to find places to work out that aren't closed. I'm just trying to continue to stay ready,'' said Jones, who's been working out with former Indiana safety Jonathan Crawford.
"With all the gyms closed, we've just been outdoors, trying to do some drills, do some speed workouts, work on coming in and out of our breaks so when the opportunity does come, I can stand out because I've been working on the little things.
"I can only control what I can. I don't have any weights at home. I do have a few bands I can use, but that's it. I've been doing a lot of crunches, stretching a whole bunch, doing a lot of running. It's all we can do, really.''
It's the same for Westbrook.
"I'm basically doing "Rocky'' workouts in my driveway,'' Westbrook said. "The hardest part has been mental, just like everyone else, I suppose. I'm stuck in the house, just trying to find ways to stay busy.
"The mental side of not know what's going to happen next, that's the hardest part. You don't know how long before things get back to normal again. All those unknowns are probably the hardest things to deal with, and I just want to stay ready for whatever happens.''
Stepaniak was the only Hoosiers at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis in late February, and he wasn't able to participate in much outside of the bench press because of his knee rehab. He's a potential late-round pick, and he said he's had several conversations with pro teams, including the Jaguars, 49ers and Bengals. He met a lot of people at the Combine.
"I was thankful for that opportunity at the Combine, especially now with everything shut down,'' Stepaniak said. "It was definitely a blessing to get to know the coaches, and let them check out my body, check out my knee. I've been having a nice, clean recovery, and being able to have face-to-face meetings with teams and their doctors was huge.''
"I really rely on my film and my knowledge of the game. They'll see that, and we've talked a lot. We had a lot of good football conversations. I've had a lot of second calls with me. A lot of it is just going to FaceTime now, and draw on a notepad and show what you know. It's a pretty complicated situation.''
Stepaniak said his rehab is right on schedule and he should be ready to go by training camp, whenever that will be.
"I'm just sticking with what I know, and trying to stay on track with my recovery. I'm keeping on track at an accelrated pace, and they all know that. My agent and I, we've been stressing to teams and their doctors that I'll be ready by then, because that's crunch time.''
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