MOBILE, Ala. — There’s one more thing Jon Gruden needs to see from his Senior Bowl North squad before the first day of practice is officially over. The players back up into two lines, forming a gauntlet. Khalen Saunders, a 320-pound defensive tackle from Western Illinois, one of the smallest schools represented at the annual All-Star game, takes a deep breath and gets ready for takeoff.
Saunders will explain afterward: “When Coach Gruden tells you to do a backflip, you do a backflip!”
He runs forcefully into a roundoff-backflip combo. He soars through the air on his flip and lands it easily. The whole team erupts in cheers and swarms him.
“[Gruden] was surprised that I could still do it even after a full practice,” says Saunders.
A week before Senior Bowl, a video of Saunders doing his backflip went viral when ESPN reporter Adam Schefter tweeted it out. The video showed Saunders doing a roundoff into a backflip on the rooftop of his offseason training facility, Proactive Sports Performance, in Santa Ana, Calif. According to Twitter, the video got 1.36 million views. Saunders had to mute the notifications on his phone because the response was so overwhelming.
His agent, Kyle McCarthy of Athlete’s First, recorded the video as a way to gain some recognition for his client. Saunders became the media darling of Senior Bowl week (the fact that his first child was born minutes after the first practice ended also helped his Q-rating), and had a strong week of practice to back it up.
Backflips, splits, jumping out of pools, walking on hands... Draft prospects with unique athletic skills have used YouTube, Twitter, and—back in the day—word of mouth to promote their strange talents and make themselves a little more memorable to NFL evaluators. Does it make a difference?
Scouts who passed through WIU’s Macomb, Ill. campus didn’t need a backflip to know that Saunders is an explosive athlete deserving of recognition in a loaded draft class of defensive linemen. But for those less familiar with the FCS product (Western only played one FBS opponent this season), it was a memorable introduction.
An NFL scout who had seen Saunders earlier in the season saw the backflip on Twitter and immediately edited his scouting report. “I was like, Ohhh, O.K., I gotta add this to my writeup,” the scout said. “The team has got to see this, because it reinforces what you already knew about him.”
Most scouts I spoke to downplayed the importance of an eye-catching stunt. Scouts admit that it helps get them interested in small-school players they may not have known much about previously, but they also quickly point out that if a player can’t back it up on film, then it doesn’t matter if he can land a backflip.
One of the original purveyors of draft’s stupid human tricks doesn’t think that’s entirely true. “Everyone getting drafted is pretty much as good as the next person that is getting drafted,” says Aaron Gibson, a 1999 first-round pick of the Detroit Lions out of Wisconsin. “Everybody is the same, so you have to separate yourself somehow. Something that makes them go, Oh hey, that’s the dude that walked on his hands, or that's the big guy that can do backflips. You want that to be the difference.”
Back in the nineties, you would think Gibson would be known primarily for his size (6' 7" and nearly 400 lbs.), but there was much more. While at Wisconsin, he and some of his teammates watched a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie in which the action star performed one of his trademark splits. A few days later in the weight room, Gibson was challenged to do the splits, Van Damme-style. “I was like, I think I can do that!” Gibson says. “And everybody was like, Bulls---! No you can’t!”
So Gibson pulled over two benches and placed a heel on each one, doing a full splits. Then, his teammates handed him a 45-pound plate. He held the position easily, and a legend was born. It didn’t take long for word to spread across the football world.
From a 1997 USA Today story: “He does the splits like a cheerleader one-fourth his size.”
The Los Angeles Times’ 1998 college football preview mentioned that Gibson, “can do splits a la Mary Lou Retton.”
Current Browns general manager John Dorsey was the Packers’ college scouting director in 1998. He had this to say about Gibson to USA Today: “I saw him do a personal interview piece, and this guy did a full split, so there’s agility there.”
John Dettman, Wisconsin football’s strength coach at the time, made sure that every scout visiting Madison knew what exactly Gibson could do. “They knew I could do the splits even before they would talk about if I could play or not,” Gibson says. “I was doing the splits all the time. Every single scout asked, Can you do the splits?”
A month before the combine, Gibson taught himself another unexpected skill for a guy of his gargantuan size. He learned to do a “kip-up”: from a supine position, you rock backward toward your head, place your hands by your ears and launch yourself up, landing on your feet. He remembers running to the strength room in between classes to show Dettman his new trick. “Do that at the combine,” Dettman said, “and you’ll be a first-round draft pick.”
During the stretching portion of the offensive linemen workout, Gibson did all his stretches from a full split. In groups of four, the players reached to the right, to the left and to the center to show off their range. Instead of just standing up normally when he finished, Gibson decided to surprise scouts with his kip-up. The scouts in attendance gasped.
“I rolled back, flipped up and landed on my feet and it blew their minds,” Gibson says. “In their heads, I was still the typical big person, so I had to do things that were just so out of the ordinary for a big person that they would be like, Oh my god, he is not just 6-7, 385 like all the other big guys, he is super athletic.”
That night in one-on-one meetings with teams, Gibson says there was one request common across the coaches and scouts he met with. “They all asked me about that kip-up, like, Can you do it again?” he says.
The Lions drafted Gibson with the 27th overall pick—shoulder injuries derailed his career before it got started, limiting him to 34 starts in the NFL. Looking back, he credits his unusual athletic feats for pushing him into the first round. “Those two things, the splits and the kip-up, were the reasons I was a first-round pick, rather than maybe a second or third round.”
A decade after Gibson, San Jose State defensive end Jarron Gilbert became, unofficially, draft season’s first stupid human trick to go viral online.
Gilbert was hanging out at his apartment pool with his teammates after a Friday summer workout when he remembered his strength coach told the team that he’d heard of players that could jump out of pools—like a box jump, feet starting on the floor of the pool’s shallow end and landing on the concrete lip. Gilbert and his teammates decided to give it a shot that day. Everyone failed except for Gilbert, who made the jump on his first try. His teammates videotaped his next attempt, and he posted it on YouTube (after editing out some expletives from the teammates filming):
“I was at San Jose State, which is not your USC or Ohio State, so I wasn’t getting a lot of attention at that time,” Gilbert says. “So I said, Hey, maybe somebody might look at it and get me noticed.”
Gilbert had an impressive résumé from his on-field work. He finished his senior season second in the country with 22 tackles for loss—NFL evaluators knew who he was. But the pool video took on a life of its own, amassing hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. It now has nearly 4.5 million views.
“It was kind of unprecedented at the time,” Gilbert says. “I think I was the first to post it on YouTube. But I remember the next year, a lot more guys were doing that kind of stuff. Quarterbacks came out with trick passes, guys were dunking. And even in my year, there was a guy who jumped on the back of a truck right after my video.”
The Bears drafted Gilbert in the third round of the 2009 draft, and Gilbert believes the pool jump boosted his stock. “What it did, more than anything, was help me get noticed in the first place,” he says. “Scouts were like, O.K., we have to take a closer look at this guy.” Greg Gabriel, who was the Bears’ director of college scouting at the time, said team personnel saw Gilbert’s pool-jump but it had no impact on the pick. Gilbert lasted only one season in Chicago, and bounced around the NFL for three more seasons, ultimately playing only five career games.
Two years after Gilbert’s pool jump, Eastern Washington running back Taiwan Jones put his own twist on the trick. On a summer day in 2010, his teammates challenged him to match the videos of prospects jumping out of pools. Jones accepted, but raised the stakes. “I’ll do it backwards,” he said. His teammates doubted him, but he landed it on his first attempt.
“Honestly, I had never done it before,” Jones says. Like Gilbert’s, Jones’s video wasn’t the sole reason he got attention—at his pro day, the prolific rusher was clocked at 4.32 in the 40. And as an FCS prospect, he thinks the video helped get him get more looks. “That’s when my name started to get out there a little bit and I think that video might have helped, like, who is this kid?” he says. A fourth-round pick of the Oakland Raiders in 2011, Jones has played eight NFL seasons—switching to cornerback briefly—playing last year in Buffalo.
There are stupid human trick alums who have has major success in the NFL. Chicago’s Tarik Cohen, an all-purpose back and All-Pro return specialist, was a diminutive (5' 6") small-school prospect (North Carolina A&T) looking to grab some attention during the 2017 pre-draft process. He did, by catching two footballs while doing a backflip (warning: you will hear the f-word if you watch with the sound on):
And then there’s Ravens Pro Bowl defensive tackle Brandon Williams who was once, like back-flipping Khalen Saunders, a small-school defensive tackle prospect hoping to make a name for himself. At Division-II Missouri Southern, Williams had a pre-practice ritual of walking around on his hands. One day during fall camp before the 2012 season, defensive backs coach Rashad Watson captured if on video.
Originally, Watson made the recording to show friends—the shock of seeing the 335-pound Williams balancing his body weight on his hands. But Watson was also the school’s NFL liaison at the time, meaning he was the first coach to talk to every NFL scout who made his way to Joplin, Mo., and soon the video had a second purpose. Each time a scout asked about Williams, Watson would pull up the video of Williams walking on his hands.
“It was just natural to show them, because I'm like, Man, this guy is 335 pounds and look how athletic he is,” Watson says. “We didn’t know really where Brandon would go [in the draft], or even if he would get a shot. But we said, let’s just pump anything that we can about him out there.”
Because Williams pulled out the party trick frequently before the start of practices, some scouts in attendance saw him do it live. The Ravens drafted him in the third round of the 2013 draft, and Williams has since established himself as one of the NFL's best defensive linemen, signing a massive second contract before the 2017 season. He still believes the hand-walking helped it all get started.
“That was the X-factor for me,” Williams says. “It showed other teams and everyone around the NFL how athletic I really was, even though I was coming from a Division-II school.
“I never knew a handstand showing up on YouTube could get me more looks from the NFL. I would say, to all who have a special athletic talent, show it to the world, because you will never know how far it will get you.”
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