Get Smart!

That's what every NFL prospect tries to do when he sits down to take the Wonderlic IQ test
September 04, 1994

Hey, kid! Would you like to play in the NFL? Can you bench-press 410 pounds and run a 4.3 40? Do you have the body fat of Susan Powter and—assuming you're willing to play line, where looks are not a consideration—her haircut, too? You're a human torpedo, right? Great. The NFL might be the place for you. But let me ask you a question.

Three men form a partnership and agree to divide the profits equally. X invests $5,500, Y invests $3,500, and Z invests $1,000. If the profits are $3,000, how much less does X receive than if the profits were divided in proportion to the amount invested?

Pencils down! Look, kid, you're quite a specimen, and you shouldn't feel bad about what's missing, neck up. A lot of good athletes have washed out on the Wonderlic, that pocket IQ test they administer at the scouting combine. You can block or tackle, or you can do some exotic things with a football cradled under your arm, but you're not the sharpest knife in the drawer when it comes to book learning. It happens.

Then again, you might not be the dullest, and as it turns out you can throw a football through a Pirelli at 60 yards. Try another question—and eyes on your own paper! For $2.40 a grocer buys a case of oranges, which contains 12 dozen. He knows that two dozen will spoil before he sells them. At what price per dozen must he sell the good ones to gain one third of the whole cost?

Well, thanks for coming all the way to Indianapolis, kid, and I hope you at least got to see Market Square Arena. But, let's face it, the NFL might not be the place for you. Could I make a recommendation? There used to be a player in the NBA pulling down $3 million a year who, the story has it, scored a 0 on the Wonderlic. You pretty much have to be flat-lining to score a 0. But nobody seemed to mind. Can you dribble?

Nobody can say for sure just how much the mysterious Wonderlic—a 50-question test designed to be taken in 12 minutes—matters as the teams begin to shape up this year. Almost all the NFL teams participate in the testing. Some have been doing so for the last 26 years. Yet they do not rely on the scores equally. The Chicago Bears blow them off; only team president Michael McCaskey sees the scores, and in the last draft he discussed only two of them with Dave Wannstedt, his coach. Ron Wolf, the general manager of the Green Bay Packers, doesn't put much stock in the test, either. "There are so many negative factors today to steer you away from players," he says. He doesn't need any more in the form of standardized testing.

Many more teams, though, have come to regard the game of football as a fast-paced and slightly more unruly version of Jeopardy!, and they won't let anyone through the locker-room door who isn't conversant with quantum physics. Some teams have even established minimum Wonderlic scores for each position. They won't reveal them, but the formula works out something like this: The closer you are to the ball, offense or defense, the smarter you ought to be. So it was that the Dallas Cowboys, during the Tex Schramm era, required their quarterbacks to score at least 19, their less-evolved wideouts just 12. When was the last time, now that you think about it, that you saw two cornerbacks playing Scrabble?

The Wonderlic, and the battery of personality tests that teams increasingly develop, may be the most important thing in pro football that you've never heard of. Athletes bounce up and down in the draft, even disappear altogether, perhaps in part because of the Wonderlic. "It can turn a first-round pick into a third-round pick if he's got just a terrible test score, no question," one personnel director says. It might even drop him right through the draft. In April the Atlanta Falcons passed on Florida State quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward, who was rumored to have bombed the Wonderlic (and went undrafted), and picked Perry Klein out of C.W. Post in the fourth round. Judging from the buzz on the talk shows, a lot of Falcon fans wondered if maybe the folks in the front office shouldn't be taking the Wonderlic instead of the kids.

Nowadays, a promising player might be asked to take as many as 15 tests before draft day. Some are personality tests that leave the players shaking their heads for years. On the Pittsburgh Steelers' test, for example, players are asked to say whether they always/sometimes/never are honest. But the granddaddy of all the tests remains the Wonderlic, a quick little job that was created back in 1937 (clue: a case of oranges was real cheap back then) and a variation of which has been administered to some 90 million people to screen potential employees at more than 15,000 firms. The Wonderlic test was introduced to the NFL in 1968 by George Young, a former high school teacher, who was then with the Baltimore Colts. "I wasn't interested in finding a kid's IQ," says Young, now general manager of the test-happy New York Giants, "just identifying the extremes. Being a schoolteacher by profession, I know mostly what tests don't tell me. I would be the last to say that it establishes intelligence."

Still, the Wonderlic was one more way to put a stopwatch to a kid. And as the NFL expanded from 330 players in the '60s to 1,500 now—as it became harder and harder to evaluate all these prospects, to find kids who could be coached—another tool of measurement was welcomed.

The Wonderlic is ideal. It's quick and it's accurate. And, as it is written on the sixth-grade reading level, it's fair to graduates of all the big conferences. The examples above are from page 2 of the two-page test (answers: $650 and 32 cents a dozen—we think) and are among the more difficult questions. Try one more: Let's say that gasoline sells for 23 cents a gallon. What will four gallons cost? There's a lot of stuff like that on the first page, and, frankly, if you can't answer that, you probably should stop reading here. The NFL doesn't want you and, moreover, SI doesn't want you. You may continue to buy swimsuit issues and hockey previews at the newsstand.

About the Wonderlic: The average citizen would score a 21, meaning he has an IO of 100. On the other hand, the average testing population (all professions) averages 22. The NFL draftees have come in at 19 over the past 20 years (up to 20 most recently), which doesn't make them very cerebral when you compare them with the other professions in that range—shipping clerk, teachers' aide, storekeeper, pressman and mechanic. Professions that score the highest on the test are systems analyst (32), chemist (31) and electrical engineer (30).

More: Former Cincinnati Bengal punter Pat McInally, a Harvard grad, scored a perfect 50 (it happens once every 30,000 tests). At the other end, a player named Rooster Jones is said to have scored a 1, so angering a scout that he called the Rooster back into the testing room and yelled, "You mean to tell me you don't know the sixth month of the year?" Rooster said, "Yes, I do, Coach, but the question before it confused me."

A little more: After all these years, some generalizations are safe to make. Quarterbacks and centers score the highest of all positions. Offensive players do better than defensive players. And sportswriters aren't necessarily stupid. When the Cleveland Browns gave the test to a group of writers covering their draft, Bob Baptist of The Columbus Dispatch scored a 35. He could have gone right past quarterback (the Browns like a 24 there) and been a top systems analyst.

Finally, the most pressing question: Do the players cheat? "No way," says Brown running back Ron Wolfley. "Number one, they had us spread out really good, knowing we were all professional cheaters. Number two, hey, man, you might be cheating off the wrong guy." ("Psst! Hey, Rooster. Miner/Minor. Do these words have similar meaning, contradictory...Rooster?")

For all that, the football community is somewhat divided as to the significance of the tests, even within organizations. Bengal coach Dave Shula says, "I've seen guys who have scored very, very high on those tests, and then you put them on a football field and they can not learn. And then I've seen guys who have poor reading and writing skills, which are necessary for those kinds of tests, but you put them on the football field and you tell them something, and they do very, very well."

Yet Bengal general manager Mike Brown is one front-office executive who loves the intelligence test. He says, "On occasion, I wish we were less enthralled with the physical aspects." Whether by design or by luck, the Bengals have as much brain as brawn on their line—two of their guys have engineering degrees and another has a degree in physics. They are also 8-24 over the past two seasons. Draw your own conclusions.

Most personnel people agree with Brown that it's better to be smart than dumb. Says Tom Braatz, scouting director for the Dolphins, "You're not asking someone to do surgery, but they have to be able to comprehend a lot of material and make quick decisions in unison. If they can't do that, it's hard to make them into players. It's hard to take that much time with someone."

Even the players see the sense of that. Says defensive back Eric Zomalt, a third-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles, "It's a thinking man's game. It's not just who can run the fastest or jump the highest anymore." Easy for him to say. He scored a 38, the top score (along with Miami Dolphin center Tim Ruddy) among this year's prospects. But a few players, at least, are skeptical. "I wasn't concerned about my test score," says running back Mario Bates, the New Orleans Saints' No. 2 pick this year. "I was worried about my workout—my 40 time, my bench, my jump, stuff like that." One player remembers the test being passed out, players looking at it and then putting their heads down and going to sleep. Says Ronnie Bradford, a Denver Bronco cornerback who complained that he had to take 10 tests in '93, the year he was drafted, "If they're looking for the smartest guy, I don't think this is the business."

That brings up a point. Are they looking for the smartest guy? "I'd say the higher you score, the lower you get drafted," says agent Brad Blank. "There seems to be an inverse correlation between those scores and your draft position. Some teams admit they don't want a player who's too smart, because he'll ask questions and is less likely to go along with the program."

The decision-makers agree that they're not looking for the smartest guy, but it's safe to say that they're especially not looking to load up on agreeable morons either. Joe Woolley, former personnel director for the Eagles, has said that the magic Wonderlic number for him was at least 18. "From my experience, a score of 18 and up, they won't have trouble reading or picking up all they need to play in the NFL."

And, of course, it was only a matter of time before each team tried its hand at divining a proper personality to go along with the intellect necessary to succeed in the NFL. Popular with some teams right now is the 16PF test, 105 questions that strike some players as touchy-feely. (True or False: I never feel so wretched that I want to cry.)

Some clubs now have wholly customized tests. The most extensive and, from players' accounts, the most annoying has been developed by the Giants. Their staff psychologist, Joel Goldberg, has helped to put together a 480-question exam that selects the "purposeful crazy" out of the civilian population. According to one player, the questions—Do you like your carrots crunchy or boiled soft?—more likely tend to identify vegetarians. Whatever its purpose, the test is legendary among the prospects. "They want to see if you're a nutcase," suspects Ruddy, who took the test before the draft. Presumably the test is effective; the Menendez brothers remain undrafted.

Young says he's not embarrassed to ask prospects to take the test. "They're not embarrassed to ask us for a lot of money," he says. Young, who gives any player who agrees to take the test an $80 jacket, loves the exam. "It helps us find the degree of abnormalcy we can deal with," he says. That is to say, there might not be a wrong answer to the question, "Have you ever abused animals?" (Cleveland center Steve Everitt, a first-round pick, answered, "No comment.")

Still, Young warns his brethren not to go overboard with testing. That human torpedo we met early in the story may not learn his playbook, but come draft time, he's still the way to bet. "I remember a game," says Young, "in which a defensive lineman with a 90 IQ went up against an offensive lineman with a 150 IQ. The defensive lineman told the offensive lineman, 'Don't worry. After I hit you a few times, you'll be just as dumb as I am.' "

ILLUSTRATIONCHIP WASS ILLUSTRATIONCHIP WASSOne drawback to cheating is that the other guy might be as dumb as you are. ILLUSTRATIONCHIP WASSMclnally aced the test, giving the Bengals the smartest punter in history. ILLUSTRATIONCHIP WASSThe Giants want to see how deranged their would-be players really are.