INDIANAPOLIS — Beau Sandland was one of the lucky ones, and he knew it. Not because he’s one of the 332 players expected to participate in this year’s NFL Scouting Combine. Not because he owns one of the best names in football.
Sandland considered himself fortunate because he came to Indianapolis without a history of football injuries — or any medical issues in his past, for that matter. And that allowed the tight end from Montana State to get through the medical evaluation portion of the Combine much quicker.
But despite Sandland’s clean chart going in, it still took time.
“Today was really intensive, I can’t even tell you how many hours we were in there, just doing the same thing, answering the same questions,” said Sandland, whose list of colleges attended exceeds his list of medical flags. He started at Pierce College, transferred to Miami, then spent his final season at Montana State. “It didn’t take me nearly as long to get through as some of the other guys who have had a history of injuries, so that was good.”
The NFL separates Combine athletes into 11 position groups, and all go through the same sequence. Early in the four-day process — before running the 40-yard dash or the cone drill, or seeing how many times one can bench press 225 pounds, or throwing or catching the ball on the game field at Lucas Oil Stadium — players report to the medical station. There they get looked at — really looked at — by medical personnel, potentially, for all 32 NFL teams.
For quarterbacks, wide receivers, and tight ends, medical day was Thursday.
“It wasn’t as bad as people say it was. I’ve heard guys say, ‘They have eight people on you, two on every extremity.’ I’ve heard the stories, but it wasn’t too bad,” said Thomas Duarte, a tight end from UCLA. “I don’t really have that deep of a medical history, a few tweaks here and there, but it was fine. I kind of flew through it.”
Players are not mandated to participate in the medical session, especially when the topic will include any kind of physical issue that has been dealt with. But this is viewed as a job interview, and teams will go to great detail before deciding whether they’ll use a draft pick on a specific player. How healthy that player might be figures prominently into that decision, so their willingness — or refusal — to subject themselves to the medical testing can be important.
“The single most important thing we get is the medical assessment on these guys to see where they are, and if they have some concerns we can follow up on those. That would be the single biggest thing,” said Duke Tobin, the director of player personnel for the Cincinnati Bengals.
The medical portion of the Combine is actually split into two parts. On the day of arrival, a pre-examination is conducted at an area hospital (the Combine uses Indiana University Health Hospital), with players undergoing a standard battery of tests, similar to an annual checkup. Family medical history is discussed, blood can be drawn, and a urine drug test is administered.
Then on Day 2, using an area in the basement of the stadium, the league creates a small number of rooms where players will be evaluated by team medical professionals. Each room contains medical personnel from either five or six teams. To help expedite the process, in most cases each player will get a thorough physical and orthopedic examination by one team, and that medical observant will then share the findings with the other teams. Once completed, the player will repeat the process in each of the other rooms, giving every team the opportunity to observe and evaluate, either directly or indirectly, all Combine invitees.
If a player has been injured — say, a knee injury or shoulder injury — then closer inspection almost always takes place, complete with X-rays and MRIs, which are set up at the stadium. Teams can request extra testing. So if a player comes with some injury baggage (this being football, many players do), then teams will want to make sure they know exactly what they’re dealing with. After all, they’ll be paying these players a considerable amount of money, but that comes with the expectation that the player will be healthy enough to perform.
Sometimes injured players are invited to the Combine, even though they won’t participate in any of the on-field activities. Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith is here, after suffering a serious knee injury in the team’s bowl game on Jan. 1. But teams still will get an opportunity to meet with Smith, see what his current physical situation looks like, and project what his long-term availability might be.
For most of the others, who are at or near peak physical condition, they’re simply hoping the medical session helps add to their overall appeal to what they hope will be their new employer. But for players who have had annual physicals to allow them to play football in high school and college, this was different. Much different.
“It was fun. It was an experience. This is all an experience for me. It was good, just to get in there and let those guys get their hands on you, get a look at you,” said David Morgan, a tight end from Texas-San Antonio. “Every room was the same. It was just going in there and doing it 10 times in a row.”
Did anything that was done or asked — players can go through these medical tests for NFL teams and not learn the results — make Morgan uncomfortable?
“No, I’m pretty comfortable when it comes to everything like that,” he said. “I’m pretty open.”
To most of the Combine participants, even an extremely invasive period of personal probing into one’s medical history by strangers is enthusiastically accepted, because it beats the alternative.
“People would kill to be here, so I’m not going to complain,” said Sandland. “I think the Combine is unlike anything anyone has ever been through before. I’d do it again, 10 times over, if it meant getting this exposure and to be able to put myself out there with the tests and the interviews.
“I’ve been playing football 12 or 13 years now, and knock on wood I’ve never had any concussions or breaks or tears, or any major injuries. I’ve been lucky.”