CARSON, CALIF.,– When history looks back on Saturday’s NFLPA Bowl, few will remember most of the particulars surrounding the National team’s 34-0 victory over the American squad. Most will likely forget that Kansas quarterback Dayne Crist was the game’s MVP or that the Dick Vermeil-coached National team capitalized on five opponent’s turnovers to cruise to a lopsided victory that was over shortly before halftime.
Still, for the 104 players who recently left college football and used the last week to showcase themselves to the NFL front office personnel and scouts both on and off the field, it will be a memory they take with them for a long time.
“The biggest thing in a game like this is to show you can compete,” said Crist, who finished the afternoon with 61 yards with both a passing and rushing touchdown. “The NFLPA put on an incredible event all week long.”
Looking at it in the big-picture, every player had a different reason for coming to this game. Some were here to get exposure after playing at a small school. Others played at the FBS level, but on teams that missed the postseason; they used the week at the Home Depot Center to simply get back on the NFL’s radar.
Then there were some like Crist, who had a disappointing college career which simply didn’t go anything like it was projected to. The former five-star high school All-American was recruited to Notre Dame by Charlie Weis, before playing parts of four seasons for both Weis and Brian Kelly. When Crist lost favor- and his starting job- with Kelly last year, he transferred to Kansas to finish out his career with Weis, in the relative obscurity of the Big XII basement.
It’s safe to say that Crist’s career didn’t go quite as planned. Still he tried to use this week to prove that the past wouldn’t necessarily determine his future.
“The adversity I faced throughout my college career gives me a pretty unique perspective,” Crist said. "There’s nothing I can’t handle.”
Beyond just personal adversity, there is of course adversity that is outside a player’s control as well. That was certainly the case for Ohio State cornerback Orhian Johnson, who played for a team that went undefeated…but was also banned from this year’s postseason. Although it was through no fault of Johnson’s, like Crist, his college career didn’t end as planned either.
“It was different for us,” Johnson said of his team missing out on the postseason this year. “It definitely hurt at the beginning.”
Still, Johnson took full advantage of the stage provided to him Saturday in the NFLPA Bowl, with several big hits from the cornerback position. It was an important step for a player who hadn’t seen game action since the Buckeyes’ season-finale against Michigan back on November 24.
“I just hope I impressed these guys and showed them that I could play ball,” Johnson said.
For many others, the game was simply a way to get onto the NFL’s radar, after playing at either FCS or small Division I schools. Rice tight end Luke Wilson fits into that category, although given the way he played on Saturday, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine playing at a much larger school. Wilson finished the game with three catches and a touchdown, and in the process may have helped get both himself and the Rice football program some exposure.
“Rice being a smaller Division I school, we don’t get a lot of notoriety,” Wilson said.
However, despite it, it was easy to see that Wilson stepped up his game with the increased talent on the field.
“I felt like I got better from Day 1 to Day 2 to Day 3,” Wilson added.
And even for some guys who had plenty of notoriety in college, they still arrived this week with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove.
That was certainly the case for Orwin Smith, who had been pigeonholed as an option back, after spending his college career running, well, the triple option at Georgia Tech. He spent the week soaking up the knowledge from running backs coach Priest Holmes- a former three-time Pro Bowler- and took it to the field with him, where he rushed for 42 yards on the game.
In the process, he proved to people all across the NFL that he was worthy of being in this event.
“I was just blessed to be invited to any All-Star game,” Smith said. “Coming from a triple-option offense, scouts were skeptical that I could play in the NFL.”
And finally there were the coaches, who simply put, may have enjoyed the experience of game week more than the players themselves. Herm Edwards and Dick Vermeil have both coached at the highest level, and Vermeil himself has accomplished the greatest feat there is in the sport, winning a Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams.
Still, despite reaching those high highs, there is little doubt that Vermeil still got a rush when he stepped onto the sideline on Saturday. If you don’t believe him, just ask his wife.
“Last night my wife says to me, ‘Dick, you’re nervous.’” Vermeil said following the game. “I have to stop and say, ‘What’s wrong with me?’”
He then added that being back in coaching, “Just fills up my tank up.”
Regardless, it’s pretty obvious that whatever was the reason that these 104 players and coaches came to Carson, it’s an experience they’ll cherish for years to come.
For all his insight, analysis and opinion on college football, be sure to follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.