Weslye Saunders' Combine nightmare

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

From broken bones to botched paperwork, everything went wrong for Weslye Saunders during his NFL Combine experience. But after making it in the NFL, he's living proof that a bad Combine doesn't mean the end of a pro career.

Got a question for Weslye about the Combine, the NFL Draft, his playing days at South Carolina, games with the Steelers and Colts, or anything else? He'll be answering your questions in the comments starting at 2:30 p.m. ET, so ask away.

I’m a big movie buff. I love watching movies and trying to figure out the storyline before things actually happen. I notice that nine times out of 10, when a character says "at least things can’t get any worse," they usually do. Silly me. As a prospective NFL player, the Combine is the pinnacle of your career up until that point. It's potentially your last chance to "show off" for the scouts.

I arrived safely in Indianapolis for the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine. But that's about where the good news ended for me. My newly broken foot, "character concerns" and an NCAA suspension plagued my stat sheet. It was up to me to answer the question, "So why should we draft a guy like you?"

Background

Going into my senior year, I was the No. 1-rated tight end in the country and a "sure fire" first-round pick, according to the analysts. But an NCAA investigation and suspension kept me out of the entire 2010 college football season. I missed out on South Carolina's most successful season in school history and our first trip to the SEC Championship Game. I watched from the sideline. At the conclusion of the season -- and after my healthy serving of humble pie -- I declared for the NFL Draft. I did not have to suffer through any injuries or take any hits, so I was fresh and ready to go. In my mind, I was still the same No. 1 tight end that I was before the season began. Emphasis on "in my mind."

Access Denied

On Jan. 4, 2011, I received my invitation from the NFL to attend the 2011 Scouting Combine. I had also agreed to terms to sign with Nike, which sent me to Dallas to train with Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson at the Michael Johnson Performance Center. However, just two weeks into training and the day after my birthday, I received another letter from the NFL. Only this time, the news wasn’t so sweet.

The letter stated that because I did not play at all during the year, I was not accorded my senior status. Therefore, I should have filed an early submission form to enter the NFL as an underclassman. In other words, I was SOL. Because I signed with an agent, returning to college football was not an option. And I had just been ruled ineligible for that year's NFL Draft. So now what? Talk about a rock and a hard place.

My lawyer and agent, James "Butch" Williams, proposed the idea that we write letters to commissioner Roger Goodell and anyone else who could help. This widely criticized "paperwork snafu" gave the impression to everyone that my representation and I were ignorant and illiterate and that this was somehow our fault. While we worked daily to change this perception -- and the NFL’s ruling -- I still trained hard, preparing myself as if I would be at the Combine. But it was hard to remain focused with such a large elephant in my room.

The injury

We were working on the 5-10-5 drill; special guest Michael Irvin came by to check out our progress. After a few full-speed runs to end the day, our trainer told us to take it in and get off of our feet. I should have listened. In an attempt to get my technique perfect -- and show off for Mr. Irvin -- I decided to run again. I planted hard on the first cut, and that was it. I felt a sharp pain in my foot like I had never felt before. I immediately knew something was wrong. The next morning, X-rays confirmed what I already knew: a full fracture in my fifth metatarsal on my left foot that would require surgery. So, about that combine invite ...

When life gives you lemons

If my life were a movie, then maybe I could have predicted what happened next. Just two days after informing my family and friends of my broken foot, I received some great news at a terrible time.  An NFL representative called to inform me that my appeal was reviewed and finalized. We had won our case!

I was on the ticket as an official invitee of the NFL Scouting Combine. Same invitation, different situation. I was back to where I wanted to be, and I was not going to let a broken foot stop me. Well, at least that sounded good in my head at the time.

The good, the bad and the Combine

Competitiveness: the aggressive willingness to compete. As an athlete, that can be our greatest strength, or our downfall. We believe that even when we are not 100 percent, our grit and determination can get us through. That is, until your body says "no mas."

Answering reporters and taking meetings with coaches for the first two days was the easy part. I was more than comfortable talking about my past, and I was eager to prove that my mistakes were behind me. However, Day 3 would prove to be the biggest test, as I attempted to participate in each on-field drill. I measured in at 6'5, 270 pounds with the longest wingspan out of everyone. All of that means absolutely nothing when you're running on one wheel. There was no amount of talking or explaining that could get me through this; I was hoping that the eight Tylenol and the 5 Hour Energy I took would.

Usatsi_5577996_medium

(Photo via Michael Hickey-USA TODAY Sports)

You can check out video footage of me at the Combine here.

It didn't take long for me to realize how terrible this idea was. I hobbled through two events -- the broad jump and vertical jump -- before I called it quits. I sat alone in an empty corner of Lucas Oil Stadium with a bag of ice on my foot. A trainer was talking to me, but I couldn't hear a thing he was saying. All I could hear in my head was: "Weslye Saunders will be removed from today's drills due to injury," which was blasted over the loud speaker.

Lord knows what the coaches were writing in their notebooks as they heard the news from the stands. At that exact moment, I hated Indianapolis and everything in it. I couldn't wait to get the hell out of there and never look back. How could I ever return to this place and not think about this nightmare of a weekend? It would definitely take time, patience and a lot of Luck.

Get your mind right

Mental and physical toughness at the Combine is a must, but more so mental. Football players largely depend on athletic ability, but those three days require much more focus and attentiveness. I would have never realized this had it not been for my injury. The inability to display my otherwise superior athletic prowess left me in a vulnerable position, one that required me to grow up quickly and be honest with myself. Undrafted and waiting on my surgically repaired foot to heal, I got a job at the University of North Carolina Neurosciences Hospital. Not a bad gig, considering we were in the middle of an NFL lockout with no resolution in sight. That's where the mental toughness thing comes in. I thought about what Coach Steve Spurrier would tell me all the time at South Carolina, "control what you can control," and that's what I intended to do. All I needed was a chance.

The beginning of the end

The lockout ended and I received the call from my agent that I'd be attending training camp for the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was a moment of clarity over excitement. It was clear that this was my time, and I had to make the most of this opportunity, because it might never come again.

After I quit my job at the hospital -- surprising, I know -- I arrived in Latrobe, Pa., with one thing in mind: win. I had just two and a half short weeks to show these coaches and the league my ability. The way I saw it, that was much less pressure than the Combine just months prior. I was ready this time, and I knew what I had to do.

When I made the 53-man roster, it was a sigh of relief and humility. Having gone through a six-month period like that, I wanted to give up. My dreadful Combine experience -- and every obstacle in between -- made me a better person, and for that I am thankful. Now, heading into my third season with the Indianapolis Colts, I find it ironic to have so many positive memories at Lucas Oil Stadium. Maybe it's a coincidence, or maybe it's Luck. I just know I'm blessed to be here!

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