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The NFL combine is one big mental test in your underwear

Everyone’s focused on the 40s, but the most important part of the combine happens in the meeting rooms and MRI tubes. Retired NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz looks back at the experience.

2015 NFL Scouting Combine Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The NFL combine is one those events I’ll never forget. It’s a massive NFL job fair, where your entire life is securitized and every detail is covered. You prepare physically and mentally for weeks just for the three days you’re in Indy.

The process starts the day your college football season ends. For me, that was after we beat South Florida in the Sun Bowl on New Year’s Eve. I was in Nashville on Jan. 2 to start the training process.

Everyone assumes we just train for the 40, bench press, and field dress. That’s true. But we also spend time preparing for the mental parts of the combine: how to answer interview questions; what message do you want to get out to the teams; and practice Wonderlic tests. All of this to prepare for three days of work.

Events and happenings that aren’t televised are the combine’s main purpose. They’re designed to challenge a player mentally, and most important, to see where they are physically.

The physical aspects of the combine, the 40, short shuttle, position drills, are 99 percent just to confirm what the scouts have seen on tape. There are guys who show better than their film and guys who perform worse, but the majority perform on the field just as expected. In the end, the field testing and workouts are just a small portion of your physical scouting report. Your college film will always reign supreme.

Right away when you arrive, you get a uniform with your name and number on it that you wear at all times. That way, front office personnel can always identify you.

The first interactions with any teams start the first night. You’re all herded into a large ballroom where every team has a table with various personnel. The second you hit the carpet of the ballroom, you have scouts pulling you in every direction, trying to get you over to their table. At the table, you have an informal interview with the position coach or a scout: name, agent, college, best games you played, worst games you played, do you love football, and so on.

Position coaches get more specific and start talking scheme. They might ask what type of offense you ran in college, what are your strengths and weaknesses, what are you hoping to improve on, how you think you’d fit in their scheme. These interviews are supposed to last 10 minutes; most often they go over.

If you’re a stud, you can have up to 15 formal interviews scheduled at night. These are 15 minutes in length and happen in a hotel room with anyone from the team: the owner; GM; head coach; player personnel; etc. The more of these you have scheduled, the better chance you’re drafted high. I had one; my brother had all 15. He was in the second round; I was late seventh.

These interviews can range in topic and tone. Some of them are just asking you to draw a play on the board. Talk through a protection. Talk through an adjustment. Sometimes they draw up a play, ask you to remember it, and draw it up later.

Those are the relatively easy parts of the in-room interviews. Most of the time, if we’ve made it to the combine, we can draw up a play and talk about football. The tough part is when they start calling your play or character into question.

During my one in-room interview and the team pulled up a single play from a 2007 game against Washington State.

“Why didn’t you go hard on this play,” they asked me.

“It was Washington State, and I didn’t need to go hard to block this guy,” I told them. Not the best answer, but an honest one. Through this process, it’s important to be truthful. I could live with my answer as long as it was the truth.

That interview was actually tame. I’ve always been fascinated by what happens in those meetings, so I’d often ask my position coaches what their roles were in those meetings. One unnamed coach told me his job, when asked, was to rattle the player: scream, yell, and berate the young man to try to break him. Football is uncomfortable, and being able to process and stay calm under pressure is vital to success.

This is where the mental testing comes into the picture. While assessments like the Wonderlic can test intelligence, most of the mental tests (there are more) are about how fast can you process something and spit out the correct answer.

The Wonderlic is a 50-question test done in 12 minutes. The questions aren’t difficult, but they require you to think for a second. Like a play, where you have just a couple of seconds to see the coverage or the formation, you theoretically have 15 or so seconds to answer each Wonderlic question. It’s less about worldly knowledge and more about mental processing.

The original purpose of the combine was for the medical checks. We spend an entire day doing this. It’s the most tiring day: full physicals and six rooms of team doctors. We go into each room and get a full head-to-toe. If you’ve stubbed a toe in your life, they will find it. The doctors order MRIs left and right.

I had back surgery in college, so I knew they’d order an MRI for that. I made it through the first five rooms, and no order for the MRI. I was pumped. I HATE that MRI tube. Entered the sixth room, and boom, MRI for me. I’ve seen one player have six MRIs! Poor guy was at the hospital all day.

In between the testing, the medical, the interviews, you have weigh-in day and bench press. I dreaded weigh-in day. I was as heavy as 370 pounds in college but played my senior year at 340 pounds. My agent wanted me at 330 pounds for the combine.

I don’t lose weight easily. I essentially didn’t eat much of anything in Indy until we weighed in. I believe I was officially 332, so congratulations to myself.

The weigh-in day is also when you stand on a stage in front of all the personnel guys in your tights and they measure your arms, hands, neck and make you do a squat. It’s only slightly awkward.

The last part, the last morning you’re in Indy, is the on-field activities. Everyone knows the 40, but we are tested for flexibility, vertical jump, broad jump, etc. It’s a full morning.

A quick warm-up, then 40 time. You run two 40s. You’re so focused on the moment, you don’t even realize how weird it is. You’ve played four years of college football, and now you’re running a 40-yard dash in your underwear in a giant stadium in front of 1,000 people. One frustrating part is that you don’t get a time given for your runs. You have zero idea how well or how awful it went.

After that, you move onto the position drills. These are way more tiring than they need to be because you’re so hell bent on doing everything at 500 percent. Even just moving to line up is done at a tempo you will never do again. Coaches look to see who’s first in line.

Finally, it’s off to the airport after a quick pit stop back in the room to gather your bags, where the next batch of combine participants is already in the room, and bye-bye Indy. I went home and slept for two days straight. I’ll never forget the combine, and I never want to do it again.