A Tough Audition for an Entry-Level Job
This week in Indianapolis the National Football League will kick off its annual Scouting Combine, the toughest entry-level job audition that its prospective employees could imagine.
Each year, the Combine welcomes up to 335 presumably NFL-ready college football players, all competing to earn the highest level of employment and financial security they could receive for their first professional contract. And while the Combine will be the toughest entry-level job audition that these young men will ever face, it is not even close to the end of their journey to a pro career. They will still need to shine at the ‘Pro Day’ on or near campus to work out for coaches and scouts.
The National Combine is not only a demonstration of athletic ability; it is also an opportunity for a prospective player to demonstrate their football knowledge and character in meetings with coaches, executive and scouts. They also take the Wonderlic, a multiple choice aptitude test much like those used by some employers who hire recent college graduates for customer service and entry-level positions.
Too often prospects arrive at the Combine with doubts around their potential to succeed at the next level, and those doubts get aired to the public. I doubt that any other prospective employer outside of the NFL and the NBA allow such doubts to get out before their prospective employees have an opportunity to disprove them. Then again, those who are likely to earn the most at the start have the most to prove.
Does this week’s Combine signify the end of the road for players who were not invited?
No, there are also Regional Combines for players who are eligible to be part of this year’s NFL draft class. The best players at the Regional Combines are invited to a Super Regional Combine. At the start of the 2016 season, 73 Regional Combine players were on NFL rosters. They had all played college football through their senior year, many with more snaps and starts than players who were invited to the national Combine. Collectively, more than 1,100 players, mostly seniors, get their chance to display their talents at the Combines, and more will get their chance at a Pro Day on campus.
Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen is the probably the most prominent athlete to come out of the Regional Combines. Named to the Pro Bowl this season, Thielen played football at Minnesota State University-Mankato, then payed his own way to the Regional and Super Regional Combines. His performance earned him invitations to rookie camps with the Vikings and the Carolina Panthers. Thielen made the Vikings practice squad in his first season in 2013. He become a full member of their roster the following season.
Adam’s story is more typical for prospective professional football players than those of the more highly touted athletes who are awarded millions on the first day of the NFL Draft. NFL coaches and player personnel executives have certain expectations for the skill set to play each position. In Thielen’s case, size, mobility and hand-eye coordination were important, but speed, a sub 4.5 40 yard time, was key. Thielen had the skill set, but it took more time for him to get noticed.
Some might say that the odds that a high school football player might advance to NFL-ready stature in college are quite low, especially when there are so many colleges that play football, and so many players who are never seen in game action by pro scouts. But on the other hand, over 1,000 young men are given an opportunity to compete for over 300 new jobs through the league’s entry-level recruiting and hiring practices. Their odds are better than those for a computer science major who wants to get a job at Apple or Google after they complete a Bachelor’s degree.
Believe it or not, the NFL, as a league, is one of the largest employers of entry-level talent in our country. While professional football is not going to be a long term career on the field, its players have the opportunity to save and plan for a future. But they must first survive the rigorous recruitment and selection process.