National Scouting Combine

For the 72 young—and some not-so-young—men who assembled inside the 10th Street Sports Center in Indianapolis on Thursday, the athletic tests they underwent were no different than those that will be administered at the NFL Combine this weekend: the 225-pound bench press, the 40-yard dash, the three-cone drill and others. The city and the tests would be identical, but the aspirations and likely the results will be somewhat more modest.

“I want our guys to come in and enjoy the day,” Jimmy Kibble, the founder of the National Scouting Combine (NSC), said on the eve of the event. “Don’t worry about who’s there and who’s not there. Come in, do your best and have fun.”

Although it was held in the Hoosier State’s capital the same week as the NFL Combine, the National Scouting Combine has no affiliation with the National Football League. It is the creation of Kibble, a former All–Big East punter at Virginia Tech who, in 2000, participated in the NFL Combine. Six years ago, Kibble, who had a brief career in the Arena Football League (AFL) and NFL Europe, wondered why there are more pro football leagues besides the NFL but only one national combine. “I was hoping that we were potentially filling a void,” says Kibble, 38, “that the NFL was not filling.”

If the NFL Combine is Hamilton, then the National Scouting Combine is an off-off-Broadway play. The former is staged over four days—this Friday through Monday—inside Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts. Thousands of fans will attend to watch future Pro Bowlers partake in fitness tests, while tens of thousands more will view it live on NFL Network. The latter took place on Thursday afternoon at an indoor soccer facility with corrugated aluminum siding 11 miles west of the Colts’ home. ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. may not be aware that this event even exists.

Jimmy Kibble, left, created this combine so that hopefuls such as Terron Beckham, right, would have a chance to shine outside the NFL Combine.

“I’ve networked with coaches and scouts,” said Kibble, who signed as a free agent with the New England Patriots in 2000 but was released during preseason camp. “I’ve told them, ‘If you want to come, let us know.’ It’s an open invitation.”

The NFL Combine invites the top 300 draft-eligible players to its event, including Saturday studs such as Heisman Trophy–winning running back Derrick Henry of Alabama and Butkus Award–winning linebacker Jaylon Smith of Notre Dame. Kibble’s event welcomes no-names such as defensive end Ali Aqel of the University of St. Francis (Joliet, Illinois) and running back Elad Covaliu of Saint Anselm College (Manchester, New Hampshire). Nearly all of Kibble’s campers are aspiring to catch on with a Canadian Football League (CFL) or AFL club, but like the titular character in the aforementioned musical, they are not throwing away their shot.

The 10th Street Sports Center is 11 miles west of, and a hundred times more Spartan than, Lucas Oil Stadium.

“Some of the guys who come here may be lucky to get one offer, while others may wind up getting a dozen or more,” says Kibble, who kicked for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Pioneers and New York Dragons of the arena league and later the Cologne Centurions of NFL Europe. “I’m not here to screw with people’s dreams and opportunities.”

While some of the participants at the NSC hail from major football programs (e.g., Mississippi State and Penn State), there is an Island of Misfit Toys aura to the group. Corey Adams, a former four-star prep defensive lineman, only started one game in four seasons at Arizona State due to chronic back injuries. Cedeno Patrick, a defensive back who has played in the arena league, is 32. Kibble knows little about defensive lineman Bernard Bongesse-Lokota of France other than that the 6-foot-1, 290-pounder “moves like a skinny guy inside a fat guy’s body.”

The one jaw-dropper inside the 10th Street Sports Center on Thursday was Terron Beckham, a personal trainer from New York City. A cousin of New York Giant Pro Bowl wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., Terron looks more like his twin—both men are 23—except with a more impressive physique. On Thursday, Beckham, a running back who only played parts of one season at Division III Stevenson University in Maryland five years ago, bench-pressed 225 pounds 44 times. That feat would be a record for all players who have ever attended the NFL Combine other than interior linemen.

“A guy like Terron, he’s got an opportunity to shake up the world after a day like today,” Kibble said after the event. “He’s chiseled, has a great deal of maturity, and by the way he performed you can tell he’s focused. He’s going to walk away with contract offers from the indoor league and the CFL, maybe even higher.”

Kibble was a two-time All–Big East punter who played in the 2000 Sugar Bowl, where his Hokies lost to Florida State for the national championship. The following summer he found himself in the Patriots’ preseason camp with another rookie, Tom Brady. Before New England’s first preseason game, he tore ligaments in his foot and was released. After bouncing around the minor leagues, he launched a graphic design company that morphed into a sports marketing agency, Beyond Sports Network.

“We held our first combine in 2010 at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.,” says Kibble. “We didn’t know what to expect. We had 42 guys preregistered, but 80 players showed up on the day of the event.”

One of those players was a fire hydrant–size running back from the University of New Hampshire named Chad Kackert. Only 5-foot-8 and 200 pounds, Kackert had no hope of being tendered an NFL Combine invite. After news of his performance at Kibble’s combine began to circulate, he garnered a free-agent tryout with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jags would cut Kackert, but he caught on with the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL and by 2012 was their starting tailback. The Argos would win the 100th Grey Cup that season, and Kackert was named the game’s MVP.

“Someone like Chad is exactly why we’re doing this,” says Kibble, who had a staff of 12 assisting him in Indianapolis. “Sometimes, the difference between achieving your dream to play professionally and not is exposure. We wanted to give a platform to the players.”

The NFL Combine is first-class while Kibble’s combine is economy-class. All of the NFL’s invitees are flown to Indy and housed there at the league’s expense. Kibble charges each of his campers $75 to cover expenses. Players must secure their own travel and their own lodging—although Kibble was able to get his campers $65-per-night rooms at a nearby Holiday Inn Express, provided they did not mind having a roommate.

Each year, a few thousand college football players either graduate or exhaust their college eligibility or both. A precious, precocious few who are three years removed from high school and who may be ready to play in the NFL declare themselves draft eligible. The number of players who hope to play professionally far exceeds the number who will be invited to the NFL Combine (300), which itself exceeds the number of those who will be drafted by the NFL (256). And while most major programs have “pro days” for their departing athletes, there is no other national combine for the scores of players who hope to play professionally, be it with the Carolina Panthers or the Calgary Stampeders. “We’re just trying to help the athletes,” says Kibble, who as a businessman understands that there is a large, untapped market of NFL Combine wannabes. “This week in Indianapolis, the National Scouting Combine really is the second place to be.”