12 Most Memorable Moments from the NFL Combine
The NFL Combine offers a last chance to see college stars in action before they turn pro. Here are some of the most memorable Combine moments of the past.
Every year since 1982, the NFL Combine has operated ahead of the NFL Draft. The Combine has provided an opportunity for pro hopefuls to bolster their draft stock and shore up their chances of landing an NFL contract. The event has become an annual tradition of the American sports calendar, growing in popularity as it has added new skills tests and increased its television coverage.
We’ve gone back through the history of the NFL Combine to pick the 15 most memorable events. These are not necessarily in order of memorability, but rather a chronological look at some of the biggest stories that have emerged out of the event. So click forward to see our choices for the 15 most memorable events of NFL Combine history.
Bo Jackson sets 40-yard record… but not officially (1986)
Back in 1986, the NFL Combine was hardly the spectacle that it is three decades later. Yet there was still a palpable buzz around the last Combine held outside Indianapolis. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner showed up in New Orleans and opened the eyes of the football world with a 40-yard time that laid one of the cornerstones of the Bo Jackson legend.
The result from Jackson’s run at the 1986 Combine has been traditionally listed at 4.12 seconds, a number that began being debated almost as soon as it was released. Jackson himself has also claimed being timed electronically at 4.13 seconds, lending credence to the number from New Orleans. Even if this number isn’t perfect, it is still the event that set the 40-yard dash on course to play such a significant role in the event for decades to come.
Jackson was selected first overall by Tampa Bay in the 1986 NFL Draft, but refused to sign with the Buccaneers after he was ruled ineligible to play baseball after a team visit was expensed and never cleared with the NCAA or SEC. Bo went on to play baseball instead, and would land with the Raiders the following season for what ended up a short but electric NFL career.a
Deion Sanders dominates 40 and leaves in style (1989)
In 1989, Deion Sanders had zero intention of running the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. Gil Brandt, writing about the event 22 years later for NFL.com, said that Sanders
told people at the combine that he would not run the 40-yard dash while he was there. I had enjoyed a good relationship with Sanders dating back to time I spent visiting him at Florida State, so I was asked to speak to him about running. Eventually, he obliged my request to run. And run he did — Sanders ran just once, blowing away the on-lookers with a 4.27 40 and then continuing right on into the locker room.
Brandt would list Sanders’ 40 time as 4.27, and says that Sanders then ran straight to the locker room. Other apocryphal reports stated that Sanders headed straight through the tunnel to a waiting limousine that took him to the airport. Either way, the Seminole speedster opened eyes in 1989 much like Bo Jackson had at the NFL Combine three years earlier.
Mike Mamula becomes original Combine warrior (1995)
By the 1990s, the NFL Combine had begun to gain importance among college players hoping to make it to the pros and among college studs hoping to increase their first paydays. The event has always been something of an enigma, testing players on skills that are only peripherally relevant to the actual game of football. For most of the event’s first decade, players had never put as much stock into the drills as they do now.
Mike Mamula changed that equation entirely and helped vault the NFL Combine to a new level of importance on both an individual and an institutional level. Mamula, who had been a versatile edge rusher at Boston College, came to the NFL with experience as both a 3-4 outside linebacker and a 4-3 defensive end. Yet he was projected to be a second- or third-round pick before he arrived in Indianapolis for the Combine.
A monster performance in Indiana changed the narrative on Mamula. Having prepared for months ahead of the event, Mamula wowed the scouts with his 4.58 time in the 40, a vertical leap of 38.5 inches, and 28 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press. The impressive performance led the Philadelphia Eagles to take Mamula seventh overall in the 1995 NFL Draft, and he had an impressive start to a career that was ultimately undone by injuries.
Vernon Davis opens eyes to move up into first round (2006)
In recent years, having an athletic tight end has become a fixation for NFL teams. A decade ago, the position was not nearly viewed as being nearly as dynamic as it is in the current game. Thus, when Vernon Davis showed up at the 2006 NFL Combine, few people expected him to be as explosive as he was in so many different ways.
Davis dominated his chance at the NFL Combine. The Maryland star had been moved to tight end as a sophomore after being recruited as a wide receiver, and in the role he had steadily developed into one of the best in the country even as the Terrapins played sub-.500 ball in both of his years as a starter. He worked his way into a top-10 draft position after showing off both speed and strength in Indianapolis.
The Terp tight end posted a ridiculous 4.38 seconds in the 40, bench-pressed 225 pounds for 33 reps, and showed off a 42-inch vertical leap. Thanks to his all-around effort at the NFL Combine, Davis was selected sixth overall by the San Francisco 49ers in the 2006 NFL Draft.
Calvin Johnson decides to run 40 after all (2007)
Like Deion Sanders in 1989, Calvin Johnson showed up at the 2007 NFL Combine in Indianapolis fully expecting not to run the 40-yard dash. The 2006 Biletnikoff Award winner had posted a 1200-yard receiving season at Georgia Tech, a team better known for its triple-option ground game than its aerial attack. It seemed as though there was little to gain and everything to lose by running the drill that could make or break NFL draft position.
Eventually Johnson’s competitive nature got the better of him, and he convinced himself to run against the clock. Borrowing a pair of track shoes from East Carolina’s James Pinkney, Johnson stepped up to the line and solidified his position at the top of the draft. In unfamiliar footwear, the man who had yet to become Megatron ripped off a 4.35, good for third-best among wide receivers at the 2007 NFL Combine.
He had already been projected as the second overall pick behind JaMarcus Russell, and he had nowhere to go in the draft order but down. But sometimes a man has to compete, and the effort was rewarded with number-two prestige as Detroit took the Yellow Jacket star.
Chris Johnson sets electronically-timed 40 record (2008)
While Bo Jackson might have run faster, he did so in an era when the Combine itself was still all hand-timed and thus prone to skepticism. Chris Johnson, who racked up two dozen touchdowns and nearly 3000 all-purpose yards in his senior year at East Carolina, arrived in Indianapolis as a solid if unspectacular running back prospect. After all, 23 players had rushed for more yards than the 1423 that Johnson posted in his senior season at ECU.
But none of them managed to run quite as fast as Johnson in the 40. Bursting out of his stance, dreadlocks flopping behind him with each leg kick, the Pirate back stopped the clocks faster than anyone had previously done in the electronically-timed era of the NFL Combine. The clock read 4.24, and when added to his 35-inch vertical leap and his 10’10” broad jump results, Johnson vaulted into first-round material.
When Tennessee selected Johnson 24th overall in the 2008 NFL Draft, he matched former ECU linebacker Robert Jones as the highest-drafted Pirates in school history.
Stephen Paea nearly matches bench press record with 49 reps (2011)
Officially, the NFL Combine bench press record was set in 1999 when Justin Ernest managed 51 reps. But the defensive tackle from FCS Eastern Kentucky was underwhelming in every other drill, went undrafted, and never reached an NFL game after signing with New Orleans as a free agent. Only one man has ever come within five of Ernest’s mark, providing one of the most remarkable moments of the modern highly-televised era of the NFL Combine.
Stephen Paea won the Morris Trophy as the top defensive lineman in the Pac-12 as both a junior and a senior and was a consensus All-American in his final season at Oregon State. Even before his senior year, Paea opened eyes when a video of him lifting 44 reps at the bench press surfaced 12 months before he would head to Indianapolis for the 2011 NFL Combine:
If anyone had a chance to eclipse Ernest, everyone knew it would be Paea. Under the pressure he couldn’t quite get past the 50-rep mark, but his 49 lifts were 11 better than the next-best prospect in 2011 and five more than any other prospect has put up in the 21st century. Drafted by Chicago in the second round, Paea spent four years with the Bears before playing in Washington and Cleveland the past two years.
J.J. Watt’s versatile efforts bump him into first round (2011)
Coming out of high school, J.J. Watt was an unheralded prep player who was recruited as a tight end more than as a defensive end. Originally a scholarship athlete at Central Michigan, he left Mount Pleasant to walk on as a defensive lineman at Wisconsin. Three years later, he was once again largely overlooked heading into the 2011 NFL Combine despite being named a first-team All-American and winning the Lott Trophy.
Watt silenced his critics with a Mamula-like performance at the NFL Combine. Though he came nowhere near Paea’s record-challenging number, Watt finished tied for fourth among all players in the bench press with 34 reps. His broad jump of 10 feet and his vertical leap of 37 inches both ranked fourth among defensive front-seven players. Despite running a slow 40 time of 4.84, Watt was undoubtedly the revelation of that year’s Combine.
The all-around strong showing bumped Watt into the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft, where Houston selected him with the 11th overall pick. Since then Watt has become the first player in NFL history to record two different 20-sack seasons and is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year.
Vick Ballard takes a tumble on his 40 attempt (2012)
Not all of the most memorable moments are necessarily positive. Five years ago, fans watching the NFL Combine were treated to this moment of comedic relief by Mississippi State running back Vick Ballard. Ballard had spent two years in junior college before coming to the Bulldogs, but after rushing for nearly 1200 yards and adding 20 receptions in his senior year he earned himself an invite to Indianapolis.
Luckily those individuals who run the 40 at the NFL Combine get two attempts to set a mark. Unfortunately for Ballard, he ran a 4.65 on his second attempt. That represented a mark a full one-eighth of a second slower than he had been projected a few months earlier. Ballard still managed to land with the Indianapolis Colts in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL Draft, but after rushing for over 800 yards as a rookie, an Achilles tendon injury prematurely ended his NFL career before it could really get started.
Morris Claiborne sets new low mark on Wonderlic test (2012)
One of the weirdest rituals of the NFL Combine is not its odd assortment of physical tests but the mental examination known as the Wonderlic. Strong scores on this test have never necessarily shown a strong correlation to pro football success. Even then, an incredibly poor showing on this test is often enough to raise red flags for NFL scouts and front-office executives that are debating who among the next crop of rookies to draft and sign for their clubs.
That said, even the worst Wonderlic score won’t dissuade somebody from selecting a solid talent with a high pick. Just ask Morris Claiborne, the cornerback from LSU who set an ignominious record at the 2012 NFL Combine when he scored just four out of 50 on the test. Dallas still decided to take Claiborne, rated as the top defensive back in the 2012 draft class, with the sixth overall pick.
Despite being injury plagued in his first five seasons in the NFL, Claiborne has nevertheless been among the best cornerbacks in the league when he has managed to play. He is up for free agency this offseason and could leave the Cowboys sometime this offseason.
DeAndre Hopkins and Mark Harrison trash hotel room (2013)
Just as not everything that is memorable about the NFL Combine is positive, not every memorable event takes place at the Combine site itself. In 2013, the big story coming out of Indianapolis wasn’t Marquise Goodwin’s 4.27 time in the 40 or B.W. Webb of FCS William & Mary’s 20-yard burst that was three-hundredths off the NFL Combine record.
The story didn’t break immediately, but right before the Draft news came out that a room at the Crowne Plaza in Indianapolis had been trashed. Bodily fluids smeared the bathroom, garbage and partially-eaten food were strewn about the room, but no damage was done to any of the items in the room.Eventually word came out that the room had been assigned to Rutgers receiver Mark Harrison and Clemson wideout DeAndre Hopkins.
Both young men denied the allegations that they were to blame for the filth. Though he suffered the brunt of the suspicion, Hopkins was still drafted in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft by Houston. Harrison, on the other hand, went undrafted and bounced between practice squads before playing a year in the CFL and is now out of football.
Byron Jones leaps 12’3″ to break broad jump world record (2015)
The NFL Combine is better known for its own proprietary events that have little correlation to either football skills or athletic challenges that are undertaken more widely by the global community. One of the few exceptions is the broad jump, a test of a football player’s lower-body strength and explosiveness that has been that has been a regular feature of the NFL Combine from its outset.
Two years ago, Byron Jones wasn’t even expecting to participate in any physical drills at the 2015 NFL Combine. The UConn cornerback was recovering from shoulder surgery when the annual event reconvened in Indianapolis. But with focused training, he was able to participate in the jumping drills. Instead of staying sidelined, Jones broke a world record that had stood for nearly five decades.
With his 12’3″ leap, Jones became the rare football player to claim an athletics record. He also finished just a half-inch away from claiming the vertical leap record. The landmark performance helped bump Jones up into the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft, where he was selected by Dallas with the 27th overall pick.
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