Veteran Combine proves majority of players still trying to get in, not out of, the NFL

Former Rams defensive end Adam Carriker, who has not played since September 2012 due to injury, auditioned for teams at Sunday's NFL Veteran Combine.

Mark J. Rebilas/Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

TEMPE, Ariz. — Most of the names weren’t recognizable as 105 players showed their wares to all 32 NFL teams during the first NFL Veteran Combine held Sunday at the Arizona Cardinals’ training facility one day before the start of the league’s annual meetings 25 miles away at the posh Arizona Biltmore.

However, one thing was certain: None of them had Chris Borland’s name on their minds. Borland, of course, is the San Francisco 49ers linebacker who shockingly retired earlier in the week because of fears of what the game might do to him physically.

As former NFL player Matt Birk, now the league’s director of football development, said, "These guys are fighting for their football lives."

And to think how many more there are like them, despite the alarmists who overstate the dangers of the game and claim decisions like the one Borland made could eventually be the death knell for the sport.

More than 2,000 players applied for a spot in the Combine, and only 105 could be accommodated. Many were younger players, such as 2014 Rams draft pick Michael Sam, who have training camp experience but have never played in a game.

Then there were true veterans such as quarterback Brady Quinn, 30-year-old former Rams defensive tackle Adam Carriker and running backs Felix Jones and Michael Bush.

All hoping to get another shot at the sport’s highest level.

Carriker was selected by the Rams in the first round of the 2007 draft but hasn’t played in the NFL since 2012.

His career was hampered by injuries. He missed the 2009 season before being traded to Washington in 2010. After starting in 31 games over his first two seasons with the Redskins, Carriker played just two in 2012 and missed all of 2013. He was out of football last year.

Carriker was cleared medically last summer and his agent was talking to about 12 teams when the Combine was announced.

"We figured that would be a great opportunity to be seen," Carriker said. "I’ve been waiting for this day."

When Borland was mentioned, Carriker said: "If I was in that situation, I wouldn’t be here right now. Sure, I’ve had injuries, but I feel good. Feel great."

Speaking perhaps for his other 104 brethren, he said: "I feel good. I feel great. I’m not done. I can’t help what’s going on in here (taps his heart). It just beats. That’s why I’m here today."

Sam, who was to travel back to Los Angeles for Monday night’s Dancing With The Stars competition, also showed his passion for the game, saying he will continue his quest for "as long as I still have that will, as long as I’m still healthy and can play this game, you will continue to see me fighting to get in this league."

One of the relative unknowns was Caesar Rayford, who was signed by the Indianapolis Colts as a 27-year-old in 2013 after bouncing around the Canadian Football and Arena Football leagues. He was traded to the Cowboys at the cut-down to 53 that year and played seven games, but was then released at the end of training camp in 2014.

"Some guys use the front door into the NFL, some guys get in the back door," he said. "I had to climb the house and jump through the chimney just to get into the house. Then I was kicked out of the house and now I’m climbing the house again. I will just keep on fighting, being relentless and having perseverance. I have a dream. I see myself playing and I will just keep on going after it.

"Guys are here fighting and clawing to get back to the league. We are hungry and here to make it happen."

Birk banged heads in the NFL on the offensive line as a center for a decade and a half, and is perplexed by the negative talk.

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"I don’t believe that perception is reality," he said. "I believe in the sport of football. I know what this game is and what it can be and what it means to millions of young kids. That’s why I am working in the NFL."

As for the potential for poor health later in life, Birk said: "People ask, ‘How do you feel after playing so long?’ Well, for being 38 years old, I feel better than any other 38-year-old I know. I look at my buddies now; they got the flat butts and the big guts. I feel great.

"Does that mean I’ll feel great tomorrow? I don’t know. Who knows what the future holds for any of us, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I played 15 years in the NFL and I wish I could have played 15 more. That’s how I feel; that’s my decision….

"Anyone who’s involved in this game knows it’s different. There’s something about football. It’s just different and it’s special. We love it. The satisfaction and the rewards outweigh any risks."

Sunday in Tempe certainly proved that.

Howard Balzer can be heard daily on H & Friends from 9-11 a.m. on FoxSportsRadio 1490.