- Kristi Dosh, Sports Business
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For months now, players such as D.J. Hayden and Lane Johnson have been training for this. They perfected their 40-yard dash time for the NFL combine, met with sports psychologists and learned how to cook themselves nutritious meals. In gyms and training facilities all over the country, they’ve worked with position coaches and learned how to conduct themselves when being interviewed.
All of this, in the hopes they’ll hear their name called a little higher than they were projected just a few months ago.
The trend began in the early 1990s, and today virtually every draft-eligible player spends weeks, and sometimes months, leading up to the combine and draft training in facilities designed to improve the odds of hearing his name called in an early round.
Danny Arnold, owner of Plex training center in Texas, has been working with nearly 20 players expected to go in this year’s draft, including Hayden, a cornerback and projected first-round pick out of Houston.
“Unless they have a bowl game, they show up in January,” Arnold said. Most stay with him through the combine and continue preparing for the upcoming season until it’s time to report to their teams.
“We don’t go extreme combine training when they first get here,” he said. “I think it’s very easy to teach that. It’s not necessary to spend all day, every day on those things.”
Although Plex does work with its athletes on skills tested at the combine -- 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical jump, broad jump, 3-cone drill, shuttle drill and the Wonderlic test -- the players are working on position skills throughout their time at the facility. In addition, a nutritionist teaches the athletes to cook healthy and balanced meals.
“We don’t let them have more than 15 meals a week with us, because they need to learn how to cook,” said Arnold. “If you don’t teach them that stuff, then when you find out in the offseason they’re overweight, then it’s our fault.”
Athletes spend six days a week at Plex, with a two-hour session in the morning and a two-hour session in the afternoon on weekdays, and one session on Saturdays. Arnold says he also likes to surprise the players once a week or so with an outing such as bowling or laser tag to lighten the mood and reduce the risk of burnout.
At Fischer Sports in Arizona, athletes spend the majority of their day at the facility, with an 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. schedule six days a week. Johnson, an offensive lineman out of Oklahoma who also is projected to go in the first round, is one of the players who has been working out at the Phoenix facility this year. Like Plex, Fischer Sports offers much more than simply on-field workouts.
“It’s six days a week of training from flexibility to speed to interview work and media training. We do some seminars as far as investments, things like that,” said Brett Fischer, owner of Fischer Sports.
This year, he brought in a sports psychologist who has worked with professional teams to help train the prospective draftees on interview skills. The sports psychologist researches the players and confronts them with questions they might get from media members or team executives, particularly if he uncovers anything about them online that might raise a red flag.
“We go through real scenarios. Part of the interview training is with coaches, because some interviews are with coaches at the combine,” Fischer said. "They have to be prepared to talk football talk, but they also have to be able to handle questions that come their way, like do you smoke marijuana, how often do you drink, that sort of thing.”
So, how much does it cost a prospective draftee for all of those weeks of training?
At Plex, training can run from $500 to $1,000 per week, with housing adding as much as $1,500 to $2,000 per month. Fischer says training at his facility generally runs $12,000 to $15,000 total, plus housing. Those costs are generally covered by the player’s agent, who no doubt is hoping to cash in when his player is drafted.