LONG BEFORE THE DRAFT AND THE COMBINE, COACHES, EXECS AND HUCKSTERS GET THEIR FIRST CRACK AT NEW NFL MEAT AT the five-day football carnival that is the Senior Bowl
ARE YOU INTERESTED in a vanilla shake that will increase your muscle mass by 4%? How about some fixed-income securities? Maybe some custom rims for the new ride? A three-piece suit, perhaps? Your head is spinning as you contemplate these questions; your legs are throbbing from four hours of mindless loitering. You're standing in a second-floor hotel lobby, but you feel as disoriented as a Wichita tourist in a Marrakesh street market.
Do not fret, though, for these are all merely indicators that you have officially arrived at the greatest (and strangest) football convention on earth. It's 11 p.m., and the hucksters have been unleashed inside a carpeted, windowless lobby that's also crawling with agents, coaches, scouts, fans and media members. And in the middle of it all, above the din, the best-dressed man in the room is screaming into his phone: "I'M SORRY, HONEY, BUT I CAN'T TALK RIGHT NOW. I'M AT THE SENIOR BOWL. THE SENIOR BOWL. THIS IS WHAT I DO!"
The best-dressed man in the room is Clarence Jones, and while he has never played a down of football in his life, he knows everyone at the Senior Bowl. And everyone knows him. The way he talks, you may think he's the director of player personnel for some NFL team. "Studying the board, there are a few 6'3", 6'4" defensive ends, prototypical frames, that really stand out," he says, adding pointedly, "and they would look good in a suit."
Here, Jones is known as CJ the Suit Guy—he's a Memphis tailor who's been making the 400-mile drive to Mobile, Ala., every January for the last decade. It turns out it's not just teams with pass-rushing issues who are sizing up Eastern Kentucky defensive end Noah Spence. "Chiseled, broad-shouldered—mmm hmmm," Jones hums. "I have something in mind."
The five-day affair in Mobile encompasses open practices, media sessions, fan events and a game on Saturday, but the real action at the Senior Bowl is inside the second-floor lobby at the downtown Renaissance Riverview Plaza Hotel, which at this hour resembles the Star Wars cantina, everyone in the shadowy club looking to cut a deal. (OH: "If I'm right, there could be like half-a-mill coming in, all cash.") Another onlooker calls the scene "a cesspool"—and that's an agent talking.
People huddle in all corners of the room, often speaking quietly so as not to be overheard, though little of it makes any sense anyway—certainly not the questions that Alabama QB Jake Coker is being asked. ("And what does your grandmother do?") That one-on-one, with an NFL scout, is among a dozen awkward interviews taking place as the sharks circle the room—reporters looking for anything resembling news; agents looking for face time for their players; fans looking for autographs; financial advisers and insurance salesmen looking for clients; recent college graduates and recently canned coaches looking for a job, any job, with any team. "And the guys walking around in suits?" says retired linebacker Bart Scott, who's doing some shilling himself, on behalf of Morgan Stanley. "Well, those are the suit guys."
Ah, yes. The suit guys. Tonight there are three working the room. One from New York, one from Atlanta—and CJ, who has been tailoring out of his one-man shop since 1994 and who, even as we near midnight, looks like a million bucks. Or at least 1,250 bucks, the draft-day-special price for one of his suits, with shirt, pocket square and cuff links included. "It's going to be a very productive week," he says, scanning the room, ready to make some deals. "A very, very good week."
WHAT, EXACTLY,is the Senior Bowl in 2016?
At its core it remains an all-star exhibition between the North and South teams, with rosters of collegiate players who have completed their eligibility, coached by NFL staffs. (This year: Cowboys and Jaguars.) But over 67 years the game has become the launch point for a weeklong extravaganza in which a narrow four-block stretch of the third-largest city in Alabama hosts 1,000-plus attendees for a football assembly unlike any other. It's Comic-Con for football junkies; it's a job fair, insurance convention and mega-speed-dating all rolled into one; it's a cross between the NFL owners' meeting and the Apalachin Meeting.
Another way to see it is as Episode 1 of the world's most outlandish reality show outside of this presidential election. With the exploding popularity of the draft as entertainment, the Senior Bowl is the start of a multipart program that stretches across three months. It's the place where narratives and characters are first established.
And those characters have produced some downright bizarre scenes over the years. Any longtime frequenter has at least one Senior Bowl story that involves a prostitute, an agent throwing punches, maybe a player being paid off in plain sight—or all three. "I've seen agents steal players from other agents right in front of me," says one player rep. (Asked if he'd ever been the one doing the stealing, the agent replies, "Well, sure.") Pat Dye Jr., agent to the likes of Geno Atkins and DeMarcus Ware, remembers his first Senior Bowl, in 1988: He was fresh out of law school, working at a prestigious Birmingham law firm with designs on becoming a sports rep, when he showed up in Mobile. Dye put on a pinstripe suit and his nicest pair of shoes—and quickly realized he'd have been better off wearing a holster and spurs. It felt, he says, "like the wild wild West." Dye recalls seeing a well-known agent enjoying a game of checkers right in the middle of the lobby, surrounded by shady characters. "I almost walked out and drove right back home," he swears. Instead he stuck around, learned to work the crowd and pitched his first two clients in his hotel room.
These days the Renaissance lacks that sort of Bada Bing! shadiness—and not just because of the giant peanut-butter-cup mascot wandering around. (Reese's is an official sponsor.) Today's prospects lock into agents practically the moment they conclude their college seasons, so the fistfights between agents over clients at the hotel breakfast buffet are no longer an annual ritual.
Senior Bowl director Phil Savage, a former NFL exec who took over in Mobile in 2012, has been gussying up the event, establishing it as the "third crown jewel in the draft season" (along with the combine and draft day). And he has been largely successful. The goal in Mobile, whether you're an insurance salesman or a Morgan Stanley rep or a suit guy, is to lock up prospects early as they transform from poor college students to millionaire pros; wait until the combine and you're too late. Thus the circus feels bigger and more bloated than ever. Just about anyone, it seems, can snag an invite to the free-for-all. There's a joke among event staffers: You have to feel terrible for the six people in Mobile who didn't get a credential.
And yet one Senior Bowl tradition remains unchanged. For the young men embarking on America's most drawn-out and degrading job interview, the process begins with a figurative dropping of one's drawers. Tuesday's weigh-in marks the official Senior Bowl kickoff and takes place inside a massive darkened hall at the Mobile Convention Center, a short walk from the Renaissance lobby. Bleachers fill with NFL types, reporters and bowl officials, everyone urgently jotting down observations of calves, traps, pecs and abs.
Altogether, it has the odd feeling of both a livestock sale and a Victoria's Secret fashion show, with uncomfortable hints of an 1800s slave auction. Players cross a Broadway-sized stage one-by-one wearing only black skivvies, get measured and weighed, and a man at the podium announces their vitals. There's a strange solemnity to the proceedings; the only one in the room who seems to have the proper perspective is Kansas State fullback Glenn Gronkowski, who walks the stage with an Are you kidding me? smirk. Shawn Oakman, the behemoth Baylor D-end with a CGI body straight out of the movie 300, draws an audible reaction from the audience—but not for the right reasons. He's checked in 1½ inches short of the 6'9" he was listed at all season. The event has its first Body-ghazi.
A few minutes after his own stroll, Stanford QB Kevin Hogan emerges, dazed, as if he's just had an invasive medical procedure. "That was ... one of the weirdest experiences of my life," he says. "It's pretty unnecessary. I guess it's fun for ... them?"
Asked to describe the scene in the holding area before their big moment, most players say they were too busy chugging bottles of water to engage in conversation. "For hydration, of course—not to gain weight," East Carolina tight end Bryce Williams clarifies with a wink. After all, every little variation from a player's media-guide height or weight raises eyebrows, which is why this portion of the Senior Bowl has occasionally produced some actual news. In 2006, Alabama-Birmingham QB Darrell Hackney measured at 5'11", two inches shorter than his listed height, and saw his draft dreams shattered before he could even pull his pants back on. (Hackney went undrafted.)
This year's crop came as prepared as possible, which is why if you peeked backstage, you could see prospects, having made their formal introduction to the NFL world, rushing off toward the hallway—not because they were late for a meeting. "After all that water," explains Utah State linebacker Kyler Fackrell, "everyone's running to go pee!"
IF YOU WANT to work on your tan, go to the Hula Bowl, agents used to tell their players. If you want to be worked, harassed and possibly humiliated, go to the Senior Bowl. Boil it down, though, and the Senior Bowl is one of the few—maybe the only—all-star events in sports that actually matter. Here, players actually put on pads for an entire week. Starting on Tuesday, they hit the bejesus out of one another while evaluators stand close enough to see specks of blood on jerseys.
Everyone agrees: These daily practices are far more important than the Senior Bowl itself. Fortunes rise and fall during the two-hour sessions. When Von Miller showed up in Mobile five years ago, he was an undersized Texas A&M pass rusher without a clear position. And after a week of running guys over in practice? He left town regarded as the best 'backer available and the No. 2-pick-to-be.
For these practices the second-floor-lobby scene relocates to a college field, and here the collision of worlds is even more pronounced. Sure, you'll find scouts stalking the sidelines, doing actual work, whispering into tiny digital recorders as they move from drill to drill. But mostly the scene is one epic football mosh pit. Bloggers ... coaches from every league, from high school to the CFL ... local businessmen ... and some of the biggest titans of the industry, from Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to Hall of Famer Dan Marino. At one midweek practice Steelers coach Mike Tomlin gnaws on a toothpick while a few feet away Clemson coach Dabo Swinney rubs shoulders with corporate bigwigs, still high from his team's recent championship-game appearance. ("All of South Carolina, the entire state, is pulling for us now....") Then a hush washes over the crowd, and with the glow of camera lights and an armada of state troopers emerging from over a hill, it feels like the arrival of a state dignitary. Only it's much bigger than that. Nick Saban is here.
"Les was going to come today," says one event exec of Saban's SEC pal Les Miles, "but I told him, 'No, no, you wouldn't want to do that. The Saban convention will be in town.'" And here we have confirmation: Anyone who's anyone in the football world is in Mobile this week.
EVERYONE HERE has a story to sell," says Joby Branion, agent to, among others, Miller, Cordarelle Patterson and one of this year's top incoming linebackers, Alabama's Reggie Ragland. Branion's right. Everyone at the Senior Bowl is peddling something—Muscle Milk, life insurance, mutual funds, sneakers, hats, custom shirts. But it's easy to lose sight of who has the most important hustling to do: the players themselves. The weigh-in and the practices are part of their showcase, but just as much of their selling takes place back on the second-floor lobby, where over the week a player will sit for dozens of interviews, fill out 300-question surveys ("Would you rather be a cat or dog? Is the sky blue?" reports Fackrell) and meet with countless media talking heads on radio row. Meanwhile, NFL scouts and execs lurk everywhere, watching how they handle every situation, whether it's an interview request from an aggressive fan or, say, that table in the middle of the lobby that's stacked high with Krispy Kreme doughnuts. "He's been showing good agility out there," one scout says of a player walking through the room, and for a second you might think he's sizing up this prospect's ability to navigate the floor between the escalator and elevator.
"It's not a fun experience," says Branion, "but it's a great teachable moment. You see it all—it's a microcosm of the world they're being thrown into. Everyone is here to see what they can do to leverage you. I tell [my clients]: Take business cards, but don't give your phone number out. Be nice if you want, but realize most of them are trolling. It's a taste of the dog-eat-dog world out there. And they need that sooner or later."
By Friday much of the circus will have left town, evaluators and execs departing by the carload once practice ends. The game is always an afterthought, and this year's will be even more forgettable than usual. The week's most scrutinized player, North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz, will barely loosen his arm, leading just two drives. His North will lose to the South 27--16 in front of 35,271 onlookers at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. And Mississippi State's Dak Prescott, for his 7-of-10 performance, will be named MVP. Five minutes later, no one will remember.
For some, though, even in those last few hours, there is still be work to be done, especially for the best-dressed man in the room. It has been a very, very good week for Clarence Jones, who locked up two prospects. But Mobile is just the start. CJ will follow the circus to Indianapolis, then onward to the draft, in Chicago.
One night late in the week, however, the Suit Guy looks exhausted. "This has been a tough day," CJ says. He lost his father last year—he was out on the road, delivering clothes to the Timberwolves' Andrew Wiggins, when he got the news that 97-year-old Clarence Jones Sr. had died. "I'm from Chicago, and the hardest thing will be going to the draft without him. I was going to get him dressed. It will feel so strange not to have him there.
"If you do a job, do it to the best of your ability, my dad always told me. So being at the Senior Bowl today, it gave me motivation to get out of bed this morning."
CJ says this with a smile as he scans a room that is impossibly bright and, even as the hour nears midnight, bustling with activity. Depending on where you stand, it's either the apocalypse or the most beautiful sight imaginable. "It's my birthday tomorrow," he goes on. "When I wake up, I'll be 50 years old, and I'll be in Mobile, Alabama. At the Senior Bowl. And I wouldn't rather be anywhere else."
"Chiseled, broad-shouldered—mmm hmmm," THE SUIT GUY HUMS AS HE SIZES UP ONE PROSPECT. "I have something in mind."
PHOTOGRAPH BY KEVIN D. LILES FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
BUCK, NAKED For a fringe player like Ohio State's Braxton Miller, the Senior Bowl weigh-in can leave a young man feeling a bit exposed.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY KEVIN D. LILES FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
MEASURE OF SUCCESS Fresh from the weigh-in, where they're publicly picked apart, prospects get pitched by the likes of CJ (left, center), who'll measure chest, arm and neck lines—albeit more discreetly than the NFL reps.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY KEVIN D. LILES FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
SENIOR MOMENTS Lions and Tigers and Bears—and Spartans and SEC celebs and media members....