The NFL Combine is, for those that don’t know, a job fair for college football players. The best athletes from the NCAA are invited to Indianapolis, where packs of men with stopwatches and measuring tape await. Every aspect of these future pro players is gauged – from height, weight and bench press, to more exotic categories like hand size and joint movement. While the Combine generally doesn’t have a massive impact on how a player is perceived (four years of film is a lot more telling than a shuttle drill), the event still captures the imagination of pro scouts and die-hard fans. And one element of it, perhaps above all others, is a drug to NFL Draft-niks: the 40 Yard Dash.
The fastest wide receivers and running backs can sprint 40 yards in 4.4 seconds. Some top flight cornerbacks and kickoff specialists can come in under that. Reggie Bushwith a 4.33 time in 2006. Though at no time during any football game does any player run a perfectly straight, unopposed 40 yard dash, every scout wants to know how fast prospective pros can do it.
And after spending years following college and professional football, I wanted to see how fast I could do it…
I’m in decent shape. I lift weights, do cardio twice a week and run the occassional road race. That would put me firmly in the middle of the Weekend Warrior pack – the guys that wear Under Armour and eat protein bars while they walk. How would someone like me do in such a specialized event? I’d been thinking about it for a few months, and seeing Combine results on television sealed the deal. I had to see what I could do.
Yesterday, I walked into the Bubble-covered Alumni Stadium at Boston College to scratch this very bizarre itch. My old roommate Doug, very familiar with the 40 from his years as an Eagle, joined me to put me through my paces. From the moment we walked through the Bubble’s revolving door, he began knocking down every preconception I had about the 40 Yard Dash and how it worked. I had assumed, foolishly, that if an athlete wanted to run a timed 40, he would get up to the line, stretch out a bit, take off at the sound of a whistle, and run as fast as he can. With the exception of the “get up to the line” part, I was entirely wrong.
The 40, according to Doug, is a fairly dangerous thing to run. Many people get injured doing it, with their ills ranging from pulls to tears. It is very easy to mess yourself up for a long time by doing it wrong (or even, sometimes, by doing it right). As such, my legs and back were stretched with a variety of elaborate, tiring and often painful maneuvers for around fifteen minutes. I had to walk and kick and twist and lay on the ground and be kneaded like dough. The stretching routine itself is as hard a workout as any I’ve done in a gym. And then after all of that, I had to run some test 40s at half and three quarter speed so my body could get a sense of what 40 yards felt like.
All the while, as I was prepping for this test, I kept thinking about speed on the football field. I did all of my stretching on the goal line, and I would take a moment from time to time to stare at the pair of cones 40 yards away. The game is played on a big, wide grid, populated by twenty-two large, fast men that seek to stop each other by crashing together at top speed. Every player, even the slowest ones on the field, are extremely fast compared to the average person. Doug, several years removed from playing and sporting an artificial hip, was still far more explosive off the line as I could ever be. “If you were as big as I was,” he noted as he was showing me how to come out of a starting stance, “you’d be this explosive too.” The livelihoods are based on speed and technique (more on that in a moment), and even though a fast 40 doesn’t precisely translate into a fast fly pattern, all of the same concepts are there. I guess that’s why they do it at the Combine.
After the stretching (and the contemplation) came the lessons on technique. The 40 is all about technique. While runners can start their dashes differently, there’s an accepted range of starting positions that they must use. As such, there was a flurry of “keep your arm here”s, “use your feet to dig”s, and “think of yourself like a gun”s. I learned more about the practical applications of aerodynamics that I ever did in physics class. I was doing the best I could to absorb all of these concepts and hastily translate them over into short-term muscle memory and, while no one would’ve mistaken me for a sprinter by the end of the tutorial, I was close enough for sake of my dash.
So Doug stood on the 40 yard line, and I waved at him from the goal line to let him know I was ready. The entirety of the field stretched out quietly in front of me, with dim light raining gently down on it from the large bulbs suspended high above. I took three half steps back from the goal line and put the thumb and forefinger of each hand down upon the soft turf. My nerves were still, but I knew they were there, wrapped around my abdomen and hamstrings. “Don’t think too long before you get into your stance,” Doug told me as we discussed technique. I remembered, and after a long moment and two deep breaths, I rose into my starting position and extended my left arm out behind me. I took another sip of silence, thought of my body as a gun, and then ran faster than I’ve ever run before…
DeSean Jackson, out of the University of California, put up a 4.35 second 40 Yard Dash at the Combine this year. A 320 pound defensive lineman named Joseph Bryant (Texas A&M) ran it in 4.98 seconds. Jeff Otah, a likely first round offensive tackle from Pittsburgh, ran it in 5.56 seconds. Otah’s was the slowest time at the Combine.
I, John Serpico, who will likely go undrafted in this year, clocked in at 5.6 seconds. I ran it a second time with the same result. On my third run, I slowed up near the cones, which Doug told me specifically not to do, and did it in 5.8 seconds. So there you have it. I can run 40 yards in 5.6 seconds. My speed is a Jeff Otah-esque 5.6 seconds. Sure, the scouts aren’t going to come calling and my shoe deal is going to be put on hold after this showing, but that doesn’t really matter too much. I learned quite a few things from the experience, even though it only lasted one Jeff Otah.
–Speed is a commodity, and a commodity’s price is determined by rareness and demand. While many may not agree that paying a guy twenty million dollars to catch a football for a few years is a reasonable thing, that price is set by the market based on rareness and demand. Having blindingly fast speed packaged with a 6’2″ frame, legs that can outjump a safety and hands that can clamp like a vice on a thrown ball is rarer than lottery winners.
–Running as fast as you can on a football field is a daunting thing. The physical risks you expose yourself to when your body is operating at maximum exertion is substantial. These risks multiply to a result beyond my level of understanding when you are surrounded by other people also operating at maximum exertion to catch and tackle you. As I was running, the only thing I could think was “GO FAST GO FAST GO FAST GO FAST!” I will never know how someone can go that fast and still have the wherewithal to scan the horizon for closing defenders, choose the move necessary to beat them, and adjust direction to set up downfield blocks for yet other defenders while all the while avoiding the thought that a hit at this speed could, theoretically, kill him.
–I ran faster than Doug, an experienced coach and football player, thought I could. “You have never done this before,” he said afterwards. “I didn’t think you could break 6 seconds.” From my years of Finance experience, I learned that it doesn’t matter what the numbers are, just what they are compared to what people though they’d be. If a wide receiver expected to run a 4.5 and clocked a 4.9, his stock would plummet. But the 5.6 I ran beat expectations. Which means that my stock is on the rise!
Football is a lot like boxing in that everything looks like it’s going a lot slower on television than it actually is. If you watch a running back break free at his own goal line and take the ball a hundred yards for a touchdown, we get to witness such a spectacle for maybe 10 or 12 seconds. Quite a long while if you’re counting Mississippis. But one thing to keep in mind is that such time is precious and disorientingly short for the guy running it, especially when the whole defense is chasing him. Football is a game of speed, and it’s much, much harder to be quick in it than any of us could imagine. That’s what I learned in 5.6 seconds.