by Taylor Barton
My Army All American Combine Experience
I’m really excited to share my experience, as well as the experience of all the athletes from the Northwest, that attended the Army Underclassmen Combine in San Antonio, Texas a few weeks ago. I took out a couple of cameras and tripods and shot as much footage as I could. Then I brought it back to Eric Edison, head of NEI TV, who along with Jaleel Kindell did an amazing job of editing it up for your enjoyment. Like most of you, I heard about this event but had never been to it before. So our staff at NEI got together and decided we’d make the trip out there to see for ourselves first-hand what it was all about. We figured that while we were out there, we’d also document everything on camera, so we could bring it back for you to watch and enjoy. Like so many of you, I’ve been frustrated over the years with the lack of quality coverage of kids in this area. Why would I want to pay for a subscription to a site that doesn’t even attend these events? Sites that are actually co-hosts of the event, and don’t even have their regional analyst there. Anyone of us could pull up pictures from the event, or email and face book kids that attended, to get quotes from them about their experience and act like that’s covering it. But therein lies the difference with NEI. It’s been said that we’re only a “local” website in an attempt to discredit or demean us. And you know what? They are absolutely right. We ARE a “local” website that ONLY covers Northwest kids. But we have a NATIONAL audience in College Coaches, from every level. We also don’t try to cover all sports, we just cover football. So instead of covering the whole country and a lot of different sports and doing an average at best job, we chose to cover ONLY this area and ONLY football and do a great job.
I want to start off by saying WOW! This event was one of the best I have ever seen or been to. I helped coach the NIKE Combines in Portland and Eugene as well as the Elite 11 sessions in L.A. for many years. I’ve run my own Combines through the Barton Football Academy in Oregon and Washington for the last decade, and have also attended the NUC Combines and the 5 Star Combines as well. The Army Combine in San Antonio, Texas was as good if not better than any of the events I just mentioned. It was organized, professionally run, and very beneficial for all the kids and parents in attendance. I highly recommend that all of the young kids and their parents reading this attend this event in the future if fortunate enough to be invited. It was sponsored and run by a few different groups: FBU, Rivals, NCSA, and the Army itself. All the groups involved did a great job and should really be commended.
The Weekend started out on Thursday when kids checked in at the registration table in the Hyatt Hotel. When they did, they were measured for their height and weight. After a short time, all the kids and parents were ushered upstairs to a huge ballroom that had hundreds of chairs set up facing a large stage with a podium. For the next few hours, a variety of different speakers representing all the groups involved got up on the stage to talk at the podium. This was the one part of the weekend I really didn’t enjoy, as it was mostly a chance for them to sell their products. I do understand business though, and figured that kind of stuff would take place over the course of the weekend. What I did catch myself doing, throughout the course of the night, was looking around at all of the kids in the room. There were over 540 kids in attendance, so you can imagine that combined with all the parents and family members in the room it was pretty packed. I set one of my cameras on the tripod and focused it on the speakers, so I wouldn’t miss any major announcements or information. At the same time, I took my other camera and walked around the room, recording the audience and speakers at the podium from all different angles. You’ll see on the attached video exactly what I saw. There were spot sections clumped together throughout the room of Northwest kids. As I looked at them, I could see they were very wide eyed, trying to take in all that was being said as well as their surroundings. From that moment thru the end of the weekend, I kept hearing the same thing from all our Northwest kids. “Wow, there’s so much competition out there. There are so many kids trying to get recruited around the country.” And I think that was one of the best things about this event that all of our Northwest kids took home with them; It’s a big ocean out there and there are a lot of fish! That has been an issue over the years that I have tried to hammer away to both kids, and their parents in the Northwest. You might be the best player on your team or in your league, maybe even your whole state. But in the eyes of the rest of the nation, that means nothing. I always go back to a quote from a teammate of mine at Colorado my first day there. He was from Dallas, Texas and asked me where I was from. I told him Oregon, and the response I got back from him still humors me to this day. “Is that a city in California?” Now, granted he’s not the brightest pea in the pod. And it’s a good thing he ran a 4.18 40(official, look it up), because he wasn’t recruited there for any academic scholarships. But that really summed up the way the rest of the country looks at the Northwest. They don’t respect it. They think we’re a bunch of tree huggers that live in the country and have rain 365 days a year. As the night came to an end with the last speaker, they separated the kids into 2 groups. They told them what each groups schedule was the next day. Group 1 was to meet in the Hotel Lobby in the morning, and buses would pack them up and depart for the Alamo Dome at promptly 6:30am. Group 2 was to meet in the Hotel Lobby and take the buses to the Alamo Dome at 8:30am. Immediately all the kids in Group 1 started complaining while being mocked by all the kids in Group 2, because Group 1 had to get up 2 hours earlier in the morning. Teenagers J The schedule for Friday was that Group 1 would do testing for 2 hours from 7-9am, then have a lunch break while group 2 arrives and does their testing from 9-11am. Once Group 1 finishes lunch, and Group 2 clears the field, Group 1 then comes back and does individual position drills and 1 on 1’s from 11-1pm. During that time, Group 2 has their lunch, then comes back and does their Individuals and 1 on 1’s from 1-3pm. The group was excused and we gathered all the kids we could find that were out representing the Northwest. In the footage you’ll see, we got some group pictures and had each kid come and do an individual interview. I asked each of them what they were looking forward to most about the next day, and all of the answers varied except for one part. Some kids were looking forward to their time in the 40, some their shuttle, while others thought they’d do well in the vertical. The common theme with all of their answers was that they were looking forward to the 1 on 1’s at the end of the day. We then dismissed our group of Northwest kids, who we actually gathered in the ballroom on stage once the room cleared, and told them to get some good rest. They had a big day in the morning, and despite the temptation to hang out in rooms with other kids and do the mischevious things that teenagers do, they needed to sleep and get mentally and physically prepared for the morning.
I ended up getting sick Thursday night when I got back to my Hotel room and started throwing up from about 10pm until 6am the next morning. So I didn’t get a chance to be at the Hyatt when they gathered all the kids for Group 1 to enter onto the buses. However, from some of the staff I talked to, they painted a pretty amusing picture. “Imagine how difficult it is to get 1 teenager to get up early in the morning, make sure he’s got all his gear and paperwork, and have him make it down to the lobby on time to get on the bus at 6:30am.” He continued. “Now, multiply that by 500 plus kids and you can see what we were up against.” Still feeling sick, but with nothing left in my body to throw up, I toughed it out and headed over to the Alamo Dome. I arrived just as Group 1 was finishing their testing and Group 2 was beginning theirs. As I got out of the car in the parking lot, I pulled out my camera and started shooting. Immediately I felt the overwhelming stature and presence of the Alamo Dome. It’s absolutely huge, and has a rich tradition like very few Arenas in the world. I can only imagine what was going on through all of these kids minds when they walked off the bus, with a couple hundred of the best players in the country on each side of them, and looked up at the Dome. What they were thinking that exact moment when reality set in to them on what they were actually about to do. This day, the next few hours, could make or break their career. Pretty heavy stuff for 16 and 17 year old teenage kids to face. As I entered the doors and walked in the Arena halls, I could sense the history of the place. How many great players, teams, coaches, and games had been played in the exact same place I was now standing. Then, as my cameras were rolling, I entered thru the tunnel and into the Stadium itself. I took a panoramic shot that felt like it took days to cover the whole place. The Stadium looked empty except for the few hundred parents and media in the seats. I took the elevator to the very top where Group 1 was having their lunch. I walked into the room where they were all seated and eating, with my camera out taking footage. I saw a group of kids from Oregon and Washington and asked them if I could get a couple interviews. As we were recording, it was very apparent that some kids had tested better than others in their morning group. Some kids were a little more jubilant than others, pointing out their great test scores in certain events. The kids that didn’t test very well tended to talk in the future tense, about how excited they were to get to the 1 on 1’s later in the day. And that’s one of the big challenges facing all the kids at this event. The day is really divided up into 2 parts; Testing and Position Work. If a kid tested well, he could feel good about it but couldn’t get hung up on it, because he had to come back later in the day and show that he’s a good football player and not just a “combine all star”. If a kid didn’t test well, he has to let that go because he can make up for it with great position work and a great performance in the 1 on 1 session. After those interviews, I went down on the field to record some of our kids in Group 2 while they were doing their testing. Again, anyone can pull up results from the event and put them on a site and say they are covering the Combine. At NEI, we have a higher standard than that. We wanted to bring you something you’ve never seen before, footage of the kids while they were going thru everything live, and their reactions immediately afterward. As I got down on the field, they had the kids split up into groups for testing. One group was running 40’s, another was doing the 10 yard shuttle, and the last group was doing the Vertical Jump. This is where the organization of the event was so crucial. To have over 250 kids on only 1 field, and have them all get 2 chances to do their best on each test, in only a 2 hour window, shows why this event is one of the best year in and year out. As I walked around and saw Andrew Kirkland, Max Rich, Ryan Brown, Evan Colorito, Calvin Chandler, and a few others doing their testing, I stopped and recorded them. You’ll see with the footage attached to this how the environment looked, how the kids did, and what their thoughts were right after they tested. What was really neat for me to see was how many of the Northwest kids knew each other and started rooting for one another. Many of these kids have attended our Barton Football Academy and gotten to know each other over the years. It was cool to see how they all kind of bonded together, in a type of me against my brother, but my brother and I against you mentality.
As the testing for Group 2 came to an end, the kids from Group 1 had started trickling back down onto the field. They gathered both groups in the middle of the field for a guest speaker, Eric Berry of the Kansas City Chiefs. He’s a Safety that was a top 10 pick in the NFL draft last year out of the University of Tennessee. He spoke to the kids for a while and answered some of their questions. I had a chance to catch up with him afterward and got a 1 on 1 interview. He had come thru this Combine himself out of High School, so he understood what these kids were facing and how important the day was for them. You can hear my interview with him in the attached link.
Now it was time for Group 1 to do their individual position drills and 1 on 1’s while Group 2 was eating lunch. After a quick warm up, they spread out across the field to pre-established locations with their position coach. Again, there were a lot of Northwest kids in this group. I got a chance to watch Nick Highberger, Mike Tate, Isaiah Brandt-Sims, Kolney Cassel, Darrin Laufasa, Johnny Ragin, Nate Halverson, and a few others. What really stood out to me was the overall size and athletic ability of the whole group. I’m used to Combines where you’ll have your typical studs, your run of the mill caliber players, and then some kids who just frankly shouldn’t even be playing football. That was far from the case here. There wasn’t a single player out there that didn’t belong. This was the best of the best that our country has to offer. Granted, not every kid invited came. But all of those that were there had to be invited, so though not all the top kids were there, no kid was there that shouldn’t have been. As position drills finished, a whistle blew. All of a sudden, there was a vibe that just flowed through the entire Arena. As if on cue, all the kids just started jumping around while hooting and hollering. They all knew what time it was, 1 on 1’s. This was the part of the day, in fact the entire weekend, that most of them had been looking forward to. And that doesn’t just go for the players, the staff and media outlets in attendance were also excited to see who would rise to the top and be the cream of the crop in the group. They divided the field in half, WR’s and DB’s on one end, RB’s and LB’s on the other end, while QB’s were split into 2 groups. In one end zone was the RB’s, LB’s, and group 1 of QB’s. In the other end zone were the WR’s, DB’s, and group 2 of QB’s. Both groups started the line of scrimmage on the goal line, facing the length of the field. The group was further split into 2 groups, a QB throwing to either a WR or RB on the left, and a QB throwing to a WR or RB on the right. So there were 4 QB lines total, with 2 WR/DB lines on one half of the field, and 2 RB/LB lines on the other half of the field. Again, very well organized and formatted to maximize reps with that amount of kids. And the Lineman, poor Lineman, were bunched into 1 group and thrown off the field to one of the sidelines. In all honesty, the Lineman actually don’t need a lot of space to do 1 on 1’s, so it worked out perfectly. The thing about this portion of the Combine that really stood out to me was the kids that you could tell had been putting in work during the last few months. Some kids looked out of shape and winded, and didn’t help their cause. Another thing that stood out, especially coming from the Northwest, was the speed of a lot of the kids. In the Northwest we have some fast kids, but it’s a known fact that coaches nationally don’t think of the Northwest as a “hotbed” of speed. Again, in the attached footage you’ll see this portion of the event. I ended up having to leave just as this session was winding down, as I had to catch a flight back home. Once the last session of the day ended, the kids were able to go back to their hotel rooms and reflect. Some extremely happy, some really disappointed and upset, most of the kids somewhere in between. The next day the kids and families had a chance to go to the Alamo Dome again, but this time as a spectator. The seniors were playing in a nationally televised game, between East and West. In that game, the Northwest had a few kids that were representing the area. They played well and showed why they were chosen to participate in the game.
As I sat on the airplane heading back to the Northwest, I reflected on my trip. I thought about all the kids from the Northwest that had just participated in the event. How well they had done, and how as a result their life might literally change forever. I thought about how many of these kids I’ve known since they were in elementary school, and how many times they told me they wanted to play college football when they got older. I thought about all the kids from the Northwest who weren’t able to go, because of injury, finances, or scheduling conflicts. How would they have done? As the pilot came on through the overhead speakers and announced we were about to land, I looked out the window. With all the things going thru my head, I realized something. I was glad to be coming back to the Northwest. For all the good and bad that’s said about it from people outside of the region, I wouldn’t want to live or be from any place else. I love this region and love the kids and families from here. And hopefully, for the coaches and media members that watched the Army Event, they ended up loving the kids that attended from the Northwest as well.
Taylor Barton NEI