By Joe Darrah
Unsurprisingly, the Philadelphia Soul opened its 2014 training camp this weekend without yours truly in uniform. Last weekend, however, I was among 150 participants at the team’s third and final open tryout of the offseason. I attended not with what was perceived to be a real chance to make the team but as a chance to go experience an actual professional football workout for purposes of this writing. Below is an encapsulated glimpse of my day (which ended with passing grades in two of six drills, one reception, one turf burn and zero invitations to camp) as well as the experiences of a few prospective players I had the chance to compete with.
Stretching the Limits of Reality
As I walked through the doors of the NovaCare Complex that Saturday morning, I knew the odds of my “tenure” with the Soul lasting more than just a few hours would be more than any Vegas book could calculate, unless of course the powers that be in Sin City would have been willing to attempt a reinvention of mathematics.
For starters, I’ve never played a single down of organized football. I’m a tried, true and proud “sandlot” athlete by and large who was surrounded by many legitimate players who at a minimum had Division III NCAA gridiron experience and hold roster spots on semi-pro teams in such leagues as the Indoor Gridiron League (IGL). Then there was the whole lack of time for me to stretch as I conducted interviews for this piece, which came much to the dismay of Soul co-majority owner and former Eagle quarterback Ron Jaworski. (Listen to Jaws scold me a bit for skipping that portion of the festivities.)
No, this was not a charity case tryout. I had to sign a waiver in order to be able to participate and it was made evident from the start that the Soul’s brass and coaching staff were in real search of up to as many as four new players to be invited to their 2014 training camp. (To date, at least one participant, Temple product Darryl Shine, from this tryout has been retained.) In fact, the Soul has become quite accustomed to using these open tryouts as a means to scout and acquire those players out there who’ve gone unnoticed.
“We run two or three of these open tryout camps throughout the year, and we have signed guys from previous tryouts who’ve been invited to camp,” Jaworski said.
One needs to look no further than wide receiver Ryan McDaniel, a 6-3, 200-pound Samford University graduate who walked onto the same South Philly turf last year and not only earned an invitation to the subsequent training camp but made the team and went on to collect 819 yards and 21 touchdowns in 12 games last season as well as tie an Arena Football League record with 13 receptions in the championship game while nearly helping Philly to a win over the now two-time defending Arena Bowl champs Arizona.
“One of the questions I get all the time is, ‘Where do you find the players?’” Jaworski related. “But players are the easiest thing to find. Everybody loves to play the game of football.”
While my personal expectations were nothing more than getting through the day injury free, it was at least inspiring to be in an environment that has produced the opportunities of a lifetime for others. And, yes, Jaws couldn’t help but remember the ultimate Philadelphia try-outer in former Eagle teammate Vince Papale.
“I absolutely love this day; it always reminds me of Vince and ‘Invincible,’” he said. “We get 150-200 guys every time that we run these tryout camps. And I love the fact that these guys live the dream to play professional football. They’re taking time out of their schedules to come out and show their talent, so it’s an exciting day for me. And they see this opportunity, and they know that our games are on national television now. These guys love the fact that they can play the game that they love on television and in front of 10,000 people at the Wells Fargo Center.”
As serious as the hundreds of hopefuls take the experience, Jaworski said the organization returns that sentiment.
“This is not a walkthrough workout here; this is a combine-style workout,” Jaworski summarized. “And these guys get a really good workout. We have our coaches here, we have our scouts here, we have scouts and staffs from other arena and indoor football league teams here looking for talent. We’ve done them every year and we’ve been around the country. We’ve been in San Diego, Texas, the Carolinas. We’ve been giving players [around the country] the opportunity to show what they can do. We always find a couple nuggets every time we run these camps. It’s amazing the quality of football players that there are [out there].”
And with any invitation, despite any walk-on status, brings with it lofty expectations, Jaworski assured.
“Our first season was 2004, and our goal has not changed since then: It’s to be the world champions,” he said. “That’s the mindset we have as an organization, as an ownership group, as a coaching staff. We’ve been to the championship game the last two years, we won it in 2008. Everyone in the organization knows our standard is very high.”
Staying Outside The Circles
Immediately following the roughly 30-minute stretching protocol, which was preceded by motivational speeches from Jaworski, Soul general manager Tom Goodhines, head coach Clint Dolezel and Philadelphia Eagle Jeremy Maclin, we were separated randomly into groups (see photo of my group below) to compete in three sets of speed, endurance and jumping drills (40-yard dash, long jump and 20-yard shuttle run) with members of the Soul’s coaching and scouting staff monitoring.
Each event, of which participants performed twice apiece, had its own established baseline that was essentially graded on a pass/fail basis commensurate with the position selected on one’s application. (I chose wide receiver, which required clocking quicker than 4.9 seconds in the dash, posting more than seven feet in the jump and finishing the shuttle run in no more than 4.6 seconds.) If your result “earned” a circle, that was the opposite of good. If you collected more than three circles you did not qualify for one-on-one drills and were asked kindly to vacate the premises. I ended up with four circles, posting 5.4 seconds in the 40 twice (at least I was consistent) and a 5.6 in my best shuttle sprint (my second attempt was essentially disqualified after I wiped out on the turf). My jumps of 7.1 and 7.4 feet, respectively, both surpassed the 7.0 needed for that event. So, yeah I essentially had an honest shot of advancing to the one-on-ones had I not wiped out on the final shuttle sprint, which required you to run five yards to either side, touch a cone, run 10 yards the other way, touch a cone, and run five yards back to the starting point.
Of course, it would also have helped if I were a little faster. At 5-7, 175 pounds I’m in and generally always have been in good physical shape. That didn’t matter much. For article-writing purposes, I was invited to participate in the one-on-ones at the receiver position. Those who made it to this phase based on reality were given a 10-minute playbook instruction session from Dolezel, who taught us designed running routes from 5-yard hooks to 12-yard slants, before running in a continuous rotation of plays along with those from the quarterback group. As I alluded to earlier, I caught one pass out of five throws, of which at least three of them were on the mark from the QB. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
Though I didn’t get a chance to meet him personally, Shine performed well enough to earn an invitation to training camp. Overall, Dolezel said he was pleased with the day’s turnout.
“It went smooth; I thought there was some great talent out here,” said the second-year Philly head coach. “We had 250 [people] at our first open tryout, where this one had 150. And there was just as much talent here, so it was a good turnout. When it’s all said and done at the end of the day, the skill positions are the hardest to break down because there are so many players out there, but I think we did a great job as coaches to pick out the best that we had out there and see what they can do. You look at the NFL this year and there’s guys who weren’t drafted who were stars. Look at Seattle’s defense: Half their guys weren’t even drafted and yet they win the Super Bowl and they dominated. Those guys are out there are a dime a dozen on the streets. And if you’ve got a niche and we can find it and see it — we’re looking for it.”
Byrd on a Wire
Curtis Byrd, a member of my group who legitimately progressed into the one-on-one portion of the tryouts at receiver, said the morning was a great experience for him as an experienced player. A receiver for the Philadelphia Falcons of the IGL, the Soul’s developmental league, and 10-year year veteran of semi-pro ball, Byrd said he posted a 4.7 in the 40, jumped more than eight feet twice and hit the baseline of 4.6 for the shuttle for his best time. Competing in his first tryout for the Soul, Byrd is already looking forward to the next open tryout for 2015.
“It was a great learning experience for me,” said Byrd, a 1999 graduate of Chichester High School who played defensive back as a varsity athlete. “I’ve been playing semi-pro for 10 years, indoor and outdoor, and today I saw some things that I’ve improved on and some improvements I need to make. So, when I come back I’ll come back with different expectations. I’m glad the Philly Soul just gave me an opportunity to come out here and try to take it up to another level.”
Byrd and his Falcons also opened their own camp this weekend at Temple University. Their season will kickoff in about two months.
“I’m determined to continue to prove myself there in order to get better opportunities,” he said. “Football is in my heart, it’s in my blood.”
And Then There’s Curtis Haskins Jr.
The 6-7, 350-pound college senior out of West Virginia University also made the trek to NovaCare, was also within my group, also advanced to the one-on-ones (with the offensive linemen) and said afterwards that he was pulled aside by the coaching staff to confirm his contact information and alert him that he would be considered for another opportunity to fill a current need the team has on the line, which is standard procedure for those who tryout and show enough talent to warrant a potential waiver contract at some point in the season, according to Dolezel.
“[Per Arena League rules] we can have four one-day waivers we can use at any time during the year,” Dolezel explained, adding that he and his staff were particularly utilizing the tryouts to seek receivers, linemen on both sides of the ball and defensive backs.
With a waiver contract, players can be brought into an official practice at any point during the season to go up against proven Arena League talent.
“Hopefully they’ll call,” said Haskins, a Woodbridge, VA, native who attended Gar-Field High School. “I laid it out for them today. I just went straight for it and hope I didn’t let any of the coaches down who gave me an opportunity.”
A communications major who’s expected to graduate in December, Haskins said he was impressed with the talent among those who attended the tryouts.
“It was a good environment — a lot of energy from a lot of players who tried out today. I think everyone gave 100 percent.”
He said he was pleased with how he performed.
“They had us working on a lot of explosion, jumping over the bags, a lot of footwork, mirror drills, going side to side [during the lineman one-on-ones],” he said. “They really just wanted to see how good of condition we were in, seeing if we could move on our feet and seeing if we’d be able to focus when we were tired. They told me they liked my aggressiveness and my play.”
Maclin Makes an Appearance
Not lost in the competitive environment that permeated the complex was the presence of Maclin, who was on hand to not only serve as an inspirational force as he recovers from a season-ending ACL injury he suffered in July, but to support a personal friend whom he said was participating in the tryouts as well as support the Soul as an organization, of which Maclin said he’s always been intrigued with.
“I’ve always been a fan of the Soul and how they run things,” Maclin said. “You can see football played at a different kind of pace with different rules, and I like that.”
He said the opportunity being presented for those participating is important even for the vast majority that would not be retained.
“For starters, it gives people a chance to come out here and feel better about themselves, and follow their dreams, and pursue their goals,” he said. “If you don’t do that, you can live with a little regret. If you come out here, you can at least say that you gave it your all and did it.”
Personally, Maclin said he was happy with how his rehabilitation was coming along. At the complex five days per week to run and perform strengthening exercises, he said he expects to be weightlifting in early March.
“I’m feeling good,” he said. “Just continuing to get stronger and healthier each and every day. I wouldn’t be cleared to play right now, but I’ve got some time to get there. I’m just taking it day by day.”
Jaworski was quick to show his appreciation for the five-year NFL veteran’s willingness to spend the time.
“He has been an avid supporter of the Soul,” Jaws said. “He runs his football camps for kids in West Deptford [NJ] and does a lot of things in the community. I think it’s just great that these guys get to see a great NFL player like Jeremy Maclin who actually cares about these guys. I think it sends a very strong message about the character of Maclin.”