HBCU combine gives 42 players a spotlight to impress the NFL
Two dedicated organizers, with the NFL’s help, are making the two-day event happen in Alabama
Rico Kennedy still can hardly believe he got the call. One of his former teammates at Morgan State was telling him that one year after the inaugural HBCU draft combine was canceled by COVID-19, he and several of the invitees were going to get another chance to audition for the NFL.
“I didn’t ever envision it,” Kennedy said last week from his South Florida home. “I’ll be 100% honest with you. I thought football was over for me.”
It isn’t. Not for Kennedy, or the ex-teammate who called him, DuShon David, or another teammate from Morgan, Ian McBorrough, or any of the 42 players invited to a combine for players from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) on Friday and Saturday in Birmingham, Alabama.
Twenty-six of the invitees had been scheduled to gather in North Miami in March 2020 in the initial group of 51, for an NFL-organized combine solely for those HBCU prospects chronically overlooked and uninvited to the national combine.
When the NFL called off the combine due to the pandemic, many of the players were deprived of their best opportunity to go to the next level – or, as Kennedy believed, their only opportunity. With the support of his parents, Art and Yolanda, and his wife Destinee, who is expecting their third child this fall, Kennedy spent the past year training and staying ready for a call from a football franchise anywhere.
“It’s been like I took a redshirt year,” he said.
Now, thanks to the determination of a group who believed in those HBCU prospects, and a few strokes of good luck, another combine for those players and some prospects in this year’s draft class is less than two weeks from coming to life.
As was the plan last year, it will have all the elements of the regular combine, from the 40-yard dash to physical measurements to the Wonderlic test. It will also have strict COVID-19 protocols, organizers say, just like the on-campus pro days that are serving double duty as part of the NFL’s reimagined combine with draft-related travel and gatherings still prohibited.
The University of Alabama-Birmingham will host the combine on the same weekend it’s holding its own pro day and its spring game, and its collaboration with the organizers was the biggest hurdle to clear.
UAB’s assurances that it could host a safe combine saved the day, said Ulice Payne Jr., the combine’s chief financier, a Milwaukee-based businessman and former president of the Milwaukee Brewers.
“It could be a superspreader event, potentially,” Payne said, adding that finding a location that was available and safe was what worried him most. But, he said, “If you do things for the right reasons, usually things will work out.”
He recalled a Zoom meeting with several of the invited players as plans were being finalized, in which one invitee said, “I want to say thank you to you guys for not forgetting about us.”
“No, brothers, you’re not forgotten about,” Payne said.
The idea of reviving the combine came from Charles “Yogi” Jones, Bethune-Cookman’s assistant head coach and Payne’s cousin, as well as his former client when Payne was a player agent and Jones was still playing.
Jones had seen up close how the pandemic had derailed the hopes of HBCU players. Just one HBCU player, Tennessee State tackle Lachavious Simmons, was drafted in 2020 (in the seventh round by the Chicago Bears), and only a handful of others managed to make an NFL roster or practice squad during the season.
Then three of the four NCAA HBCU conferences (the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association and the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) canceled football. The fourth, the Southwestern Athletic Conference, had its defending champion Alcorn State opt out after Bethune-Cookman was one of the first programs anywhere in the country to abandon the season.
Just two of the 323 players invited to take part in this year’s version of the main combine are from HBCUs: cornerback Bryan Mills of North Carolina Central (who chose to opt out even before the school canceled the season) and guard David Moore of Grambling. Last year, there was just one out of 337 at the full, pre-pandemic combine in Indianapolis.
Jones told Payne that he didn’t want two entire classes of HBCU players to get erased in this way.
Payne didn’t hesitate, in the spirit of a similarly bold move with an HBCU athlete from his days as a baseball executive: drafting Rickie Weeks out of Southern second overall in the 2003 amateur draft. Weeks became an All-Star and played in the majors for 14 years. “There were people [involved in the draft] who said, ‘We didn’t even know they played baseball there,’ ” he said.
The lesson: “Just because you’re not from the Power 5 conferences doesn’t mean you don’t exist,” Payne said.
The NFL’s restrictions on in-person scouting – which wiped out the traditional national combine it holds every February – made it impossible for it to oversee one for the HBCUs. But league officials have been in on the planning the entire way, for the same reason they supported the combine last year: There was no other way for those players to get exposure.
Whether every team will send scouts to the site remains to be seen, but holding it at the site of UAB’s pro day increases those chances.
Scouts from the CFL and the European pro leagues – and, presumably, the XFL, which is negotiating a possible merger with the CFL – are also expected. Organizers said video of the workouts also will be made available to everybody, as is the case with player workouts elsewhere.
The need to pull the combine together in a short time – Jones and Payne first talked about the idea in late 2020 – and the uncertainty of the NFL’s ability to take part convinced Payne to pick up the full tab. Making sure the workout would be up to the standards of NFL scouts was a priority, so they went to the league’s regional combine directors to join the effort.
Phillip Blackwell, an NFL regional combine director since the concept’s inception in 2015 and a recreation center director in Baltimore, quickly agreed when Jones and Payne came calling. And, Blackwell emphasized, it really was just those two putting everything together from scratch. “It has steamrolled into something that has become really huge,” he said.
The number of invitees will not only make it possible to put the players through a full combine experience and do it safely, but emphasize this is a selective group, just like the one planned for last year and the annual national combine.
“It’s not as much the size, it’s the quality,” Blackwell said. “It’s not just somebody walking in off the street. It’s a great representation of the quality of player at these schools. These are the players the NFL wanted last year, and it’s also the players the NFL and CFL and others had on their radar for this year. We can tell them, ‘These aren’t the players we say you should look at, these are the players you say you want to look at.’ ”
Payne also made sure to include educational sessions on career counseling, mental health, personal finance and adapting to professional life. There also will be an awards dinner, with longtime NFL writer D. Orlando Ledbetter as head speaker. Two players will be honored for community service. The award will be named for Payne’s uncle, the late Ernest “Pappy” Ross, a former Morris Brown football player who became a successful businessman and earned a doctorate from Georgia.
“With these brothers, I want them to know, ‘I don’t know you, but I value you, and I’m going to help you,’ ” Payne said.
Everybody involved emphasized this is a legitimate opportunity for the players. It isn’t a publicity stunt, they said, or a way to cash in by selling tryout spots. Players are only required to get to Birmingham on their own – and, organizers said, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith has provided a travel grant for players who need it. Once there, everything is paid for, Payne said.
The UAB program, meanwhile, made room in the middle of a busy football weekend to accommodate dozens of players unaffiliated with the school.
“We’ve all had our fair share of challenges through this pandemic, some much more than others, but pulling together and fighting through the challenges is the trademark of football players and teams,” said Randy Pippin, UAB’s director of player relations under head coach Bill Clark.
“I say all that to say, these HBCU guys certainly deserve a shot to get a fair evaluation, and fortunately our whole campus, starting with Coach Clark, is on board to help make that happen, along with the Blazers.”
After tracking down many of last year’s invitees and finding players in this year’s class with pro potential, there should be little doubt that this is a serious tryout.
“If anyone asks about the authenticity,” Payne said, “you’ll find out.”
A few of the invited players themselves had their own doubts.
Kennedy had spent the past year training and staying ready for a call from a football franchise anywhere. But when he got the call from David (who had transferred from Morgan to Bowie State and became an all-CIAA tight end in 2019), he wasn’t sure what to think.
“I was kind of shocked and taken aback,” Kennedy said. “I was like, ‘Is this real?’ ”
“I didn’t get my hope up immediately,” McBorrough said, adding he wasn’t ready to trust it until he saw something in writing. When that arrived, he said, “OK, this is legit.”
Asked how he felt when he saw the official invitation to the combine, he laughed and said, “You already know the answer to that.
“The whole past year was full of uncertainty. Did they forget about us? Is the 2020 class just gonna get passed by?”
It won’t be.