Nelson tested all the players in 40- and 10-yard dashes, which is now routine for linemen. "The Cowboys used to run players two at a time," Nelson says. "When possible, the two were competing for the same position. The assumption was they were faster when competing. We learned that when they run in pairs, they were slower. Track athletes run faster that way, but it was assumed football players were not used to running alongside somebody."
Two of Nelson's research subjects-Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell—went on to become All-Pro running backs. "Lydell would beat Franco in the 40. He couldn't beat him at the 10," Nelson says. "You'd have thought it was the world championship. Lydell was so frustrated."
In the study Nelson used a new timing system that was activated when the athlete lifted his hand off a touch pad at the starting line. "We had a problem with Franco," Nelson says. "He figured out how to rock backward and come forward with his hand still on the pad."
The technical term for the move Harris made is a rolling start. Another name for it is cheating. With so much at stake, prospects will try anything to put up a fast time in the 40. The most common way to cheat in the early days was to shorten the distance. In 1968 the Cowboys drafted wide receiver David McDaniels of Mississippi Valley State in the second round after they'd timed him at 4.5 in his campus workout. When McDaniels came to camp and didn't run any better than 4.8, Brandt sent a scout back to Mississippi Valley State. He measured the distance McDaniels had run at 38½ yards, although there is no way of knowing whether the discrepancy was intentional or not. "That's when we started taking a tape measure," Brandt says. These days most schools conduct "timing days" so that all NFL scouts can come in at the same time. If all 30 teams have scouts in attendance, the track will be measured at least 30 times. "Our yard markers are inlaid," Ohio State strength and conditioning coach Dave Kennedy says. "You can't move that stuff. But every year they measure our field."
The NFL combine in Indianapolis is a marvel of efficiency. It has saved teams a tremendous amount of time and money that they used to have to spend on travel. Unfortunately it also has curtailed the number of oddball-40 stories. Not that they don't continue to pop up. Brandt recalls sending scout Bill Taylor to Jacksonville to time a prospect. After it rained for three consecutive days, Taylor brought the player to the airport, marked off 40 yards in a corridor between gates, got his time and got on a plane.
In the fall of 1989, after Tennessee tailback Reggie Cobb had been thrown off the team for failing a drug test, Tampa Bay director of pro personnel Jerry Angelo flew into Knoxville to put him through his paces. "He came out for the draft at his lowest point, and he would do anything for anybody," Angelo says. "Because of inclement weather, we timed Reggie in a hallway of the Holiday Inn. We were in the room at the finish line. Can you imagine? Some guy says, 'Honey, I'm going out to get some ice,' and runs into a train weighing 220 pounds."
Players view the combine with the joy they typically reserve for final-exam week. Angelo describes what a player faces when he steps up to run his 40: "You got everybody in the NFL sitting in those stands. They're not your fans. They are there to judge you. You see Al Davis and Bill Par-cells and Jimmy Johnson at the starting line. Al Davis has his chair. Jerry Jones is there. That's pretty intimidating. They are looking at you. There's no smiling going on. In the bleachers there are rows of scouts at the 10-, 20-and 40-yard marks. Every row for 30 rows up is filled. On the track there are three timers at the 10, three at the 20 and three at the 40. They are the only ones allowed on the track. There are 300 people, and all eyes are on you.
"A lot of guys tighten up and don't run well," he says. "Every muscle in your body tenses up, and you freeze. Ever been so scared that you freeze? They'll sit in their stance for five minutes before they'll say they're ready to go. You will see kids running, going across the finish line so fast that they do head dives into the turf."
"Truth be told, there aren't a lot of guys who like that situation," says Ohio State's Kennedy. "A lot of people say they want [to take] the last shot [in a basketball game]. The 40 is a lot harder than a last shot. How many guys would like to make a free throw that is going to determine whether they play in the NBA?"
In recent years the Muhammads who expect to be among the top draft selections blow off the combine and make the mountains come to them, although Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning surprised the NFL this year when he attended the combine. Some players believe the track used at the RCA Dome is too slow. Cowboys director of college and pro scouting Larry Lacewell arches an eyebrow and says, "I notice it didn't slow Deion Sanders down." Sanders ran the fastest 40 timed in Indianapolis in the last decade, a 4.29, before the 1989 draft. The controversy simmered to the point that combine officials asked Colts tailback Marshall Faulk to write a letter this year to all invitees assuring them they wouldn't be running uphill on his home field.