It's late afternoon on Jan. 16. more than 350 NFL folks—owners, general managers, head coaches, assistant coaches, personnel directors, scouts—are crammed into a banquet room at Stouffer Riverview Plaza in Mobile, Ala. They have tape recorders and notebooks and are eagerly awaiting the most revealing part of the college football draft process—a ritual dubbed the Meat Market. In a few minutes, 75 of the nation's best players, who are in town for the Senior Bowl all-star game, will parade around in their underwear.
"It's a livestock show, and it's dehumanizing, but it's necessary," says George Young, general manager of the New York Giants. "If we're going to pay a kid a lot of money to play football, we have a right to find out as much as we can. If we're going to buy 'em, we ought to see what we're buying."
A line forms on the left side of the room, directly opposite a video camera. Each player is instructed to strip to his shorts. Derek Hill, a wide receiver from Arizona, is visibly uncomfortable. Had he known he was going to be caught with his pants down, he might not have worn those wild leopard-skin bikinis.
Like contestants in a beauty pageant, the players prance past Harry Buffington, the 70-year-old director of National Football Scouting, one of the league's two scouting organizations. He introduces each one by name, school and agent. After his name is called, the player faces the audience and poses for a few moments before a scout measures his height. The player then goes to a physician's scale and weighs in.
Some scouts furiously scribble these statistics in their notebooks. Observations about musculature and bone structure are made in the margins. Acne is noted, because it can signal steroid use.
"You look at size potential," says Young. "Can the player add weight? Is he fragile? You worry if an offensive lineman has thin hips, because he won't be able to explode well through his legs. A defensive lineman with skinny arms will have to prove he can muscle somebody. And how many running backs with small calves run fast?"
Wake Forest quarterback Mike Elkins stalks to the measuring station, his stomach puffing out over the waist of his white B.V.D.'s. Since the end of last season, Elkins has gained seven pounds, thanks to his mother's cooking and a fondness for beer. His steely blue eyes stare through the audience. "Six-oh-three," a scout calls out. "Two-twenty-three."
"I felt like a prize bull at the county fair," says Elkins later. "I have a big ass and a big belly. I suck in my gut. but it never does any good. It just makes a big crease in my belly."
Senior Bowl week signifies a passing into manhood for young players. It is the beginning of the NFL draft odyssey, giving a collegian his first significant paycheck ($75 per day) and his first exposure to pro coaching.
From Jan. 16 until he was drafted on April 23, Elkins was under a powerful microscope. Projected at the end of last season to be a first-round pick and the second quarterback taken, after UCLA's Troy Aikman, he was poked, prodded, interrogated and graded by a number of NFL teams. His strong arm, quick release, intelligence and durability impressed the scouts. Yet the consensus view of him that emerged was of a raw talent from a small school, an enthusiastic kid who toiled in two different offensive schemes—pro-style, followed by the option—during the four seasons he played at Wake.