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In the case of Billy Joe Hedgepath, the Free Agent Scouting Combine (FASC) did its job: It got him a chance. As a 5'10", 197-pound halfback from Southwest Missouri State, Hedgepath had been passed over in the 1982 NFL draft, at three free-agent camps and by an Exxon dealer back home in Gary, Ind. who told him he was overqualified to pump gas.
In mid-June Hedgepath took part in an FASC camp in Chicago. He was tested in the 40-yard dash, the bench press, the vertical leap and quickness and agility drills. His results, along with those of the other 18 free agents on hand that day, were sent with the players' addresses and phone numbers to every NFL team, the Canadian Football League and the new U.S. Football League. Hedgepath's results caught the eye of Tom Bland, assistant director of football operations for the Tampa Bay Bandits of the USFL, who says, "His 40 time [4.71] isn't so great, but his agility and quickness drills were done in NFL-acceptable times. You look at the numbers and say, 'Here's a kid you can take a chance on.' " Bland checked with Hedgepath's college coaches and offered him a tryout contract over the phone in mid-July. Since then, says Hedgepath, "I'm a new man."
FASC was founded last March by Ron Real, the executive director of the Minor Professional Football Association. Real helped start up the MPFA two years ago with the idea of bringing some respect to the 26 minor leagues around the country. Part of Real's job, as he sees it, is to solve the Catch-22 confronting minor league players who hope to make the pros. Because NFL scouts don't take minor league play seriously, a player can't get himself into a pro tryout camp without a battery of test scores to convince a scout he belongs there. But the place to get all those numbers has always been in college or at an NFL tryout camp.
There have always been free-agent camps—like the Cowboys' annual media event in Dallas—but for all but the rare Herb Mul-Key, the traditional camps add up to a stack of travel bills and a chance to get lost in the crowd. Real's idea was to set up a scouting combine that would travel to the free agents and provide their numbers to the pro scouts whether the scouts wanted them or not. Says Real, "We just aren't convinced that NFL scouting is as scientific as people think it is. We'd like to think there are some players whom the scouts missed." One of them may be Quarterback Mike Houston of St. Joseph's College of Indiana, another of the Bandits' acquisitions off the FASC lists. "On film he looks like a young Danny White," says Bland, "but he was playing baseball when the scouts came through."
Hedgepath's camp was No. 13 on a tour of 35 cities that covered 33,140 miles and tested 1,256 would-be pros between March and September. The FASC operation is simple. Real and his assistant, Chuck Lawrence, haul all the equipment—weights, plastic cones for agility drills, etc.—from camp to camp in a 24-foot van, sleeping in it along the way. They rent fields by the day, and—like magic—anyone with stars in his eyes and $50 in his pocket can have an evaluation of his football talents sent to every pro director of personnel development.
There were no NFL Cinderella stories in the Combine's first months of operation. Fourteen players did sign NFL contracts, and one, Center Al Steinfeld, made the Kansas City Chiefs' final roster. Two others, New York Giant Running Back Ted Blackwell and Green Bay Packer Wide Receiver John Dettman, are on injured reserve. "It's too early now to tell how many players they're going to be able to place in the NFL," says Les Miller, director of player development for the Chiefs, "but teams are always looking for an additional way to keep track of all the people out there, and the Free Agent Combine is doing a very good job of it. It helps to get updates on people we've looked at in the past, and it also helps us evaluate the thousands of calls and letters we get every year. If I can look and see that a guy really is 6'4", 240 pounds and really does run a 4.7 40...well, I'm going to give his letter a little more consideration."
Real runs FASC out of his home in Elmhurst, Ill. with the help of his wife, Ceil, his seven children (ages 9 through 24) and Lawrence, 26, whose parents don't approve of his running all over the country with a stopwatch. "They don't know how to have fun with their work," Lawrence says.
Real and Lawrence have had plenty of that. They relied on a friend to secure a field for their third camp, in Houston. They ended up on the outskirts of town in front of a school that had closed seven years before. There were cows on the field, but the camp went on. In Kansas City, Mo. they had to rent four lawn mowers before proceeding. The mowing was done in an hour, but it's strictly BYOTurf from now on. In Chicago Real bought 3,000 square feet of Tartan Turf from an indoor-soccer facility.
Real has been criticized for taking money from the pockets of dreamers, but at least he makes no promises to the aspiring pros. Before each session he reminds each hopeful of his slim chance of making a pro team even if he does get a tryout and offers him his money back. "For a lot of guys," says Real, "it's their one moment of truth. A guy can see just how he rates with the other guys on the field and how his numbers would look in the NFL—and right then he might put away those dreams and get on with some other career." And Real never acts as an agent when a player actually does get an offer from the NFL, CFL or USFL, as 65 of the 1,256 testees have. "I'm not in this to take advantage of anybody," says Real. "We're providing a service, and it's a service that these players need, if only so they can become familiar with the drills that pro teams are going to judge them by. I always tell them, 'You wouldn't be here if you had anywhere else to go.' "
At an FASC camp in Chicago in August there were no complaints. Wide Receiver Kevin Kennedy, 23, clocked a 4.48 40 and showed remarkable agility and close-to-NFL-cutoff strength. Though he'd never played football in college, last year he'd given up a $13,000-a-year manager's job at a Popeye's restaurant for one packing screws and sockets at $3.50 an hour so he could play for the minor league Chicago Lions and—just maybe—try out for the USFL. Another receiver, Cleotis Fields, 23, unemployed, ran a 4.56 at the FASC camp. He played four seasons at Lincoln University in Missouri and said of a pro tryout, "It's all I ever dreamed of. It's a chance in a million, but I got my head up high."