Today, the NFL Combine is an ultra-slick, media-saturated event held in absolutely perfect conditions.
But it wasn’t always this way.
Back in 1985, the exact form of the Combine was still taking shape. Although various combines had existed previously, 1985 was the first year all NFL teams attended one common combine. The annual event wouldn’t settle in Indianapolis until 1987.
The 1985 NFL Combine instead took place outdoors on the grass practice fields of Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. Roughly 250 college prospects participated, including future Hall of Fame inductees Jerry Rice and Andre Reed.
Harry Buffington, the organizer behind the event, specifically selected Tempe due to the low amount of rain the desert city traditionally received during the month of January.
The decision backfired. Per former NFL scout Greg Gabriel, it rained during two days of the event. And that was just one element of disarray at the 1985 NFL Combine.
Disorganization led to a situation where many athletes were running through drills outdoors, on a wet grass field, in cold weather, in the dark. While January in Tempe is quite pleasant while the sun is up, temperatures often drop into the 30s after sunset.
In a recent article detailing how Rice was viewed as a prospect coming out of tiny Mississippi Valley State University, The Athletic’s Bob McGinn outlined the crazy conditions of the combine.
By the time the 40s were run, it was near dusk in Tempe and a distinct chill was in the air. The vertical jump was conducted next to a wall rather than out in the open under an apparatus like it is today in Indianapolis. Given the conditions, one veteran executive said a 30-inch vertical was considered good. Remember, too, those pre-combine workout camps were years away. Players didn’t prep for the event.
‘Froze our asses off,’ remembered Michael Lombardi, a member of the 49ers’ scouting staff at the time and now an NFL insider for The Athletic.
‘It was disorganized. I drove Bill (Walsh) back to his hotel room that night and he was b******* about the conditions and how unfair it was for the players.’
There’s little doubt the conditions impacted the athletes’ results. Rice, for example, ran an uninspiring 4.58 40-Yard Dash and a molasses-slow 4.65 20-Yard Shuttle Drill.
“I wasn’t worried about Rice until we went to this damn thing in Phoenix,” one AFC personnel director claimed, per McGinn.
“That bothers me. He just didn’t look like you would expect of a guy with what he has accomplished.”
Rice went on to be drafted 16th overall by the San Francisco 49ers and is now widely considered the greatest wide receiver in NFL history in no small part thanks to his impressive athleticism.
In 1986, the NFL Combine was held at the Superdome in New Orleans. Gabriel calls this event a “small disaster” due in part to the fact Super Bowl XX had taken place in the Superdome shortly before the combine began.
The combine finally settled into Indianapolis a year later, where it’s remained to this day.
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