Pop-up Pro Day Gives Small-School Guys a Chance to Chase NFL Dreams

A year without ball.

That’s how one of the players at Marc Lillibridge’s pop-up Pro Day in St. Louis earlier this month described his life.

“Due to the pandemic my Pro Day was cancelled,” explained University of Charleston wide receiver Tremaine Ross. “I was not able to show scouts what I am capable of. Coming from a Division II school, exposure and opportunities are limited. I was really counting on my Pro Day to get my name out there to scouts.”

First, it was the East-West Shrine Bowl. Then the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl went down. Followed by a drastically altered 2021 NFL Combine. Finally, individual school Pro Days closed ranks or canceled altogether.

Speed kills, as anyone who defended against Ross in college may attest. (Photo: Emily Van Buskirk)

“When I learned my college was not going to have a Pro Day, I reached out to every FBS and FCS school to request permission to participate in their Pro Day,” said Ross’ college teammate, defensive back Jeremy Bell. “I even contacted a small handful of DII programs. Every school either denied my request or did not respond to my email.”

The Senior Bowl and the College Gridiron Showcase managed to survive, thanks to the hard work of their respective staffs but the invite-only format left many small-school players out in the cold.

That just didn’t sit right with Lillibridge.

“When the combine was cancelled, I wanted to give guys a shot to get video and testing numbers to NFL and CFL teams,” explained Lillibridge. “Guys need to be seen. The old adage ‘what have you done for me lately’ applies to players in the last 3-4 drafts. Particularly this year with COVID issues.”

So Lillibridge, a former college football (Iowa State) turned NFL player who has deep roots in the football community both as a former scout and a former agent, got to work. He set up the first annual St. Louis Pro Football Showcase on April 3rd at the Lou Fusz Training Center, sponsored by Inside the League and The Brawl Network.

Lillibridge (left) knew that all these guys needed was a chance to be seen. (Photo: Emily Van Buskirk)

Any player that signed up would be professionally timed and videotaped in the 40-yard dash, 20-yard shuttle, broad jump, vertical, bench, three-cone and select positional drills with their results signed, sealed and delivered to all NFL and CFL teams.

“Most of the players attending have been recommended by NFL or CFL teams,” acknowledged Lillibridge. “And all teams have requested the numbers.”

Age may be nothing but a number, but a 4.49 40-yard time for a defensive back is something to pay attention to.

“’Bridge’s Pro Day was huge for me because going into my senior year that was one of my goals – to ball out and be able to get a chance at a pro day,” said Kansas Wesleyan defensive back Takota Anderson. “All I wanted was a chance. The one in 2020 was cancelled and so was the one this year. I just really needed to get some official numbers.”

Like Ross, Anderson went a year without ball.

“It didn’t affect my college career as I was able to finish my seasons but it affected my March 2020 pro day, to get in front of some official NFL scouts,” lamented Anderson. “It hasn’t really been positive or negative – it just feels like a standstill. But that’s why I keep grinding and pursuing and taking chances. I’m just hoping for that one opportunity because that’s all I need.”

Anderson wowed when it came to ball skills and recorded a 4.49 in the 40, two things he specifically wanted to showcase to NFL teams.

Anderson (left) was a 2019 First Team All-NAIA selection by the Associated Press (Photo: Emily Van Buskirk)

“I wanted to show them I’m not slow,” expressed Anderson. “That was one thing about being a small school guy and a white guy in general – they consider you slow until you show them you aren’t. I’m not fast but I’m football fast. I play technique sound and I study a lot to be able to get in the right positions to make plays.”

Several players ran sub 4.5 40-yard dashes, including both Ross and Bell who ran a 4.35 and a 4.38, respectively.

“I believe I was able to show NFL teams that I am one of the most athletically gifted corners in this year’s draft,” declared Bell. “If a scout looks at my numbers, I am top-10 of all Pro Days in the 2021 draft class. To be exact, I sit at No. 7 out of 48 Pro Days on record based on the RAS (Relative Athletic Score). My performance in St. Louis demonstrated that I have the speed and agility to play in the NFL.”

The level of skill and drive on the field that morning was impressive to all those in attendance. The hope and sheer determination echoed off the cavernous indoor training facility and the gratitude from the players radiated throughout the field.

“There were a number of players (probably five or six) that did very well during the testing and workout part of the event,” shared Montreal Alouettes director of U.S. scouting Russ Lande. “Now it is my job to track film of them playing football to see if it matches what I saw during the workout to determine if they are players I think have the talent to play professional football.”

Bell is pretty fast, and he has the numbers to prove it. (Photo: Emily Van Buskirk)

Lande, a longtime friend of Lillibridge’s, was eager to bring his 20+ years of experience in the football world to this event. He joined the small group of seasoned staff working that morning while keeping any potential COVID exposure to a minimum.

While the event itself was Lillibridge’s brain child, by the end of the day, everybody involved felt a sort of ownership over the effort. The impact those five hours made on the lives of 27 players was not lost on the staff – even if these young men never made it to the league, having someone believe in them enough to help them have a shot was a validation of all their hard work.

“With Bridge’s connections to the NFL, he gave me and the other players an opportunity that we never would have received,” said Bell. “For me, this opportunity to participate in his Pro Day made everything I was doing, the financial investment and all the sacrifices, worth it.”

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