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.”

It’s Time to Give Chris Paul His Roses with the MVP Award

Chris Paul is not the typical NBA superstar of his generation.  He is small by NBA standards, ornery and a big part of his game, the midrange jump shot, is scoffed at by analytics. In a sport full of premiere athletes with size, speed and strength, the future Hall of Famer still on top of his game in his 16th season. CP3 has a litany of accolades, but despite years of point guard supremacy, the MVP trophy continues to elude him.

It is an understatement to say that Paul is long overdue to have an MVP award in his trophy case. Could this year finally be the year when he gets his just due? We know that he is not one of the five best players in the NBA at this stage of his career, but few impact the game in the way that he does.

There are players with better stats, but we have seen guys like Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki win the award without having eye-popping numbers. Paul’s averages of 16 points and 8.7 assists are good, but not great. In support of his case, he is a few shades away from being a 50-40-90 guy (shooting percentages of 50% in field goals, 40% from three, and 90% from the free throw line), yet his impact is bigger than what is viewed in the box score. Before Paul’s arrival, the Phoenix Suns were the laughingstock of the NBA. Although the uber-talented Devin Booker showed superstar capabilities, it did not translate into team success.

With the addition of CP3, the Suns are sitting comfortably as the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. Through 53 games (and Paul missing just one game), their record is 38-15. In comparison to last season, the Suns won just 34 games, which included the stunning 8-0 tally in the bubble last summer.

The Suns turning into a Western Conference power is a culmination of a few things. Booker is inching closer to superstardom, former #1 overall pick DeAndre Ayton is improving each game, and Monty Williams is one of the best head coaches in the business. But all in all, the 35-year-old Point God is the wizard behind everything.

Paul continues to stay one step ahead of Father Time despite being one of the elder statesmen in the league. When it comes to changing the makeup of a team, Paul is only second to LeBron James. His track record speaks for itself; Paul has increased win totals in his first season in all his stops as a pro. What he has accomplished in New Orleans, Los Angeles (Clippers), Houston, Oklahoma City and now Phoenix has been nothing short of amazing.

Paul finished second in the MVP voting losing to Kobe Bryant in 2008, and in 2012 and 2013 he finished in the top four (losing out to James each time). Losing the MVP award to two of the greatest players to ever lace them up is not a bad thing, but it shows you how close Paul has been to win.

The landscape of the award changed when Russell Westbrook won it in 2017. Westbrook was the first person in nearly four decades to win the award with their team not being in the top 2 of their conference. The team aspect has always mattered for MVPs, so with that, Paul is the perfect candidate to win it for the first time.

Even with James, Kevin Durant and Joel Embiid out of the running due to injuries, Paul has stiff competition with Nikola Jokic, Damian Lillard, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, and two-time defending MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. But then again, few have the type of imprint on a team in the manner that CP3 has.

When legendary athletes and entertainers enter the twilight of their careers, they are typically awarded a lifetime achievement award. That honor celebrates their accomplishments, particularly focusing on the prime years of their peak. In CP3’s case, this year’s MVP actually wouldn’t be a “thanks for everything” award because what he is currently doing is on par with how he played at his apex. The forever-changing criteria for the NBA MVP award will always shift, given the circumstances and depending on who the candidates are. However in this case, it is only right to give the nod to Paul, who has waited for over a decade to hoist the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.

Ronnie Hampston and his musings can be found via Twitter @ron_hamp. The Ohio native hosts All of the Above with former University of Cincinnati star and NBA vet James “Flight” White.

The Unsurprising (Relative) Silence About the Canucks’ COVID Outbreak

A week ago, the NHL postponed a few games involving the Vancouver Canucks, who like their fellow Canadian franchises have been playing their 2021 season in the North Division. Since last spring, our northern neighbors closed the American/Canadian border in hopes of restricting travel and reducing the spread of the coronavirus. With that closure still in place, the NHL went with a temporary realignment for 2021 where their seven Canadian franchises compete against one another in a single division. While a team’s main roster of 23 players was not increased, it is allowed additional four to six players in what’s called a taxi squad, something that already exists in the NFL. (For the unfamiliar, here is the setup.)

As we have come to expect from all competitions that have gone on in North America, a few positive cases have thrown schedules in flux. Yet what’s happening in Vancouver has been a far greater test than anyone has imagined.

COVID cases have skyrocketed in the Vancouver area and throughout the province of British Columbia. Combined with a slow vaccination rollout up north and mask fatigue (or dismissal) from enough people, and it isn’t a shock that the community spread hasn’t abated yet. ESPN, The Athletic and other outlets reported earlier this week that the number of positive tests were going to rise among the Canucks, but the numbers are still staggering.

21 players, four staffers.

(You can blink.)

21 players, four staffers.

This is fairly close to that doomsday scenario we feared when sports leagues resumed play last year, isn’t it? A group of young and seemingly healthy men – who by and large as among the best-conditioned human beings on the planet – with older peers, though they might also be in fairly good shape when considering their line of work.

It’s a complete contrast from the successful restart of the 2019-20 season this past summer, though the structure was entirely different for understandable reasons. No one in the league would want to bubble up again, and the only reason why there was almost unanimous buy-in for the bubble was that the playoffs were about a month away when the league shut down in the first place. The one saving grace right now is that unlike some teams stateside, not one of the Canadian teams have brought fans back to their arenas.

It’s honestly a bit surprising that this hasn’t generated more discussion throughout media, or at the very least some chatter with the Extremely Online crowd in sports. Perhaps this is yours truly being cynical of the cynics, but many of those who were quite vocal about their displeasure about sports pushing forward last summer and fall seem rather quiet right now about what’s going on with the Canucks.

What doesn’t help is that barely a word is being said in legacy media on any sizable scale. No wraparound coverage of the ordeal outside of local media or sport-specific beats. No Sunday news show swooping in with drones at the Canadian border and socially-distanced roundtables to make mountains out of molehills. Not even a joke from the late night talk circuit (although The Daily Show is the best equipped to get a decent slapshot off).

Is this because the outbreak isn’t happening in the States, where the country is flirting with a fourth wave despite the uptick in vaccinations? Is it because the NHL isn’t back on ESPN just yet, which would suddenly bring back some cultural cache that doesn’t exist with NBC Sports? Is it just that low on the totem pole for everyone when it comes to the daily deluge of bad COVID news?

But all of that aside and as cliché as it might sound, one has to wonder if this outbreak happened in the NBA, how loud the volume would get. After all, it’s already been pretty loud.

The NBA has already drawn much ire this season in its handling of COVID; some earned, some unearned. The Kevin Durant saga back in February inspired days of talking points and rage tweets as the Brooklyn Nets forward was pulled, re-inserted, then re-pulled from a game due to what turned out to be a positive diagnosis. His bizarre night got attention beyond sports media as it made its way to hard news, business news, and People Magazine, of all places. Yet, the outrage was largely on point as the league made a huge mess, putting just about everyone on the court at risk of catching the virus.

Yet some weeks later, another superstar’s comment about the COVID-19 vaccine had arguably too much ink devoted to it in all likelihood because of who said it. LeBron James could literally say “I like ketchup on my French fries,” and people would lose their minds. So when he said that his decision is “a private matter,” and that he would like to speak with his family before deciding whether he would get vaccinated or not, the media world predictably pushed the story as if it was Game 1 of the NBA Finals. One particular opinion from Martenzie Johnson at The Undefeated went even further on James, making a hotly-debated connection to the social justice statements from NBA players this past summer by stating:

… when NBA players rightfully took up the mantle of speaking for all Black people this past summer in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, they, unknowingly or not, agreed to be the face of all Black issues going forward. Black lives cannot truly matter to a person if they refuse to support vaccines for a disease that has killed nearly 80,000 Black people in a year’s time.

With respect to Johnson, it would be hard to imagine expressing this view if it was Evander Kane or P.K. Subban or any Black player in the NHL… or any player in the NHL, for that matter. James moves the meter like few others in the world, and the same can be said for the NBA, which played an outsized role in the first quarter of the pandemic. Though the NHL began to heed CDC warnings days before Rudy Gobert’s now-infamous press conference, it was the Utah Jazz center’s positive test that made America and much of the wider world take COVID more seriously.

Like their peer leagues, the NHL has had several clusters of outbreaks among its teams in their regular season. Yet the alarms aren’t being rung the same way at this critical moment as our rightful worries would have suggested. In all of this speculation of why that’s been the case, there is a deeper and more sinister question to be asked: do the alarmists even care at this point? If the demographics of the athletes are dictating concern, then the concerns themselves are selective, highly performative and incredibly problematic. We shouldn’t need CNN’s breaking news chryons about outbreaks in some sports to be reminded about the severity of the pandemic.

The affected players and coaches are going through hell. Though it appears that everyone can and will eventually be okay, we are still discovering the long-term affects of COVID and there’s a chance that at least one person that will become a COVID long-hauler. While Canada has far more people to worry about, there are significant lessons for public-facing institutions such as pro sports leagues to learn from this frightening scenario.

Unsurprisingly, our media at-large may need some education as well.

Jason Clinkscales is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Whole Game. All praise, money and cookies can be sent to @asportsscribe while all criticisms can be sent to someone else.

What Would An All African-American WBC Team Look Like?

Back in November, hosted a roundtable program entitled the “Culture & Journey of the Black Baseball Player”. Hosted by Seattle Mariners broadcaster Dave Sims, the program brought together a handful of current African-American ballplayers, along with former manager Charlie Manuel, to discuss the unique situation facing the modern day Black baseball player. 

During the hour-long program, a variety of topics were delved into, including the lack of Black presence in the contemporary game, ways to inspire more young African-Americans to pick up a bat and ball, as well as the unique social challenges the fall on the shoulders of the few chosen players in the position in MLB today. Overall, it was a very engaging, truthful and enlightening conversation; one worth revisiting on the website today.

At a point during the program, Manuel brought up the idea of allowing an entry into the next World Baseball Classic consisting of just African-American players, to showcase the talents that are still both present, relevant and impactful in today’s game. The idea of that immediately sent my thought process going 1,000 miles per hour; what exactly would that team look like? There certainly are enough Black ballplayers to fill it out, but just what would the entirety of look like, together?

So, that is exactly what is set before you here: a 2021 version of an WBC-style African-American All-Star team. As the new year settles into the box, here’s a look at what would be one of hell of a modern day barnstorming team.

(Editor’s note: The fifth edition of the Classic was supposed to have taken place this year, but like all else, it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Shortstop: Tim Anderson, White Sox

Anderson has become one of the most exciting players in the game. In 2019, he captured the American League batting title, hitting .335. Last summer, his 45 runs scored led the AL, while he won his first Silver Slugger Award. Anderson is also one of the most outspoken, unapologetic presences in the game and would thrive in the spotlight like the WBC.

Reserve: J.P. Crawford (Mariners)

First Base: Dominic Smith, Mets

Although it was an abbreviated year, Smith had the type of season that had been awaited for a handful of seasons. He produced a .993 OPS over 50 games, with 10 home runs and 21 doubles, outdoing his cumulative numbers over the exact same number of at-bats in 2019 in nearly 40 fewer games.

Bench: Josh Bell (Nationals)

Second Base: Marcus Semien, Blue Jays

Semien will switch over from shortstop at his new stop in Toronto, a location where his value could get even greater with an easier defensive load. His 14.1 WAR ranks second among all shortstops since 2018, just a .1 behind Colorado’s Trevor Story. He finished third in AL MVP voting in 2019.

Bench: Tony Kemp (A’s)

Third Base: Ke’Bryan Hayes, Pirates

Hayes made the most of his first taste of MLB action in 2020. Over 24 games, the former top prospect and son of hot corner veteran Charlie, stroked to a 1.124 OPS, with 43% of his hits going for extra bases. His presence adds a nice dash of the bright future for African-Americans around the game.

Catcher: Bruce Maxwell, New York Mets

All things being equal, this is a bit of a cheat to fill out the roster, as Maxwell was sent to the minors after recently signing with the Mets, but was out of the majors since 2018. But it also highlights a massive issue of a lack of African-American catchers throughout the upper tiers of pro baseball. For the last Black All-Star catcher? You have to go all the way back to Charles Johnson in 2001. It is a position when the Black presence is tremendously underserved.

Bench: We need to work on this, obviously.

Outfield: Mookie Betts, Dodgers; George Springer, Blue Jays; Aaron Judge, Yankees

Judge is a perennial MVP candidate, anchoring the lineup for baseball’s most storied franchise. (Photo Credit: Kim Montuoro)

This is where this collection gets especially devastating. Between the trio of Betts, Springer and Judge there are: the 2018 AL MVP (Betts), the 2017 World Series MVP (Springer) and a slugger in Judge who reached a host of records owned by Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Reggie Jackson as a rookie. Add in five Gold Gloves and seven Silver Sluggers between them all, and this is by far the powerhouse portion of this lineup.

Bench: Michael Brantley (Astros), Byron Buxton (Twins), Kyle Lewis (Mariners),

Utility: Ian Desmond, Rockies

While he opted out of the 2020 season, Desmond remains an accomplished and versatile talent. After starting his career at shortstop, he has shifted between first base and center field over the past few seasons. To his credit, he is a two-time All-Star and three-time Silver Slugger Award winner. 

Bench: Dee Strange-Gordon (Free Agent)

Starting Pitcher: Jack Flaherty, Cardinals

He didn’t have the all-universe showing in 2020 (4.91 ERA over nine starts) that he finished 2019 with, there are few pitchers on Earth as talented as Flaherty. Over his first three full seasons, Flaherty owns a 3.20 ERA, while his .198 average against is the third-lowest in baseball among starters. He also places in the MLB top 10 in WHIP (1.04) and strikeout percentage (29.7%) over the same time span.

Rotation: Marcus Stroman (Mets, 2017 WBC Most Valuable Player), David Price (Dodgers), Justin Dunn (Mariners)

Bullpen: Devin Williams (Brewers), Amir Garrett (Reds), Jeremy Jeffress (Free Agent), Jordan Hicks (Cardinals), Mychal Givens (Rockies), Triston McKenzie (Indians), Touki Toussaint (Braves), Taylor Hearn (Rangers), Demarcus Evans (Rangers), Chris Archer (Rays)

Led by the 2020 NL Rookie of the Year in Williams (one earned run over 22 appearances), and amplified by the plus arms of Garrett, Jeffress, Hicks and McKenzie, the bullpen offers a deep and diverse set of arms capable of cleaning up most any situation later in affairs as well.

Matt Whitener has been a freelance writer, radio personality and podcaster host since 2010. His work is featured on Yardbarker, The Whole Game & on the SOLC Network. Matt is based out of St. Louis, MO and is a regular and lifelong advocate for the history of African-Americans in baseball and ensuring the culture is represented in a true to the game fashion. You can follow Matt on Instagram at @CheapSeatFan and by name on Facebook.

Baylor vs. Gonzaga: Sometimes, It Is That Easy

One of the facets of the “madness” in the March Madness that is the NCAA Tournament is that typically in the men’s version, lower-seed teams upset traditional college powerhouses in the first weekend. A few, like Loyola-Chicago and Oregon State, even threaten to be a part of the third weekend. Usually, the Final Four is made up of really good teams that most knew were really good since the season started. But because of the Madness, and the idea that we can know the matchups so well that our dark horses advance further in the race than others think, a lot of us talk ourselves out of obvious choices when filling out brackets.

Gonzaga and Baylor have been the two best teams all season long. They were ranked first and second, respectively, in the AP Preseason Top 25. And while change is inevitable and most of those teams in the preseason polls do not justify those rankings – Duke and Kentucky being in the top 10 immediately comes to mind – the Bulldogs and the Bears have remained at the top of actual polls and been prohibitive favorites for months. This leads me to this idea when it comes to those who seek to predict contenders:

Sometimes, it is that easy.

Gonzaga is the best team in the country. They have every element needed to capture the men’s NCAA Championship tonight. They’re led by future NBA lottery pick freshman Jalen Suggs, sophomore Drew Timmie and senior Corey Kispert. A bigger fact then their scoring output (91.6 points per game) is that they’re beating opponents by almost 23 points per game. Gonzaga isn’t just winning, they’re dominating. This is certainly head coach Mark Few’s best group of players in the two decades the ‘Zags have been in the national spotlight.

Just over 1,900 miles southeast of Spokane, WA, Scott Drew has assembled a roster at Baylor that looks to smother on defense. Led by junior guards Davion Mitchell and Jared Butler, the Bears are only allowing their opponents to score 65 points a contest, while they score 82 a game. That margin isn’t as wide as Gonzaga’s differential but it is clear that Baylor is also tangibly better than the other teams in the nation.

Since 2010, the men’s NCAA Championship Game had at least one team ranked in the AP Preseason Top 10. There are outliers, such as UConn’s Kemba Walker-led Tournament run in 2011 in which the Huskies started the season unranked. But there are also instances like 2013 where both participants Louisville and Michigan started the season ranked in the top five. So the data shows that it is certainly likely one title game contender will be near the top of the polls white the other will play better than the consensus projects. Most times, actually playing out the season helps us gather information on how we shape the end of our brackets. And other times, that conventional thinking can be set aside to pick number one and number two.

The two teams with the biggest differential and the most ways to win a game are meeting in the championship game. And while the choice between these two and 66 other teams seems to favor the field, this time it was easy to predict who’d be looking to cut down the nets tonight. Good luck to both teams and may the game be worthy of the caliber of both programs.