TEMPE, Ariz. - Adam Carriker, the 13th player selected in the first round of the 2007 NFL draft, spent yesterday morning tiptoeing around cones and jousting with padded dummies, at the prodding of a whistle.
Carriker, who turns 31 in May, has earned more than $16 million in guarantees, playing 4-3 defensive tackle and 3-4 defensive end for the Rams and the Redskins. He hasn't played since suffering a serious knee injury early in the 2012 season with Washington; Carriker's right knee since has undergone three surgeries.
"I told my wife, I wish I could turn this off, I wish I could shut it off, I wish it would go away," Carriker, a former Nebraska star, said yesterday, tapping his chest. Carriker had just finished the defensive-line segment of the NFL's first Veterans Scouting Combine, held at the Arizona Cardinals' practice facility.
"I have no idea if I'll get an opportunity ever again, and that could drive me nuts for a long time. That's why I was excited when I heard about the Veterans Combine. I can't shut this off. So, I got an opportunity, and we'll see what happens . . . If nobody calls, I've got a family, I've got a degree and I can move on. But that day is just not here for me yet."
None of yesterday's 105 participants wants to believe that day has arrived - to put football aside - though for some, it surely has. There wasn't a lot of joking or clowning around among the players lined up for drills. Most of them have been on NFL rosters or at least in NFL camps, but a lot of them didn't appear in either category in 2014, and well, if there isn't at least a camp invite this year, it's probably time to think about the rest of your life.
The event had a desperate, last-call feel, chairs being stacked on tables and lights being flicked on and off. The players, winnowed by a committee of NFL personnel people from a pool of 2,000 applicants, wore plain white jerseys, decorated only with two- or three-digit numbers in black, with black shorts. No frills. Just a chance to work out in front of representatives from all 32 NFL teams, including an Eagles contingent headed by Chip Kelly and player personnel VP Ed Marynowitz.
The attraction for the teams was that they could evaluate 105 "street" free agents at once, instead of paying to bring them into their city, by drips and drabs. The players, spared from making a circuit of individual no-guarantees tryouts, paid an entry fee of $400 apiece and had to find their own way to Arizona, though the NFL lodged and fed them.
Brian Rolle started 13 games at linebacker as a sixth-round Eagles rookie in 2011, but last week he was selling Hondas in Wooster, Ohio. Cut by the Birds in 2012, Rolle went to camp with the Steelers in 2013, didn't make the final roster, and hasn't gotten a contract since. At 26, he still says he just needs the right chance, with the right team. Rolle looked nimble yesterday, but at 5-9 5/8, he was easily the shortest of the linebackers.
"I think I did really well, Rolle said afterward. He got married in December and has an infant daughter. For a player such as Rolle with two credited seasons, the 2015 NFL minimum is $585,000. He'd have to sell a lot of Hondas to match that.
"Coaches have their reasons. I was in Pittsburgh last. [Head coach Mike] Tomlin made it very clear it wasn't anything I didn't do," Rolle said. "He said, 'You need to stick out more,' basically. In this league, it's about being an exciting player, somebody that makes big plays. I feel like I make plays that other guys can't make. All it takes is that one team to actually give me the opportunity to do so . . . hopefully today solidifies that I can still play, still move around and run real good."
Rolle said he found out about the Veterans Combine from ex-Eagles teammate Jamar Chaney. He said Chaney and another former Eagles linebacker, Keenan Clayton, applied but were turned down.
"It's been a great opportunity . . . Obviously, somebody wanted to see Brian Rolle one more time, and hopefully I gave 'em something to think about," he said.
Mike Golic Jr., a former Notre Dame center and son of the radio host and former Eagles defensive tackle, was Rolle's training-camp teammate with the Steelers in 2013. He signed with the Saints last year but was waived before training camp.
Golic, born in Voorhees, N.J., when his dad played for the Birds, said he has a degree from Notre Dame in TV and film, but he isn't inclined to think about using it yet, and isn't getting any parental pressure. Golic said his father "has made it very clear that as long as this is still a dream of mine, and something I want to pursue, him and my mom and the rest of my family support that 100 percent."
Some of the players, such as Carriker, Rolle and former Atlanta eighth-overall pick, defensive end Jamaal Anderson, teams already had lots of film on, but there also were guys like former Temple defensive lineman Shahid Paulhill, who said he has been working as a counselor and teacher at the Glen Mills Schools, which specialize in giving troubled kids a second chance.
Paulhill, also a player for the Colorado Ice Indoor Football League team, might not have too much trouble relating there - he was twice was dismissed and reinstated by Temple.
"I was tempted by petty temptations, and I felt back then I gave in to them," said Paulhill, 6-2 1/2, 288, who says he has matured, with a nearly-2-year-old daughter to provide for. "Working, taking care of my daughter day-to-day, seeing what men really go through without the shelter of college life and football, really helps you grow up."
Paulhill, who attended high school at Northeast Catholic, wasn't invited to the rookie combine and has never been to a pro camp, he said.
"I feel like it's the opportunity, honestly," he said. "I don't think too many opportunities are going to come like this . . . I love this game a lot. I've changed my life, and I want to continue to change my life."
Paulhill's place in line for the d-line drills was just after that of a more celebrated player, Michael Sam. The NFL's first openly gay draftee didn't make the Rams roster after arriving as a seventh-round pick from Missouri last spring, then was cut from the Cowboys' practice squad during the season. Lately his only headlines have come from his participation in "Dancing with the Stars" - something Sam flatly refused to discuss yesterday.
"I did the best I can. I did just as good, if not better than the other guys here, so I'm pretty confident about that," Sam said. "As long as I stay healthy and I still train, I think my chances of being on a team [this year] are quite high, in my view."
Sam, speaking to the day's largest contingent of reporters, said he is "very confident I will be playing football somewhere this year." He did not rule out the Canadian Football League. "As long as I still have that will, as long as I'm still healthy, you will continue to see me fight to get into this league."
In that regard, Sam was just like everyone else.