INDIANAPOLIS – Just minutes after a terse and uncomfortable press conference in front of the media at Lucas Oil Stadium where Robert Nkemdiche admitted to taking plays off, revealed that teammate Laremy Tunsil was in the Atlanta hotel room in which Nkemdiche fell off the balcony 15 feet, and claimed he was under the influence of alcohol – but not weed – when it happened, the Ole Miss star and NFL prospect was smiling and cracking jokes.
Above the NFL Combine scrum, the third floor club level had been turned into two separate sets, one for the NFL Network and one for ESPN. Prospects paraded in and out, some with no more than a 30-second warning, and guys spent anywhere between three and 20 minutes in front of the camera, goofing around, and generally acting like college kids. For guys with millions of dollars on the line, it might be one of the last times they’d get to do something like this. And it brought some much needed levity to one of the biggest weeks of their professional lives.
When asked what his favorite part of the week was, Nkemdiche didn’t hesitate.
“This,” he said. “I’m in my element here. It’s the only place you can be yourself. Everywhere else, you have to act a bit.”
While writers downstairs were busy tweeting and writing up Nkemdiche’s red flags and how strange that press conference was, he was trying to fit into the Nike Flywire cleats that had been provided for him in the makeshift costume area that ESPN set up.
“I’ve got fat feet,” Nkemdiche said, shoving the right one on and finally standing back up.
The production crew ran him through a video shoot in a big black box while Future was playing on a Spotify playlist. They ran the defensive end through cues and mock drills, as well as intense shots for dramatic effect.
Then it was time for stills with art director Lucas Nickerson and photographer Allen Kee. Nkemdiche stood holding a football with the NFL Draft logo facing out, and he pushed the ball down slowly as Kee snapped dozens of shots. Producer Bryan Ryder couldn’t resist breaking the tension by telling the first-round talent not to break it.
More than 70 prospects came through over the course of the week, many unannounced. Ryder, Nickerson, and editor Jeremy Anderson had to ride the waves of calm and chaos again and again, managing egos, getting the most out of the already-personable guys, and bringing other players out of their shells.
“Some people just feel it,” Anderson said. “I wouldn’t say they’re class clowns, but they’re hams in front of the camera. We’ll take that as far as we can push it. Other people are kind of quiet, but they’ll see it as we go. And the reason we have props – like the weights, and tackling dummies, and the other different things – is because they feel comfortable doing that. We try to build that up more and keep it simple. We walk through and show them what it is. Once they see it, they’re home.”
Not long after Nkemdiche exited, Baylor’s Shawn Oakman arrived. There was an audible gasp when he walked through, with someone saying to no one in particular, “that guy is a freak.” At 6’9 and 280 pounds, Oakman just looks powerful. And he was exactly the type of person to shine in this type of environment.
Anderson and Nickerson had Oakman knock some tackling dummies down, and they had him fake box in the video set with “The Devil Is a Lie” by Rick Ross blasting. While he waited for his next instructions, someone shows him a Snapchat of him during the shoot, and he was as pleased as he would be if he watched a highlight of him sacking a Big 12 quarterback.
As he walked off the set, former Ohio State linebacker Darron Lee had to get a word in.
“Boy you’re big,” Lee said. “Too big.”
The Combine is weird. It just is. Media spend way too much time tracking down intel from agents and team personnel, and the players aren’t even the most important part of the week, even though they’re the ones essentially auditioning for jobs by running, standing on a scale, stretching, and doing all sorts of other exercises in spandex in front of scouts and general managers. A decision can be made on one quote, one 15-minute interview, one hand measurement, or one poorly run 40-yard dash, and the pressure is really noticeable.
It wasn’t surprising at all that the guys enjoyed the shoot. They were free to be themselves without a gigantic spotlight on them, and they could take all the stress and anxiety and anticipation of the week, and set it to the side. It was a giant pause button where they weren’t asked to do anything other than be who they really were. They knew how important this week was as a whole, and it was easy to feel that energy exuding off of them in the raw atmosphere where it was just them and the camera.
“You want them smiling,” Ryder said. “They’re so stressed out. But they come up here, and you see them, and it’s just a mental break. They can forget about things.”
Eventually, all of this will make its way to a variety of ESPN content. Stills and video will end up on social media, in teases, re-teases, SportsCenter, and the NFL Draft broadcast itself. Ryder is most concerned with telling a story of some kind through the images, and the overall vision is to take the immense decision that general managers and owners have with their pick and show that that selection can save a city or put a city at odds with the front office.
Anderson referenced the intensity of scenes in shows like Netflix’s House of Cards as inspiration. There’s stress and anticipation wrapped up in all of it, and those storylines are still changing. Nothing is finalized even when the shoot is over, but the general theme was never far from their minds.
If some of the defensive linemen and linebackers took a little bit of time to get comfortable, the wide receivers had no trouble at all. Ole Miss’ Laquon Treadwell, a top 10 pick in many mock drafts, treated the event as seriously as he would a 7-on-7 drill.
“Did I mess this up, man?” Treadwell asked when he got down into a stance and started a sprint. “Do I need to move more slowly?”
“You can’t mess this up,” Kee said. “They’re fast cameras, so you can move fast.”
Treadwell bounced around, and was constantly aware of his surroundings and the people near him. It was easy to see that he was a people pleaser, and he took suggestions and criticism to heart. By the end of it, he was extremely comfortable and didn’t seem to want to leave.
During stills, he shouted out across the room, “I feel like a monster! I’m like a beast!” The group collectively smiled. “I thought I’d make y’all laugh,” he said.
Before finishing up, he had one more shot he wanted to make sure he incorporated. Leave it to Treadwell to take the creative director job away from the actual creative directors. He motioned to some equipment sitting near the mock weights over in the corner.
“Give me the shoulder pads,” Treadwell said. “I do play football.”