Is Your Mother a Prostitute? or, It’s Interview Time at the Combine
by Homer J.
Homer has visited the old port and the old market in Charleston, SC, where 40% of the colonial slave trade passed through. He is fully aware of America’s racial past, an he is in full agreement with William Faulkner’s observation that, “the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”
That’s why he views the NFL Combine, now underway in Indianapolis, with a mix of fascination and unease.
Granted, the invitees are willingly attending, auditioning for the opportunity to sell their services for millions of dollars. They hope to become multi-millionaires and household names because of their ability —as grown men—to play a child’s game at a high level.
But the optics are somewhat different.
The owners are overwhelmingly white (Green Bay may have some non-whites among their thousands of owners and IIRC Jacksonville has an owner of Middle Eastern heritage and those who demand racial purity might engage in an ugly debate about that). The invitees are mostly African-American and other non-whites.
So, there is this spectacle of older white men having these young Black guys strip to their shorts. They take photos of them, make them perform feats of strength, speed, and agility, and in all other ways evaluate them before the young men are chosen, in order, one-by-one, in a carefully orchestrated player selection meeting.
So, on one hand, it’s “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” And, on the other, it has echoes of the Annapolis or Charleston slave markets, where human beings were advertised in the local newspapers, with their ages and abilities, and then prospective buyers would come and take a look at what they might want to buy.
Of course, the Steelers—with the legacy of Bill Nunn—and an African-American head coach and a highly diverse coaching staff and front office—don’t fit the optics or the narrative here, but other teams have throughout the years, and many still do.
The part of the combine that’s most intriguing may be the part we never see. And that’s the interview.
Some teams care about character more than others, but, in the final analysis, they all must care to one extent or another.
Nobody wants to spend a high draft choice an a guy who will certainly fail because of character issues. If he’s a nutjob who has a history of violence—especially against women—or if he’s been thrown off numerous teams—or if he’s a complete locker room cancer—and, above all, if he’s likely to spend seasons on the suspended list, even Cincinnati will wait till the seventh round to draft the Vontaze Burficts of this world.
And, if a guy has one incident in his life that causes you concern, the interview will give you the chance to get an explanation or clarification. I know this will come as a surprise to you, but things aren’t always exactly as you read in the newspapers or on the internet. Sometimes, it wasn’t the kid’s fault, or another team is spreading false rumors, hoping you’ll pass on a draft choice they want.
So, it seems for every team, the threshold questions during the interview session deal with those issues that determine whether the interviewee’s character issues are so serious that he should be downgraded or off the board.
Beyond that, every franchise has its own group doing the questioning and its own style.
Some have been remarkable, and not in a good way.
Miami Dolphins’ GM Jeff Ireland infamously asked Oklahoma State’s Dez Bryant “is your mother a prostitute?” I don’t know what his answer was. My answer would be, “is yours?”
An unnamed NFL exec asked Colorado Tight End Nick Kasa, “do you like girls?” My answer would be, “do you mean do I like women, or are you some kind of pederast? Because if you are, I can’t help you.”
How would you have answered those two questions? Or would you have walked out?
If you’re going to spend a high draft choice and millions of dollars to sign someone, it’s certainly important to know as much as you can about his character and even about his family life to the extent that it might impact on his performance. But there are limits.
Every bit as important is learning why some young men stand out as exemplary.
Last year, the Steelers literally ran to the podium to announce their picks of Artie Burns and Sean Davis. And they repeated, time and again, that both were extremely high character individuals.
Burns’ dedication to his family, raising his younger siblings with his father in prison and his mother dead of a heart attack, showed his maturity and sense of loyalty. But how do you approach that in an interview setting? Once you know the basic story, is there some way you can go even deeper? Do you then move on to other things?
Do you ask off the wall questions to see how quickly the prospect can respond to something totally out of the box?
Davis’ tight-knit family life was almost the opposite of Burns’. Sean’s parents both took two jobs to afford tuition to send him to the prestigious Maret School in DC. He was an outstanding student, fluent in French (Maret’s teams are called the Frogs) and with a working knowledge of Chinese.
What do you ask a kid who speaks three languages, played two defensive positions, and went to high school with the children of millionaires and maybe billionaires? His parents were certainly dedicated to him, but how do you know that he didn’t take that for granted? You know, of course, how positive and negative traits so often skip a generation.
The story we hear time and again is how thrilled these young men are when they see (412) pop up on their phones and it’s Mike Tomlin calling them to tell them they’ve been drafted by the Steelers. Of course, just about every player says that about nearly every team. Except, when Steeler draftees recount the moment, you can tell by their excitement, and sometimes even tears, that they really, really mean it.
There is no question that Mike Tomlin, in addition to his cheerleading skills, is able to connect with people in the interview process. He excels in getting them to open up, and seems to get to know them, yet in a way that is not invasive or uncomfortable.
I would imagine questions that begin with, “tell me about…” or “what do you like about…” put someone at ease. And you couch other questions, such as, “you did very well with that, but what did you find was the hardest part?” And there’s always, “what makes you happy?”
In the end, Tomlin knows what he’s getting, and the players want to come to Pittsburgh.
I’d love to be able to sit in on one of those interviews and watch how Tomlin and Colbert and staff connect with these kids. Or even to sit down with the head cheerleader over a bacon cheeseburger and a beer and chat about what he asks, how he couches the tricky questions, some of the most interesting answers he’s received, and how he can tell when he’s being handed a crock of crap. And, just as important, stories about interview responses that raised red flags that enabled him to pass on guys who later had troubled careers and were underachievers.
The interview is where you should be able to learn enough to predict whether your top draft choice will show up drunk in Vegas with a bunch of hookers, like Johnny Football, or will come to you and say, “I’ve never played a team twice in a season. What do you look for in the game film and what should I study when I prepare for the second game?” like Sean Davis did.
We won’t see the interviews, but we’ll see the results two months from now. And, if the past is any indication of the future, the Steelers may take a chance now and again, and might even swing and miss with the occasional middle or late rounder. Talent talks, and troubled kids can and do often grow up, so you take chances. But they’ll have more than their share of ultra-high-character guys, especially in the top three rounds. And that’s not a coincidence.
Character counts, and the interview, done properly, is the window to the soul.
Editor’s note—Homer said “Please don’t change the title.” So I didn’t…