INDIANAPOLIS – If you ask the teams, the coaches and general managers and anyone else in the organization who is closely involved in the draft picks to be made a month from now, it's the medical information on every player that's compiled and made available. If you ask the fans, it's the 40.
The 40-yard dash. It's a distance that's never run in a track meet, but it's what football has determined to be the measure of a player's speed. If Combine week means anything to you and you're not an NFL employee, the 40-yard dash is the main attraction.
It starts today, and Mark Gorscak is nervous.
For 10 years now, or as long as NFL Network has televised drills that never used to be seen by anyone except league personnel, Mark Gorscak has started the 40-yard dash at the Combine. For 361 days every year, Gorscak is a college scout for the Steelers. Those other four, he's the guy who starts the 40-yard dash.
Back in the mid-1990s when he was the Steelers' BLESTO scout, Gorscak worked the Cactus Bowl, a college all-star game made up of players from Division II and III schools. During the week of practice before the game, the players were available to be weighed and measured by NFL teams, sort of Scouting Combine Light. The scouts working the game for their teams chipped in to supervise the measurement-taking and on-field drills, and Gorscak ended up starting the 40 at the Cactus Bowl. When the job opened up at the NFL Combine, Gorscak got a telephone call.
"I said I don't want that job," is how Gorscak remembers his end of the conversation.
"It's a pain. You're in front of your peers. There's a lot of pressure. If you screw up, everybody lets you know about it. And that was even before I knew that TV was going to be involved. I didn't want that job. It's tedious because you're doing so many starts. You're in front of everybody. You're doing 333 guys in the Combine, and if everybody runs, you're over 600 starts."
But just like the Cactus Bowl, NFL teams contribute personnel to work the Combine, so General Manager Kevin Colbert got a telephone call. Colbert saw a chance to have a guy on the floor of the Combine, a guy trained to notice things, a guy who just might learn something from being the starter of the 40-yard dash. Gorscak was overruled.
"The first year I wasn't very good at it. I had some teams complaining about me to my face, and it was a nightmare," said Gorscak. "Eventually I grew into the position, but that year there was the added pressure of not only being in front of all the coaches and scouts, but now it was also going to be on TV. The first thing they told me when I got there that year was they wanted to mic me. That's how it all started."
There is a way the NFL wants these prospects to run this race, and Gorscak has to make sure the rules are followed. No rolling starts. No jack starts. No quick starts. Hold the stance for three counts.
"They can cheat the time," said Gorscak. "There's a premium on this 40-time, there's a lot of money involved in this 40-time. If I screw up and everybody doesn't get a clean, true 40-time, then everyone is mad at you. Is he a 4.5 or really a 4.6? You can talk tenths of a second, but also hundredths of a second. Is he a 4.5, or a 4.46? There's a big difference. Last year, one guy got me on a rolling start, one guy, and I got told about it."
The job is tedious in a lot of ways, but every 40 by every player who participates is hugely important to somebody. Players are divided by position into 11 groups, and as each group comes to the 40, Gorscak goes through his routine. The players run in alphabetical order, and so he goes to the first guy and asks how long he needs to warm up. Every accommodation is made within reason, but everybody is made to understand as well that there is a schedule to keep. Get them as loose as realistically possible, and then make sure every guy runs it properly. Alphabetically through the whole group, and then go through the whole group again.
"For the most part, they're ready to do it because they've been practicing it," said Gorscak. "Some are nervous, but my purpose is to make sure they're calm. I never want to yell at them. And I'm nervous myself, because I'm the guy who has to make sure they do it correctly. Yelling doesn't accomplish anything, and since it's on TV their parents could be watching, for goodness sakes.
"You get tired. You have to stay focused. Some of those guys are fidgety. Some of them stay longer than three counts, some guys jump the gun. The kids are nervous, and you have to explain to them what they did wrong."
One of the most famous 40s ever run at the NFL Combine came in 1989. Deion Sanders' turn was highly-anticipated, and with a chance to put on a show, Sanders was in his element. After smoking the distance in 4.21, Sanders just kept running right off the field. Gone. Deion was done.
Gorscak wasn't around in 1989, but there is a single 40-yard dash during his career as the starter that he won't forget.
"Calvin Johnson. When he ran he looked so smooth that he looked slow, but he was so efficient. You thought it was slow but you knew it was fast. At the end of that run, I asked for his time, and they said 4.32 or 4.34, I can't remember exactly. His stride-length was so great, he was so smooth. When you watched his 40 on tape and counted the steps in slow motion, he did it in 18 steps, which is phenomenal. He's 6-5, sure, but he covered 40 yards in 18 steps. Average fast guys do it in 22-24 steps. He did it in 18. Think about that."