The chance meeting was ironic, the timing on Pro Timing Day could not have been more unique.
Bobby Johnson was walking out of the Moncrief-Neuhaus Athletics Complex after peeking in to watch as 15 former Longhorns put their hopes and dreams of making the NFL into nearly four hours of work on Wednesday.
Of all people, Johnson understood. He understood what the young men were going through and what it takes to make it in "The League." Most of all, he understood what Mack Brown and his staff have done in their four-year effort to rebuild the Texas football dynasty. He understood, because he had been there and done that.
Johnson was a four-year letterman from 1978-81 at UT. He signed as an undrafted free agent and played five years with the New Orleans Saints and the St. Louis Cardinals.
He was a good defensive back for Texas in an era of greatness in the secondary. At Texas, Johnson played with 10 Longhorns who were drafted and played in NFL secondaries, including his All-American brother Johnnie, Glenn Blackwood, who started on two Miami Dolphins teams that played in the Super Bowl, and Jerry Gray, a four-time Pro Bowler.
So when he was impressed with the workouts of Longhorns, which included defensive backs Quentin Jammer, Ahmad Brooks and Ervis Hill, it said a couple of things. It wasn't about who was good but about what was good. In his 18 years as a head coach, Brown has coached 57 players that have been drafted by the NFL. Seven of his players have been selected in the first round of the past four NFL drafts.
Gradually, he has rebuilt the Texas power base. Remarkably, the best is yet to come. The Pro Timing Day drew more than 50 general managers, coaches and scouts, including San Diego Chargers head coach Marty Schottenheimer. All of them raved about the cooperation of Brown's staff — particularly Assistant AD for Strength & Conditioning Jeff Madden and Associate Athletics Director for Football Operations Cleve Bryant — the Longhorns facilities and the shape of the Texas players.
But the NFL is a business and no where is that more apparent than in the evaluation process of talent. There are 32 teams and each carries 48 players. Do the math. That means there are 1,536 players in the NFL. With a few very rare exceptions, hopes and dreams give way to cold, hard facts.
The recent NFL Scouting Combine is a great example. College football players from every school in the country are evaluated by the professional coaches and scouts throughout their careers. At the beginning of March, those coaches and scouts pool their information and invite players who research shows are "likely to be picked" — in other words, those who probably will be drafted by the teams later this spring. To make the list, players have been scrutinized on several reels of video and in person. Only the strongest survive.
The Longhorns team that Brown led to a No. 5 national ranking last year had only four seniors who were invited to the NFL Combine: All-Americans Jammer, D.D. Lewis and Mike Williams, and All-Big 12 performer Antwan Kirk-Hughes. Notre Dame had 10 players invited, Tennessee had nine and Florida, Kansas State and Oklahoma each had eight players in attendance.
Coaches like Brown can urge postseason All-Star games to take their players with some success, depending on the relationship the coach has and the national esteem in which he is held. Texas had six players in such games in January. However, in the NFL Combine, it is all about who has met the standard. A scout's job depends on his judgment and as much as he might like a player as a person, when it comes to whether you eat or he does, it's not a hard call.
A significant part of Brown's business is recognizing and recruiting talent and the 2002 NFL Draft is just beginning to show his Texas success. Two of the players he recruited at North Carolina, for example, are listed among the projected top picks as defensive linemen.
Of the players who worked out for the NFL representatives on Wednesday, only a few have a realistic chance to be drafted. Some helped their chances with superlative physical performances such as a rare vertical leap or a surprising number of reps with the 225-pound bench press. However, the numbers who are drafted are stark indeed. Last year, 325 players were invited to the "likely to be picked" NFL Combine, and of that number, 216 were drafted.
It is at that point that hopes and dreams face a cruel reality check and it is also then that the value of a college education and the importance of a degree and a back-up plan becomes paramount. That's why, even as she cheered the players' effort, UT Life Skills Coordinator and Academics Counselor Jean Bryant watched the events of the day through loving eyes.
For Assistant AD for Academic Services Brian Davis and Bryant who help steer the players through their course work and degree plans, with a keen eye to life after football. For some, it will come sooner than later.
The legendary basketball coach Abe Lemons once was approached by a young man who was hopeful of making his basketball team. The young man was a fine student and had age and experience in his corner. He asked Lemons what it would take for him to get a chance to make the Longhorns team.
"Just show me that you can play," Lemons said.
Wednesday was a great and promising day as a mini-measuring stick of the growth of the Texas program because there will be players who will take the skill and the lessons learned and go on and play at the next level.
For the others, it is reality in the form of a 40-yard dash time, an agility drill or a strength test. Those were the things Bobby Johnson remembered as he smiled with pride as a former Longhorns player. It isn't the only gauge, but the NFL draft does, if nothing else, ratify programs that are producing great players.
And the truth is, great players make programs.