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IMG Academy give NFL prospects edge

Mark HerzlichA year ago, Mark Herzlich wasn't sure if he would ever play football again. Battling for his life because of cancer, the former Boston College star cherishes each day.

But Herzlich didn't let the dream die despite being diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, in May 2009.

In January, despite being an All-American and ACC Defensive Player of the Year, he had elected to stay in school one more season. NFL experts had him projected as the 45th-best prospect in that year's draft.

Instead, he battled for his life, announcing midway through the football season he was cancer free. He continued to fight the battle to return to the football field, and in 2010 had another solid season.

He said he has remained cancer free and has worked tirelessly for weeks at IMG Academy on Florida's west coast getting bigger, faster and stronger for the current NFL combine that started this past week and concludes Tuesday in Indianapolis.

Hundreds of players are weighed -- emotionally and physically -- to prepare for the April 28-30 NFL Draft. But no one was perhaps more fired up by the challenges than Herzlich, who sat exhausted in front of a weight machine recently, the sweat pouring from his exhausted body after practicing cone drills.

"It's lot about technique right now, getting your technique right so you can run fast in the different drills because we haven't really worked on them in our career," said Herzlich, who looked sculpted at 250 pounds of muscle. "It's definitely different now."

In so many ways.

At facilities like IMG, dozens of specialized coaches prepared athletes for the drills in Indy -- from jumping higher to running faster to how to handle interviews and various other physical and mental tests. But Herzlich is perhaps one the 32 teams will study a little closer.

"They kind of want to see how I'm doing but I'm feeling good, feeling fine, so it's not too big an issue right now," he said.

"I could go anywhere from first round to undrafted. That's the way I'm thinking right now. You never really think you're going to go high because you've got to work your hardest the whole time."

Herzlich could go very high. He's the ultimate for the combine -- a chance to really study a talent who could really be worth grabbing. But, like any player, he has question marks beside his name.

"They ask about the health issue," he said. "That's easy. I tell them I'm fine. The cancer is gone and it's not coming back."

Herzlich packs a medical folder everywhere he goes nowadays, an NFL coach or GM almost certain to ask for it.

"I give a written letter from my doctor to all the teams," Herzlich said with a shrug. "They go from there."

Welcome to the meat market. With a potential NFL lockout looming, the beat goes on for college prospects. All they seem to know is that they want a chance to play. The other stuff will come later.

And you can forget about all those fancy statistics or impressive suits worn to awards banquets. The past means nothing.

Now it's about stopwatches and sheets of multiple-choice questions. And remember this: Indianapolis isn't the destination but the jump-off point to what Herzlich and hundreds like him hope is the start of a professional football career.

Performing in pain

The sun is just coming up but inside the workout complex at IMG Academy, close to two dozen potential NFL Draft picks just weeks removed from college life are working themselves into exhaustion, like the biggest game of the year is still approaching.

Actually, it is.

Before heading to the combine, the participants went through weeks and weeks of similar early-morning to late-night preparations to impress. In this day and age, you can't afford to take even a few days off after the college season if you hope to become a high NFL Draft pick. Millions of dollars are on the line for some. For others, they just want a chance to go in the seventh round.

And they know not to pay any attention to Web sites or forecasters. ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. says draft projections before the combine meant nothing.

"NFL teams, you never see their ratings," Kiper said. "NFL teams are very fluid. They change their board all the time. . . . They like a guy one month, all of a sudden they are down on them. They change dramatically."

Which means you better be working.

IMG is a 400-acre facility that includes 750 high school-level athletes training in everything from tennis to golf. Many are building their own pro futures, paying more than $50,000 a year to live here full-time.

The NFL prospects were shipped to Florida's west coast by their agents to work with a staff that includes Olympic track coaches, former NFL players, massage therapists, nutritionists and sports psychologists, with the approximate eight weeks of workouts carrying a price tag of $14,000.

The 11-hour days start at 6 a.m.

This is no beachside vacation.

"It hurts beyond . . . your body is already like beat to death (from the season) so you just had to kind of understand what you're working for because I'm pretty sure all of these guys came right here after their season and started lifting," said Florida offensive lineman Carl Johnson, who is forecast right now to go in the third round of the draft.

"So what's going to make you different from the other 300 guys at the combine, you know what I mean? They are lifting while they're hurting or training while they're hurting. They've all got something going on. You've got to suck it up if you want to play. The NFL doesn't care if you are hurting from the season."

Johnson went almost immediately from the Gators' Outback Bowl game to Bradenton to begin almost two months of non-stop training. Rather than back down and rest from the season, players eligible for the draft are now stepping it up a notch. Injuries? As Johnson said, no one in the NFL is really interested in hearing how tired you are.

"The sixth game or fifth game, you start to get wear and tear to your body," said Kentucky running back Derrick Locke, who suffered a shoulder injury in 2010 but still rushed for 887 yards in nine games and could go in the first three rounds of the draft. "And as you keep going . . . we play in the SEC, you can't get any better than that. You get pounded on, you get beat on and you play through injuries. You play through that, you play through this and now all of a sudden you've got to train for the combine.

"It's like, 'OK, my body isn't even healed yet, how to do I go through the process of training hard every day and still take care of my body?' There are certain things, you want to take a couple of days off from this or that because it's bothering you. But you are still going at it. And then this is hurting and that starts hurting. You're never fully ready to train but you have to. So that's the thing you've got to kind of just block out."

The ring leader

It's appropriate that nearby Sarasota is the home of Ringling Bros. The atmosphere around the football players looks almost like a circus. An indoor facility is filled with weights on one side, seemingly endless tables on the other for treatment. Outside, there are two areas marked off for 40-yard sprints, one paved and the other artificial surface. There's an area where players do cone drills.

Down the way are football fields where more drills are run. It's a facility so complete that NFL players' agents are calling frequently to check with IMG to see if they can use the facility should the NFL stage a lockout.

But in January and February, Trevor Moawad, the director of Athletic & Personal Development program, is always focused on building the perfect draft prospect.

"We try to be, as the Kaplan is to the SAT, we're sort of the Kaplan to the combine," Moawad said. "We're getting ready for the test but at the same time we're trying to teach the kind of habits that will enable them to succeed in future years."

Moawad's expertise extends far from the football field. He does consulting work at Alabama, Florida State and Texas, as the teams' "mental coach."

"It's kind of like how a team doctor would travel with a team," said Moawad, who has been at IMG for 11 years but travels to the college games on weekends. He also puts together videos for the players to watch before a game.

But one of his first clients was the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars, who brought him in to work with Fred Taylor in 2002.

The former Florida running back had unlimited potential but kept getting injured, being stuck with the nickname "Fragile Fred."

"He went from being Fragile Fred to 700 yards from passing Jim Brown (on the all-time rushing list)," Moawad said. "I don't think anybody would have thought that Fred would end up there."

Taylor made more than 46 straight starts at one point.

"It really wasn't magic," Moawad said of the turnaround. "Fred started going in the training room at 6:15 a.m. instead of 8:15 a.m. It's the little habits we really try to focus on. Look, there's a reason why the average NFL player is playing 21/2 years. So, certainly, we want to produce guys who are going to get drafted high but we want guys who are going to stay in the league. They are going to make an impact positively in their organization. They're going to be ambassadors for the NFL and their communities, all these things."

At IMG, Moawad oversees a staff of 55 that includes seven massage therapists, nine mental coaches with PhD's and 11 strength and conditioning coaches. The mental part of the NFL combine gets as much attention as the physical -- preparing for all kinds of tests and interviews.

"What you have to understand is that it is a four-day process and the physical element is the last half-day," he said. "So for those GMs and those head coaches to be there for the other 31/2 days, there must be some value in that as well."

Difference of millions

Moawad remembers Alex Smith working nonstop at IMG before being drafted first overall by San Francisco in 2005. Aaron Rodgers, who has been far more successful in the NFL, was taken 24th in the same draft by Green Bay. But Smith tested so well, he convinced scouts he was the premium talent. And the improvements he made at IMG helped him sign a contract worth about $30 million more than what Rodgers got.

Some may shake their heads in amazement that Smith went so high, looking back. But Moawad's job is to make players money. Sometimes a 40-yard dash or a bench press or an interview can make that much of a difference.

Florida State's Rodney Hudson is one of those guys right on the edge between mega money and going in the second round.

Hudson agrees the progress made before the combine could be the difference of millions and millions of dollars.

"Probably so," agreed the 6-foot-2, 284-pound offensive lineman. "I know (NFL people) want me to put weight on."

Pick out any player who is not a certain top-10 draft pick and they all have questions that teams want answered. It's so easy to make a mistake and take a player too high or too low and it can cost a team wins, and coaches and general managers their jobs.

Many dispute the combine, that it's not an exact science -- despite having decades of test numbers to make comparisons for projections. But the combine, most players will tell you, is just the beginning -- not the end.

"I'd say from the combine, all the way up to the draft, is the most important time because after the combine you have pro day at your school and then there are team workouts, teams flying you in or come to Gainesville to work you out," Florida's Johnson said. "I think those are when you make your impressions.

"Your combine is sort of like you get yourself out there. They kind of get a feel for you and you are getting a feel for them. But after the combine is when you make your impression on the interviews. They get a chance to see you one on one. When you are in that combine, it's me and six scouts so they can't really talk to you like they want to privately about private things because you've got five of your rival teams (also there)."

Johnson will get a better feel for who likes him the most when the phone starts ringing back in Gainesville -- with teams wanting to visit him or fly him to their facilities for private meetings and workouts.

"That kind of determines your draft status, is individual workouts, because if a team really, really likes you as an individual, nine times out of 10 they are going to come and get you before someone else who feels the same way," he said.

The 350-pound North Carolina native is one of the most intriguing names in the draft this year. He's huge, he's talented but he also laughs a lot, is easy going and has a reputation for being a little too relaxed.

"I say the sky has no limit because no one has drafted yet, it's all where somebody might think you are going to go," Johnson said of current third-round projections. "But none of it is from an NFL scout or GM. Out of 32 teams, it just takes one to like you."

Keeping perspective

Everyone in Indianapolis wants the same things -- a high selection, a lot of money, to be a big-time player in the pros.

Then there's Herzlich.

"It's been a long journey to happen in a short period of time, so I'm very thankful to be where I am," he said. "Looking back, it's a miracle, it's amazing. I feel very blessed that I can get to this point. I'm not going to take any plays off and I'm not going to quit. I've been through a big battle so far and I appreciate every day I have football."

How will he feel when his name is finally called?

"It will be emotional but it will be what it's going to be, that's something I can't have any control over," he said. "All I can control is what I do from now on."

Someday, he hopes no one asks about his battle with cancer, rather about the next NFL opponent.

"It would be nice, you know," Herzlich said with a frown. "It's something that's in the past already for me. It's just . . . when everybody else puts it in the past."

In the coming weeks, his battle with cancer will be front and center. NFL teams demand all questions be answered.

While Herzlich carries a medical file and a dream, every player in one way or another realizes there's baggage to be accounted for. The NFL demands that. But nowadays, players are prepared like never before to answer all those questions.

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