RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — This weekend, the first-ever regional historically black college and universities combine will get underway in Birmingham, Alabama. A selection of over 40 players from all over the country will get a once-in-a-lifetime chance to show off their skills to pro football scouts. The invites went out weeks ago but some still can’t believe it’s happening.
“I was surprised you know I started sweating as soon as I read the message,” said Fayetteville State University lineman Kion Smith. “I didn’t know if it was real or just a random number texting me so I wasn’t sure so I started asking around and they started hitting me back and I was really just excited and ready to get there.”
Fellow camp invitee Keanu Gonzalez thought the same thing.
“As soon as I got the email I instantly called (Kevonta) Moses and I was like is this for real or is this like a joke because I didn’t know how to take it,” said Shaw University lineman Keanu Gonzales. “Even the D-1 guys aren’t really having an NFL combine they’re having individual pro days so I was really excited and blessed.”
One can understand their skepticism about receiving an invite to such an event. For starters, Division II schools and HBCU’s have often been overlooked when it comes to scouting for NFL talent.
Secondly, this isn’t the first HBCU combine planned it is the first one to be held. Last year the NFL had one set up for late March. They invited numerous players but COVID-19 came and dashed it along with the dreams of the players set to attend.
“It took my heart out of my chest when I found out and I was just like dang,” said NC Central defensive lineman Darius Royster. “I was like man I can either just sit here and feel bad about it or I can continue what I’m doing and just try to get better.”
“It was definitely tough on my class of 2020 for anybody coming out trying to play professional sports,” said Saint Augustine’s linebacker Durrell Nash. “It wasn’t just me. I was feeling bad at first but gradually I learned to roll with how COVID has changed a lot so we just all have to learn to live and adjust to it.”
Luckily for Durrell, Darius, Keanu, and Kevonta Moses the NFL took into account last year’s misfortune and extended them invitations again. They are a year removed from their last football game. Sure there might be some rust but nothing some warms-up reps can’t shake off. The time off not only allowed them to heal but step some facets of their game up a notch.
“I wasn’t ready back then but now I feel like I got a new body,” said Royster. “I can do more things now. I can move differently. If I can move like a DB I can move like anything on the football field.”
Shaw University tight end Kevonta Moses had a great showing at the Tropical Bowl and followed it with a better showing at the Hula Bowl but was always battling a slight meniscus injury.
“I was pushing myself with the injury then I got a chance to chill out for a bit and actually rehab and actually do some extra training,” said Moses. “That is how I got faster man, the year off actually helped me a lot.”
To add to the pressure not only will the NFL have scouts in attendance, but the XFL and CFL will also have people on hand evaluating talent.
“There isn’t really any pressure. I’ve been doing this playing football for this long so it’s really basically all the same,” said Smith. “It’s just really taking the intensity up a notch.”
“I got nothing to lose so I’m going full stride with it,” said Royster. When I’m at work I’m thinking about the future and I’m like yeah I have no choice I don’t want to keep working here so I have to go all out.”
“I don’t have any pressure right now. I’ve trained hard, I’m prepared and I’m just willing to come in and work,” said Nash. “I’ve been playing football my whole life so if it’s meant to happen it’s going happen you know I’ll just let God take me there.”
Some of the players look forward to the pressure and relished playing in games when the competition was at its peak.
“Every time we played a D-1 team I had the most fun,” said Gonzales. “Their fans got to watch me pancake their best defensive lineman.”
Just like the regular NFL combine held every year in Indianapolis players will be put through an interview process as well. The players see this as not only another opportunity to show they can be a part of a team on the field but possibly fit in with an organization off of it.
“I’m going to go down there with two resumes. My football resume and my school resume and all the type of stuff I’ve been a part of like internships and workshops,” said Gonzales. “So I look professional and I’m ready for any questions they want to ask.”
“I’m just looking at it as an opportunity for coaches and scouts to see the person that I am. I want to come in, make a good impression and be a likable guy to the organization just so they can be like OK we need this guy we want to work with him,” said Nash. “They are definitely going to be like all right who is this guy. I want them to take notes after I get done.”
Sure it’s an opportunity to show their skills and put on display the talents that made them team MVPs and all-conference players. It’s also a chance to prove just how deep the talent pool is at these often overlooked Division-II schools and HBCUs.
“People look down on the HBCU’s,” said Smith. “I just really want to go out there and prove we can play football just like the big D-I schools.”
“I got my guys back there at (NC) Central that’s really counting on me and I just want to do it for them,” said Royster. “I know it will mean more to them than me because they are looking up to me.”
“I’m glad they are starting to finally put some respect on the HBCUs name because at Shaw we had to do things a little bit better than everybody else,” said Moses. “I played nine games at tight end and caught nine touchdowns. If I was at N.C. State or something I would’ve been projected to be a second or third-round pick.”
The event begins April 9 with an HBCU Combine Recognition Dinner. The on-field drills and interviews will take place the following day.