Fans enjoy first access to library-like combine experience

Fans take in Sunday's action at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. (Gary A. Vasquez/NFL)

INDIANAPOLIS — Sitting in the upper levels of Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday were over 200 number-hungry football fans, and it was like a library up there.

These men and women received the opportunity to go where no NFL fans have been before: the NFL Scouting Combine. It’s a privilege they earned by submitting essays making their case to be among the 250 people allowed entry into the exclusive NFL prospect showcase.

Long conducted under what seemed like a veil of secrecy, the combine has opened up — slowly — in recent years. First came the NFL Network cameras, then access to some of the data, then all of it. And now, as the NFL has successfully done with its other events, it’s beginning to open the doors for fans.

Talking to some of them as Under Armour-clad prospects ran and jumped below us, you’d think we were witnessing the next Manhattan Project. Fans spoke in hushed tones, careful not to disturb the zen-like peace of what has turned into a rite of passage for the NFL’s personnel executives and the nation’s top college prospects.

Most, like Meagan Peden Agnew and her brother, who drove two hours from Floyds Knobs, Ind., were just happy to be there, even if it was with various restrictions.

“They told us it had to be a library atmosphere,” Peden Agnew said. “No large movements, no talking. We could only go to the bathroom in groups of three. But I thought it was really cool to see the athletes doing all the skills and drills.”

This wasn’t your average experience inside a state-of-the-art football stadium. No fans cheering, no beer or hot dogs. To appreciate this is to be a football junkie, like Michael McNeill, who woke up at 3 a.m. to drive here from Louisville, Ky., and also recorded the combine at home.

“It’s something that me and my buddies never got to experience,” he said. “You can’t get enough of it.”

That’s certainly what the league hopes is the case. Ray Anderson, the NFL’s vice president of football operations, considered Sunday’s fan experiment a big success.

“The folks followed the instructions, they were respectful,” Anderson said. “They understood this was a work environment and that these young men were going through the interviews of their lives, so we asked them to adhere to a library etiquette and to help us out so we can take this back and really vet it and see if it’s something we should do on a larger and more permanent basis. And you know what, they’ve given us a good case to make.”

Given the significance this event has for those involved, it’s no wonder the league is treading so carefully. Christian Binger of Indianapolis never expected to see fans given entry.

“I thought it was pretty much a closed-door type of evaluation, like a job interview, as it’s been described,” Binger said. “Having a chance to partake in that process, I think it lets fans invest themselves more in the whole process and the game itself.”

Added Jenny Myers, also from Indianapolis: “I think it’s been a lot of fun. I hope the NFL thinks it was successful. Everyone’s been very quiet. A few times, people got really excited about a dropped pass or something, and we were all like, ‘Shhhh!’ ”

— Aron Angel

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