POSTED ON FEBRUARY 17, 2010:
Skipping the Cattle Call
Not heading for the big round-up, TU football player stays home for the scouts to visit him
More than 300 of the most promising prospects for the upcoming National Football League draft will gather at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis Feb. 24-March 2 for the NFL Scouting Combine, an annual event in which participants are timed, weighed, measured, tested, interviewed, prodded and otherwise evaluated by teams around the league to determine their fitness for a pro football career.
James Lockett won't be one of them.
The 23-year-old University of Tulsa student did not earn an invitation to the combine, an indication of his status as a marginal prospect. Lockett was a two-year starter as a free safety for the Golden Hurricane, capping a solid if unspectacular college career by earning second-team All-Conference USA honors for the second year in a row. He ranked fifth on the team in tackles as a senior with 68, but he was second among all defenders with four and a half sacks, and he led the team in tackles for a loss with 10 and a half yards and forced fumbles with three.
But like hundreds of other college football players who have completed their eligibility, he wasn't big enough or fast enough, or didn't make enough big plays, to warrant inclusion in the NFL's annual pre-draft meat market.
That's fine with him. Lockett, who already has graduated from TU with a degree in marketing, is spending his days finishing his last class at the school, so he can claim a double major. He's also working out, preparing for the Golden Hurricane's annual pro day on March 8, when NFL scouts will come to the TU campus to watch the school's draft-eligible players display their abilities in combine-like events.
Lockett knows his chances of playing for an NFL team, or even being drafted by one, aren't good. According to his agent, Dallas-based Adam Mirkes, the evaluations he's received so far have Lockett going no higher than the seventh and final round, if he's selected at all. But there are indications Lockett could receive several free-agent offers if no team selects him in the April 22-24 draft at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
If he gets that chance to prove himself on an NFL practice field, Lockett plans to make the most if it.
"I feel like I have the determination and the perseverance," said Lockett, an Arlington, Texas, native who grew up rooting for his hometown team, the Dallas Cowboys. "I just can't quit on anything. God has given me the ability to play at this level."
Lockett's road to college football was difficult enough. He grew up in a single-parent home after his father was incarcerated. His mother, Lisa Williams, supported Lockett and his sister Delissia for several years as a nurse before opening her own day-care center. But Lockett said he grew up in a home where learning was valued, and when he realized football could be his ticket to a free college education, he did everything he could to make that happen.
Lockett attracted the attention of a half-dozen schools as a star at Mansfield Summit High School, eventually choosing to sign with TU over other suitors such as Texas-El Paso, Utah and Brigham Young University.
It's partly that determination that led Mirkes to recruit the quiet but confident Lockett as a client. Just beginning his career as a sports agent, the 1999 Texas Tech graduate said he was looking to build a roster of high-character players who were not elite prospects but still stood a reasonable chance of being signed by an NFL team.
"Not a punk kid," he said of the type of player he was looking for. "That's how I'll distinguish myself."
Mirkes began scouting the Texas-Oklahoma area and quickly identified Lockett as someone with whom he thought he could build a relationship, particularly after he learned of Lockett's involvement in the local Big Brothers Big Sisters organization after reading his bio on the Golden Hurricane football Web site.
Mirkes wrote an introductory letter to the TU athletic department's compliance staff, which was forwarded to the player. Lockett liked what Mirkes had to say and called him to arrange a meeting when the season was over.
The two saw each other during the holiday break, with Mirkes giving his presentation to Lockett's entire family. Lockett wound up signing with Mirkes on Jan. 1, becoming his first client.
It's a business that's incredibly difficult to break into, Mirkes said, one dominated by a handful of mega-agencies. Those organizations typically sign most, if not all, the top prospects, then spend $20,000 to $25,000 to send them to training academies in the three months before the draft to hone their skills and improve their stock.
Mirkes doesn't have the resources to do that, leaving Lockett to work out on his own on the TU campus.
"It would certainly be an advantage to be able to send him to those things, but from an economic standpoint, it's too risky to be able to do that," Mirkes said. "It would take too long to recoup that investment of $20,000 to $25,000. Those kinds of things are usually reserved for top-four (round) picks."
But Mirkes said one of the things he liked about Lockett was that he never pictured himself as a player who was entitled to those kinds of advantages, understanding from the beginning that he would have to work harder than most players to be noticed.
"That's what was impressive, too," Mirkes said. "He told me, 'I realize I'm not a top-round or even mid-round pick.' We both had a good idea he could be one of those guys with a legitimate shot, but it would come at the end of the draft."
Both player and agent know they have a lot to learn and accomplish before their relationship bears any financial fruit. But they already seem to have established a belief in each other that extends beyond their business arrangement.
In that sense, they seem well suited as a team: rookie agent and rookie player, both looking to make an impact with the help of the other.
"He and I are both incredibly excited about this," Mirkes said. "I'm excited for him, and he's excited for himself, but I think he's also excited for me. Both of us are trying to reach that goal of his."
An NFL career is something Lockett said he's dreamed of since his childhood. An admirer of Brian Dawkins of the Denver Broncos and Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers, two of the NFL's biggest hitters, Lockett is relying on his ability to deliver a wallop to separate himself from the crowd.
The problem is, it's hard to translate that love of contact to empirical data, and the NFL Scouting Combine is about nothing if not data--height, weight, 40-yard dash time, how much you can bench press, the Wonderlic test, etc.
Lockett is matter-of-fact about his exclusion from the combine, choosing not to take it personally.
"I can't say I'm disappointed because (the scouts) probably look at what conference you play in and records and all that," he said. "A lot of factors go into that."
Lockett said he's happy just to have the opportunity to be considered for an NFL career.
"A lot of people don't even get that," he said. "I'm just going to do my best at pro day and hopefully move up to a higher round."
A bit undersized at 5-foot-9--the TU football Web site lists him at 5-foot-11--and 205 pounds, Lockett also lacks the kind of speed that might propel him up the draft charts. He consistently clocks in the 4.55 range in the 40, a number Mirkes and Lockett both would love to see reduced to the 4.4 range.
That's one of the things he's concentrating on in his daily two-and-a-half-hour workouts on the TU campus with former teammates and fellow NFL hopefuls like George Clinkscale and Kenny Sims, and the school's strength and conditioning director, Shawn Griswold. Lockett believes he can make his body better, but you won't catch him wishing for a different one.
"I feel like I'm honestly in this body for a reason, even if it's just through college," he said. "I want to encourage younger kids in the community and my younger family members that they can do whatever they want to in life."
Undersized isn't a word in which he places any stock, he said.
"I didn't think of it like that," he said. "I just like to play the game the way I can."
Lockett has faced the challenges of his perceived physical shortcomings before, playing his way into the starting lineup at Tulsa as a junior despite suffering a meniscus injury in his right knee early in his career and having to take a redshirt year. His lack of size even raised doubts about his potential among the same Golden Hurricane coaches who recruited him for the program.
Eventually, Lockett crafted himself into one of the most highly valued members of the Tulsa defense, becoming a player with a knack for delivering a momentum-changing hit.
While his senior year was a disappointing one, with the Golden Hurricane finishing 5-7 and failing to qualify for a bowl game, Lockett ended his college career on a high note when Tulsa downed Memphis 33-30 in overtime in the season finale at Chapman Stadium.
Lockett was the defensive star, collecting the first interception of his college career to halt the Tigers' first overtime possession and putting his team in position to win it with a field goal on its first possession.
If that interception turns out to be the last play of Lockett's career, he won't have any trouble moving on, he said. Unlike many other college athletes, he seems well prepared for life after football, having already earned his degree. He's also pursuing an internship with Northwestern Mutual if his summer winds up not including a stay at an NFL training camp.
"I've always been able to keep things in perspective," he said. "With football especially, it can be gone tomorrow . . . So I've always tried to think, 'What would I be doing if this was really the end?' I've had a broader view of the future."
For now, though, Lockett remains focused on maximizing his chances of getting an opportunity to play in the NFL. A pair of Tulsans who will be pulling particularly hard for him are his girlfriend, fellow TU student Lauren Williams, and 9-year-old Kevin Doyle, a fifth grader at Kendall Whittier Elementary School who became pals with Lockett through the Tulsa Big Brothers Big Sisters program.
Lockett's best opportunity to improve his draft stock comes in a little more than two weeks at TU's pro day. After that will come the draft itself in late April. Lockett acknowledged his plans for the immediate future are largely out of his hands, depending almost entirely on what happens at those two events. To a degree, that's unsettling, he said, but for someone whose life has been built around football, it's nothing new.
"I know it's going to hurt me," he said, if no team comes knocking on his door. "But I'll accept it wasn't in God's plan for me to be in the NFL."
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