Commentary

Back to the future

NFL stars and greats work with top prospects at The Opening

Updated: July 8, 2011, 10:26 PM ET
By Dave Hooker | ESPN Recruiting

BEAVERTON, Ore. -- The fans' attention faded from the power ball toss soon after the event was completed the other night.

Then Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice, with microphone in hand, alerted the assembled crowd at Nike World Headquarters that another contestant had snuck on the field.

[+] EnlargeNdamukong Suh
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comDetroit Lions Pro Bowler Ndamukong Suh was hands on while coaching at The Opening.
Ndamukong Suh wanted a shot at the test. And with one mighty lunge from him, the weighted ball traveled 50 feet -- a bit farther than the 10 high school prospects had managed earlier.

Then the official stepped in. No good. Suh had lifted his knees off the pad, a no-no in the test.

"I definitely DQ'd, by their rules, I DQ'd," the Detroit Lions Pro Bowl defensive tackle said. "On the way that I would do it, I didn't DQ because you want to explode all the way through."

The impromptu display by the Portland native was just one example of the commitment from several NFL players to help some of the top high school prospects in the nation at The Opening.

Suh didn't just watch from the sidelines this week. He wasn't there just to fulfill a commitment to one of his biggest sponsors, Nike. Suh was there to coach and mentor. He wasn't afraid to engage offensive and defensive linemen even without pads. Footwork and how to use one's hands to shed a blocker were common lessons.

Suh wasn't the only one. Hands-on would be a literal description. Rice was there all day Wednesday when temperatures crept toward 90 degrees. He was working with receivers as they ran routes, teaching them how to get through press coverage as he played cornerback.

He was chest bumping when they did well and looking well younger than a man who is pushing 50. The 48-year-old looked as if he still follows the same workout regimen, which he preached to the kids, that got him through 20 years in the NFL.

"When I first went up to Jerry Rice, it was weird because that's a Hall of Famer and you never think you'll be talking to a Hall of Famer," said Geismar (La.) Dutchtown safety Landon Collins. "But he was a cool, humble guy and he was fun to hang out with."

It's like retracing my steps back to high school. I just think about how I would want an NFL guy to interact with me. How I would be all over them, trying to learn stuff from them. I see myself being the guy I wished I had when I was in high school.

-- Seattle Seahawks LB Aaron Curry

Rice also was there giving tips on how to run the 40-yard dash, which wasn't exactly his specialty in his day. When one player ran a sub-4.4-second 40, Rice said was overheard saying, "I never ran that fast."

The longtime San Francisco 49er had a much different slant when he emceed Wednesday night's SPARQ rating national championship. He playfully boasted he could beat the finalists but never put on any cleats.

Far from the person who has a reputation of having a quiet demeanor, Rice engaged the crowd and invited children to participate in some of the drills during television timeouts.

"I talked a little bit with Jerry Rice; he's a cool guy," said Stone Mountain (Ga.) Stephenson running back Mike Davis. "I thought he might be a little tight but he was real cool and relaxed."

Kansas City wide receiver Dwayne Bowe was also well-engaged in the event, giving players tips on the vertical jump, running the 40-yard dash and celebrating with them after a standout event. Bowe even took to the vertical jump mat, posting a 35-inch jump with no warm-up. The top high school player, for the record, recorded just more than 43 inches.

The NFL players continued to file in as the week went on. Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, Bowe and many others were there to coach teams in the seven-on-seven tournament.

"I'm just trying to get myself better; these guys have made it to the level that I want to get to," said Davis, who is committed to Florida. "Talking to them and soaking it up like a sponge might help me get an edge."

Seattle Seahawks linebacker Aaron Curry was one of the coaches in the tournament. He was there hours before it began Friday afternoon, working with almost every position as his team prepared for the tournament, which will be televised at 9 p.m. ET Friday and Saturday on ESPNU.

"That's what we're here for," Curry said. "We're here to serve, not be served. I accepted the invite so I can impact somebody's life. If I can impact one kid, then my job is done."

It worked on Collins.

"Seeing how all the guys have acted towards us, they have been nice and they aren't big-headed at all," the four-star prospect said. "They are professionals, and it shows me how professionals act."

Curry openly wished he had the same type of tutelage when he was young. Sure, there was his older brother who played in college and his high school coach, but there weren't NFL Pro Bowlers roaming around giving tips.

"It's like retracing my steps back to high school," he said. "I just think about how I would want an NFL guy to interact with me. How I would be all over them, trying to learn stuff from them. I see myself being the guy I wished I had when I was in high school."

Whether he meant to be or not, Suh was the impromptu leader of the NFL group. Perhaps it was because he was near his hometown or perhaps it was because his size makes him so recognizable.

It would have been easy for Suh to intimidate some players. In a sea of big people, he was the most physically impressive. Still, his demeanor won out over his stature.

"Suh is a great guy; his off-the-field personality is much different than what you see on TV," said Vero Beach (Fla.) High School defensive lineman Dwayne Hoilett. "In the game, he's serious and menacing, but here he's funny and jokes around a lot. He's real laid back."

Said Palm Beach Gardens (Fla.) Dwyer offensive lineman Patrick Miller, "He was talking to me about my 40 time and he was so nonchalant that I thought he was talking to someone else."

At one point, Suh couldn't help but look around and shake his head. Sure, he was a top-flight prospect in 2005, but it was a bit different then. There weren't camps held on a 17-building, gargantuan campus.

"I had nothing like this when I came out, so for me to be able to see something like this and take part in it, it is absolutely amazing the job that Nike does for these athletes and how well they're taken care of," he said. "They have nicer stuff than we get in the NFL sometimes, until Nike comes into the NFL in 2012, which I'm looking forward to."

A shout-out to the title sponsor? Is there nothing Suh can't do? Pro Bowler. Coach and mentor to high school prospects. Wait, there is one thing: He can't do the power ball toss. Dave Hooker covers recruiting in the Southeast and Atlantic Coast for ESPN.com. He can be reached at davehookerespn@gmail.com.

Dave Hooker

Reporter, RecruitingNation