<
>

Bloom looking to impress with speed at combine

10/28/2005

Having gained fame but not necessarily fortune by hurtling recklessly downhill for the past six years as a member of the United States ski team, Jeremy Bloom is taking his shot at the NFL, girding for the dramatic reversal of direction that such an ambitious, and some would say misguided, undertaking will require of him.

And, yeah, Bloom knows reaching the summit in the uphill battle that he faces to go from dodging moguls on an Olympic freestyle ski course to eluding NFL defensive backs and special teams kamikazes doesn't come with the assistance of a chair lift. But after taking on bumps in the snow as a world-champion skier and the reigning World Cup champion in freestyle moguls, Bloom is determined to demonstrate to the legion of skeptics that he can navigate his way through bump-and-run coverage, too.

Don't bet against his ability to pull it off.

"I've competed at the highest level in one sport, and will again, at the Olympics in Turin (in February)," said Bloom, who recently returned from a 10-day training stretch in the tiny Swiss Alps hamlet of Zermatt. "But the dream is to play at the highest level of football, to compete in the NFL, and I'm ready to start chasing that dream as soon as the Olympics end."

And when Bloom -- who played two seasons as a receiver/kick returner at the University of Colorado before the NCAA ruled him ineligible because of its archaic rules -- says as soon as the Olympics conclude, he means it. Bloom will compete in the moguls event, in which he finished ninth in the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, on Feb. 15 in Italy. And then he'll fly overnight to Indianapolis for the NFL's combine workouts.

Making the quick transition from schussing to sprinting, he will at least run the 40-yard dash in an effort to impress NFL scouts and enhance his status for the draft. He will subsequently work out, and perform every standard drill demanded of him, agent Gary Wichard emphasized, at his pro day workout on campus later in the spring.

"The most important thing," said Bloom, referring to the hundreds of scouts scrutinizing the combine auditions, "is to grab their attention, to make them lean forward in their seats. And the best way to do that is with speed, in the 40, so that's what I plan to do. If I can get them hooked with a good time, then everything else will take care of itself. And I'm confident I can run a time that will get them interested."

The 2006 lottery figures to include several intriguing wide receiver wannabes who will have traveled rather circuitous paths to reach NFL prospect status. Troy Bergeron, who caught 105 passes and scored 31 touchdowns for the Georgia Force of the Arena Football League last season, never played a down in college, despite having enrolled at Auburn and Middle Tennessee State, but opened eyes with his impressive indoor performance last spring and a 40 time estimated at under 4.4 seconds. Brad Smith of Missouri and Texas State's Barrick Nealy will try to become the latest quarterbacks to convert to wide receiver at the professional level. There are at least two college basketball players who personnel evaluators feel might be able to switch to football as wide receivers, and the combine will include the usual assortment of small-school prospects, underclass players and undersized tight ends attempting to make the move to wide receiver.

But going from freestyle moguls skis to football cleats is incredibly unorthodox, even in a league where the scouts seemingly scavenge under every rock for viable prospects. Herschel Walker tried it the other way around, going from playing running back to bobsledding. It's believed that no athlete has even attempted following Bloom's trail.

It isn't as if Bloom is just any deluded dreamer, a Walter Mitty with a football jones, attempting the improbable.

Even if he were, the history of the NFL is replete with chapters about return specialists who gained stardom after initially struggling to get a chance in the league. Most recently, New Orleans Saints star return man Michael Lewis, a Pro Bowl performer in 2002 and a guy with a career 24.5-yard average on kickoffs and an average of 11.2 yards returning punts, drove a beer truck to support his family while he tried to convince teams to take a chance on him.

Bloom is a bona fide world-class athlete, albeit in an athletic endeavor as far removed from football as one might imagine, one in which he has carved out 10 World Cup wins, including six straight victories in 2005, and 19 overall trips to the podium. But he also possesses a body of football on-field evidence which suggests that he might well succeed in the NFL, and perhaps as more than a return specialist.

And, speaking of body, the 5-foot-9, 175-pound Bloom figures he can add 10 pounds, and get back up to his football playing weight, before his pro day auditions. It won't hurt him that the league's two most explosive wide receivers this season, Santana Moss of the Washington Redskins and the Carolina Panthers' Steve Smith, are smaller, quicker guys. Plus, because of skiing, Bloom has tremendous natural leg and upper-body strength.

An all-state wide receiver at Loveland (Colo.) High School, he performed for two seasons at Colorado, and while the NCAA curtailed his shot at being a starter, Bloom nonetheless established himself in a short time as an explosive playmaker. In two seasons (2002-03), he posted 24 receptions for 458 yards and two touchdowns, carried 15 times for 82 yards, returned 44 punts for 625 yards and two touchdowns, and had 25 kickoff runbacks for 625 yards and one score. Bloom averaged 19.1 yards per reception, 14.2 yards on punt returns, 25.0 yards on kickoff returns and a gaudy 16.6 yards per touch.

The first time Bloom touched the ball, as a freshman in 2002, he returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown against Colorado State. That same season, he scored on a 94-yard catch and then on an 80-yard punt return in the Big 12 championship game against Oklahoma. His big scoring plays also include a touchdown reception of 80 yards. In all, Bloom, named a freshman All-American in 2002, had five plays of 75 yards or longer in just 24 appearances. He has a great feel for finding openings when the field is spread, and going to the afterburners.

Assessed the college scouting director for one NFC team: "A lot of times, when you see a [player] on tape, it's hard to gauge speed. But with [Bloom], you can tell that he's got the explosiveness, quickness, the ability to get it into gear in a snap, that's really rare. You're going to have to think outside the envelope a little bit with him because he hasn't played a lot, but you can't ignore him. The kid is on everybody's radar screen. The fact that he's competed at an international level, handled that sort of pressure, sure, it's a plus. It's too early in the process to [predict] where he might go in the draft, but I would not discount him, I know that."

Bloom, 23, certainly likes his chances of playing in the NFL, and he says so with great self-confidence. He has faced long odds in the past and fought some difficult battles, like a lawsuit against the NCAA, which was dismissed. The rigid rules of college sports' omnipotent governing body stipulated that, even as Bloom was playing football, he could not accept endorsements related solely to his skiing.

The NCAA stripped him of his college eligibility once he began accepting endorsement money. One senses Bloom could easily render a filibuster, if he chose to rail now against the NCAA, and he certainly speaks with no lack of disdain for the outdated guidelines of the organization, which are far more strident than those of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Bloom would prefer to look ahead, though, to try to figure out how to make up for the time he lost on the football field and to prepare for a post-moguls career, than to reflect on what he feels are the inequities of the past.

"Look, I wasn't trying to get rich with the endorsement money," Bloom said. "I wasn't like [Dallas Cowboys backup quarterback] Drew Henson, taking a $1.6 million bonus to play baseball, and walking away from football. All I wanted was enough money to train for skiing, to pursue a spot on my country's Olympics team, but to be allowed to continue to play football, too. They wouldn't do it. But that's over with now. My priorities are in order. Go to the Olympics, try to [win a] gold medal, then play football."

Had the NCAA permitted him to accept endorsement money, Bloom would have played for Colorado in 2004, redshirted this season, and probably returned to football for the '06 campaign. Instead, unlike those bumpy and unpredictable moguls courses, Bloom's course is far straighter and better defined.

He wants to get to the NFL as quickly as possible.

Toward that end, Bloom works out four or five hours a day when he isn't in training for the Olympics. He has recently conditioned under former Colorado assistant Doc Kreis, concentrating on speed and the subtle nuances of shaving precious time off the 40, and on position-specific mechanics as well. Asked if there was some natural disconnect between his two athletic passions, Bloom contended that, to the contrary, he feels that the vision, quickness and decisiveness of moguls skiing dovetails well with a football skills set.

"It's all about reactions," Bloom said. "You're going about 10 million miles an hour [in moguls], and all you see are colors, and your senses kind of take over. You've got to be able to look 5 or 10 yards ahead all the time, to read things, and to adjust. I don't see where it's all that different than returning a kickoff, or running through the secondary, you know? I think there's a lot of similarity. People have tried to convince me that one [sport] will take away from the other, but I just don't see that. No matter, when the time comes for me to be ready for [the Olympics], I'll be ready. And when it's time for me to be ready for the combine, and football, I'll be ready then, too."

Colorado coach Gary Barnett has assured all his NFL contacts who have inquired about Bloom that he is worth more than fleeting consideration. And Bloom, who won the annual made-for-television "Superstars" competition in 2003 while going up against nine pro athletes, has continued to counsel with several of his opponents, such as Pittsburgh wide receiver Hines Ward, about what he needs to do. It should be noted that, in "Superstars" competition, Bloom was clocked at a sizzling 9.41 seconds in the 100-yard dash.

"The guy is smooth," Ward said. "He's a great athlete. I can see him playing [in the NFL], definitely."

The chances are that Bloom's draft prospects would be greater had he been afforded the opportunity to complete his football eligibility. But of the seven NFL personnel officials surveyed this week, only one suggested that Bloom might not be chosen at all in the '06 draft, and even that scout conceded he would certainly be in some franchise's training camp if he is as fast in person as he appears on tape.

The consensus is that Bloom is a second-day selection, somewhere in the middle rounds, but that he can improve that status with a scintillating combine performance. It will also help that, in retaining Wichard, he will be working with an agent with a track record for pumping up his clients, often upgrading their status.

For Bloom, the biggest key to drawing attention will be his speed, and he needs to run at the Indianapolis combine as if he were, well, skiing downhill at a breakneck pace. Not to worry, said Bloom, who insisted that with the right training, he will be able to transfer his speed on snow to quickness on the RCA Dome's much drier surface.

"It's no mystery," Bloom said, "what I'm about. If I run fast -- and I really believe that I can run in the 4.2s, if not at the combine then certainly at my pro day, after I've had the chance to get in a little more training -- then I think someone will give me a chance. And if they do that, well, I promise that I'll take care of the rest."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.