Determining the best player in Thursday's NFL supplemental draft -- talented but troubled former University of Virginia linebacker Ahmad Brooks -- hasn't exactly drained the brainpower of NFL scouts.
Neither has the task of identifying the best person in the special summertime lottery -- onetime University of Texas fullback Ahmard Hall.
There is considerably more than their respective talent levels, and that one inexplicable "R" in Hall's first name, that separates the two young players. His brilliant talent notwithstanding, Brooks was booted out of the Cavaliers' program by head coach Al Groh for repeat violations of unspecified team rules. As for Hall, well, he survived boot camp at Camp Pendleton (Calif.), the initiation ritual for Marines, as part of his circuitous detour to the cusp of an NFL career.
In a supplemental draft pool typically comprised of guys whose dossiers include a wart or two -- former Iowa State defensive end/linebacker Jason Berryman, arguably the second-best player available, served eight months in jail in 2004 after pleading guilty to robbery charges -- Hall is a pristine prospect. How squeaky-clean is Hall, who has impressed scouts with his quickness and strength? Try spit-and-polish squeaky-clean, the kind of no-nonsense, sir, yes, sir! player who can probably glance down at his spikes and see his own reflection staring back at him.
On those occasions when Brooks and Berryman weren't in trouble with the law or with their coaches, they were able to chase quarterbacks and tailbacks around the football field. When trouble found Hall, it meant he had to chase Taliban warlords through the treacherous mountain passes of Afghanistan.
"I'm not sure it made me a better football player, but I know it made me a whole lot better person," said Hall, 26, a former sergeant who returned from four years in the Marines that included tours in Kosovo and Afghanistan to make the Longhorns as a walk-on. "In meetings with scouts, they ask a lot of questions, but the one area they don't ever bring up is the character thing. I'm proud of that. I think teams know that, if they draft me or they sign me to come to their camp, they aren't going to have to worry about any issues of that sort, you know?"
One popular Web site that devotes its full content to draft coverage recently suggested that the pool of prospects for the 2006 supplemental draft was more like a casting call for "The Longest Yard." Whether Hall is selected on Thursday, or even gets a chance in an NFL training camp, his life might be worthy of a screenplay.
Said Texas coach Mack Brown: "Had he never set foot on the field, his story would have been a good one. But what he went through to play football and to fulfill his dream, with what he meant to our football team, it just makes the story that much better."
It is certainly a tale of diligence and devotion, hard work, responsibility, accountability and perseverance over adversity, all the character traits NFL coaches claim to covet among their players. And it is a story about which Hall, a husband and a father who recently graduated with a degree in physical therapy after using the G.I. Bill to return to school, has perhaps just one regret.
"When I was in high school [in Angleton, Texas]," Hall said last week by phone, "I was the typical big jock on campus. I had a big head, really, and thought football was enough to get me by. If I had one thing that I could do over, it would be to hit the books and understand how important an education can be. I worried so much about football, and all the stuff that surrounded it, I let everything else slip."
And so while Hall earned offensive most valuable player honors for Brazoria County for a senior season that included more than 1,000 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns and a playoff berth -- a productive campaign good enough to elicit scholarship offers from Texas A&M, Kansas State and Oklahoma State -- his grades kept him from qualifying academically. Instead of going to summer football camp, he headed to boot camp, where he became not just a soldier but a survivor.
"It's three months of having people scream at you," Hall said. "They break you down at boot camp, bit by bit and piece by piece, and then they build you up again into a man. It definitely gets you ready to be able to handle a lot of things."
For Hall, it meant handling the stints in Kosovo and Afghanistan, tours of duty about which he is reluctant to speak very much. He is polite in declining to elaborate on his wartime tours, but does acknowledge that he was in harm's way on more than a few occasions, and that the experience forced him to focus and prioritize and gain perspective on life.
It also made him miss football that much more.
"People are always comparing the two, you know, war and football," Hall said. "There's no comparison. One is about life and the other is a game. No matter how bad things get, you can usually play football the next day, the next week, whatever. Life is, well, you know, it's life."
When he returned from Afghanistan sporting his sergeant's stripes, Hall definitely wanted to play again, and so he sent a letter to the Texas coaching staff. So impressive was his background, so strong his rhetoric in the emotional missive, that Brown waived a school rule that stipulates walk-on candidates must have played organized football within the past 24 months. An athletics department compliance officer, Arthur Johnson, helped file paperwork with the Big 12 and NCAA to resolve lingering academic issues.
"How do you tell a young person like that he cannot come out and at least try out for the football team?" Johnson, now at the University of Georgia, told the Austin (Tex.) American-Statesman.
Hall's career statistics are modest. In two seasons, encompassing 24 games, he carried just two times for 11 yards and one touchdown. He caught three passes for 42 yards, had a dozen special teams tackles and was credited with nine blocks that resulted in Longhorns' touchdowns. Oh, yeah, the man dubbed "Big Marine" by Texas star quarterback Vince Young, was also part of a national championship team.
A big part, said Young, who praised Hall for his leadership skills.
"On the field, off the field, you name it, everyone [admired] him," Young said. "There's just something about the way he carries himself. He's more special than he realizes."
How special? On Sept. 11, 2004, the third anniversary of the terrorist attacks on this country, his teammates chose Hall to lead them onto the field for a game against Arkansas, and he charged from the tunnel waving an American flag. In 2005, Hall was elected the Big 12's male sportsperson of the year by a media panel. A year earlier, at the school's 2004 football banquet, Hall fittingly received the inaugural Pat Tillman Award, created in honor of the former Arizona Cardinals' safety who lost his life in Afghanistan as a member of the Army Rangers.
Hall couldn't attend that banquet because he was home tending to business, caring for son Mason, now 3, while his wife, Joanna, took night classes. She will graduate in three weeks with a degree in nursing. "No matter what else," Hall said, "you take care of family. You change enough diapers, it changes your focus."
It's appropriate that the selfless Hall toils at what has become in the NFL a relatively anonymous position. Fullbacks don't get many "touches" anymore. But some fullbacks, like Hall, still manage to touch people.
"I consider it a character-testing position," said Hall, whose community service for the Longhorn's outreach program included working with Austin-area veterans and organizing a care package drive for soldiers who were deployed overseas. "I'm really proud to be a fullback."
"In meetings with scouts, they ask a lot of questions, but the one area they don't ever bring up is the character thing. I'm proud of that. I think teams know that, if they draft me or they sign me to come to their camp, they aren't going to have to worry about any issues of that sort, you know?"
But at age 26 ("but a young 26," he said, laughing), four years older than the point at which most rookies enter the league, Hall faces some obstacles. It helps that scouts like his size (5-feet-11, 235 pounds) and that he has posted solid performances in workouts. Hall has run the 40 in just under 4.5 seconds, posted a 35-inch vertical jump, a 10-foot long jump and 24 repetitions on the standard 225-pound bench press. And it's difficult, even for the most businesslike talent evaluators, to ignore the possibility that a league which dispatches some of its young players to NFL Europe to learn about football might turn its back on a player who voluntarily went overseas for some real-life lessons.
Suffice it to say, Hall has advocates in personnel departments around the league.
Still, Hall understands that, even with some scouts in his corner, the odds of an NFL career are long. But he also knows he isn't quite ready to snuff out the dream.
"I'm pretty realistic but, in my heart, I know I have to give [football] a chance," he said. "When you're in a war, you come back with a new appreciation for everything, and I value every aspect of my life now. But I feel like I have to do this and, if it doesn't work out, so be it. I've had job offers. I have opportunities. I can go back and get my master's degree. Probably because of what I've been through, I don't leave anything to chance anymore. I've got it all mapped out from A to Z, believe me. Right now, though, the three letters that most occupy my time are NFL."
The Marines are always looking for a few good men and they clearly found one in Ahmard Hall. If some NFL team is just seeking one more solid character guy for its roster, it could do worse than to consider him.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.