How workout warrior Mike Mamula changed the future of the NFL combine in 1995

THE MAN who changed the NFL combine forever celebrated arguably the greatest workout performance in league history by taking a trip to the mall.

This was 1995, when the mall was still a pillar of the cultural zeitgeist, and Mike Mamula was at the peak of his football stardom. Believe it or not, this was a time before round-the-clock coverage of the combine and months of mock drafts, and Mamula had a novel approach to the whole thing. He took it seriously.

Mamula was one of the first players to train specifically for the combine, and he dominated virtually every drill. His numbers — a 38.5-inch vertical, 26 reps of 225 on the bench press, a Wonderlic score of 49, which still ranks as the second-best in history — were off the charts for a defensive lineman. But the performance that really stood out was the 40-yard dash, and Mamula knew he would kill it.

“He told me he’d run a 4.5,” said Brad Blank, Mamula’s agent at the time.

Blank had heard this from his share of players over the years. They all think they’re fast, and they all deliver a time a few tenths of a second slower than what they promise. But Mamula had already been running the 40, and he knew what he could do, so he made a bet with his agent. If he ran a 4.5, Blank had to buy him a new TV.

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The day of the combine arrived, Mamula turned in a 4.58 — ahead of most of the cornerbacks in that year’s draft — and he immediately looked to Blank to pay up.

“So we went to the Chestnut Hill mall and I bought him a television,” Blank said.

Twenty-five years later, Mamula’s combine performance remains mythical in NFL circles, a watershed moment in draft prep and player evaluation that, depending on whom you ask, stands as a testament to perfection through preparation or a warning to teams not to fall in love with the workout warriors.

What hasn’t lasted all these years, however, is the TV, and if Mamula has any regrets, that’s it.

“I should’ve had [Blank] buy me a TV every year for the next 20 years,” he said. “To keep up with technology.”

MAMULA WASN’T the first combine superstar, though he’s likely the most celebrated, partially because his NFL career didn’t live up to the enormous expectations his workout heralded, and partly because, in the aftermath, virtually every player wanted to be like Mike.

At Boston College, Mamula worked with strength coach Jerry Palmieri, who had a novel approach to offseason workouts. He mimicked the combine. Players ran sprints and bench pressed and perfected the four-cone drill, and Mamula thrived. He loved the work, and it showed up on game days. As a fourth-year junior in 1994, he set a Big East record with 13 sacks, then tacked on four more in a dominant bowl win over Kansas State.

“I can’t explain [Mamula’s] best quality because he was tough, smart, fast, twitchy, had a great work ethic, and they were all his best qualities,” said Jim Reid, BC’s defensive coordinator in 1994. “The guy was perfect.”

At BC, Mamula worked with strength coach Jerry Palmieri, who had a novel approach to offseason workouts. He mimicked the combine. Courtesy Boston College

Dan Henning coached BC during Mamula’s final season, and on Fridays, he’d run his team through a two-minute drill without pads. It was mostly a walk-through, but Mamula couldn’t operate that way, going full bore on every rep, driving Henning crazy.

“I only had one speed,” Mamula said.

That meshed perfectly with BC’s defensive line coach, Deek Pollard, who would push Mamula endlessly on the practice field.

“I remember watching film and thinking, what a great get-off,” Reid said. “And Deke would say, ‘Ah he’s late, he’s late!’ But those two guys, Deke drove him hard and Mike embraced it and worked hard at it.”

So when Blank connected with Mamula in the winter of 1995, it was a perfect match.

A few years earlier, Blank — still a new face among NFL agents — met Mike Boyle, who was a strength coach at Boston University, working with athletes on myriad new training regimens.

“It was mostly plyometrics, which everybody does now,” Blank said, “but at the time, it was like discovering Mars.”

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Blank came up with the novel concept of working with Boyle to train his clients specifically for the combine workouts each year, giving his guys a small edge in a competitive space.

In those days, the combine was largely an afterthought, said ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. Top athletes were reluctant to do much in an environment where they had little control, and agents usually advised saving their best work for pro days and private workouts.

The same was true even for Blank’s clients. It was mostly lower-tier players working their way onto draft boards. Mamula was already a known commodity, but he was on the precipice of stardom.

“He blew up the combine,” said John Wooten, the Philadelphia Eagles’ director of college scouting at the time. “He blew it up.”

“I’ve talked to a half-dozen people who said that was the greatest combine performance ever.”

Reporter Will McDonough to Mamula’s agent after the combine

Blank remembers calling in to his office from a payphone at the Indianapolis airport just after the combine ended in 1995. His answering machine was nearly full, everyone wanting to talk about Mamula. The first message Blank returned was to reporter Will McDonough, who’d already been on the phone with NFL executives drooling over Mamula’s performance.

“I’ve talked to a half-dozen people,” McDonough told him, “who said that was the greatest combine performance ever.”

Blank called his client and offered a simple requiem for the workout: “You made yourself a lot of money.”

A few months later, Peter King wrote a profile of Mamula in Sports Illustrated touting his combine preparation. Suddenly everyone wanted to mimic the plan.

The secret was out. Blank no longer had a hidden advantage he could offer clients. By the next year, IMG, the mega agency, started offering similar programs, and by 1997, more than a dozen combine preparation companies had sprung up. These days, Blank said, there are probably 100 options, and it has turned into a cottage industry.

BLANK BUMPED into Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay at this year’s Super Bowl, and he was in a mood to reminisce.

Back in 1995, McKay was the first-year GM of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and it so happened that, on the day of Mamula’s pro day at Boston College, the Bucs’ brass took the combine superstar out to breakfast. Clearly Tampa had its sights set on Mamula. Right?

“You can tell me now,” Blank prodded McKay at this year’s Super Bowl. “Was it all a ruse?”

Well, that’s complicated. Sure, McKay liked Mamula. The numbers told an obvious story, and the tape backed it up. But if he’s being honest, McKay said, they’d largely moved on by this point, and the breakfast with Mamula was, indeed, more of a formality. If Tampa was going to draft a D-lineman, it was eying Hugh Douglas, and as Mamula’s impressive pro day unfolded, it became clear to McKay that Philadelphia was the real player for Mamula’s services. So, a ruse? More of a savvy GM move. Still, that breakfast and the aftermath went a long way to defining Mamula’s NFL legacy.

The guy Tampa really wanted was Florida State’s Derrick Brooks, so the game plan all along was to trade down from its perch at No. 7 in the draft. Meanwhile, the Eagles seemed eager to trade up. It was a perfect match.

Like everyone else who saw Mamula’s combine performance, Philadelphia’s brass was blown away. Two years after Reggie White departed for Green Bay, the Eagles were still looking for their next great pass-rusher, and Mamula seemed like the perfect fit in the eyes of first-year coach Ray Rhodes.

“I’ve always believed it’s the personnel department’s responsibility to give the coaches what they want in terms of building a football team,” Wooten said. “Our coaches wanted Mamula. They loved him.”

Mamula’s pro day performance solidified the choice, and when the draft arrived, Philly was eager to make a move.

Mamula and his agent, Brad Blank, the day he signed his rookie contract with the Eagles. Courtesy Brad Blank

There was another big name in the mix that year, too. Warren Sapp was a superstar coming out of Miami, arguably the most talented player in the draft. But he had baggage, and reports on draft day of multiple failed drug tests soured several front offices, including Philadelphia’s. Mamula was now the top D-lineman on Philly’s board.

The deal was tentatively in place a few days before the draft, but McKay finalized the offer in the moments before the seventh pick. The Eagles dealt their first-rounder (No. 12 overall) plus two second-round picks to Tampa in exchange for the chance to take Mamula.

“Warren was falling, and we’re at 7 and thinking, if we take him there, we’re not getting Derrick Brooks,” McKay said. “We won’t have the ammunition to get in [to the later first round]. So we made the trade, and we thought Warren would go.”

Instead, Sapp tumbled all the way to No. 12, where Tampa snapped him up, the first selection approved by the Glazer family, which was about to take over as owner. McKay then spun the second-rounders gained from the trade to get back into the first round and selected Brooks with the 28th pick.

In the end, commissioner Paul Tagliabue mispronounced Mamula’s name on draft day, and Sapp and Brooks went on to 18 Pro Bowls, with both landing in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

IN THE 25 years since, plenty of fans and reporters and know-it-alls have asked Mamula about his combine, tagged him with the “workout warrior” label and lamented a career that never lived up to the hype.

Honestly, Mamula is fine with that.

“I’m remembered,” Mamula said. “Everyone’s still talking 25 years later. It could be worse.”

These days, Mamula runs an employment screening company and lives in King of Prussia, about 30 minutes from Philadelphia. His son, Milton, plays defensive end at Montana, an experience Mamula said has made him appreciate what his parents must’ve gone through during his wild ride to draft-day stardom. And yes, in late February every year, someone calls him wanting to talk about that off-the-charts combine performance. He’s OK with that, too.

But if Mamula isn’t eager to argue with anyone’s critique of his NFL career or negate his reputation as a cautionary tale, there are plenty of folks who saw the story unfold who are eager to tout his achievements.

“I won’t use the word ‘bust,'” Blank said. “That’s what is one of the byproducts is because he didn’t go to 10 Pro Bowls and end up in the Hall of Fame: ‘Oh, he was just a combine freak.’ I don’t think that’s fair. He was a pretty good football player. Mike had six or eight sacks and today, that gets you $10 million a year. But measured against publicity, it didn’t work out.”

“I’m remembered,” Mamula said of his combine and career. “Everyone’s still talking 25 years later. It could be worse.” George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Teams might have been awestruck by Mamula’s athleticism, but no one seemed quite sure what to do with him. Reid remembers scouts asking if Mamula could put on 25 pounds, and Reid would offer an exasperated reply. Why would you want this guy to bulk up? He didn’t need to run through guys. He could run around them.

Mamula’s size — about 260 coming out of BC — meant he wasn’t a great run-stuffer, but he could hold his own. In today’s game, with ends split wide and a pass rush that prioritizes getting to the QB over handling the back, he’d be a better fit. Today, he’d be a third-down whiz.

“They were all thinking inside the box with him,” Blank said.

Wooten compares Mamula to a slightly smaller Nick Bosa, a guy who commands double-teams on every passing down. If only Mamula had stayed healthy, oh, what might have been.

That’s another thing Mamula doesn’t regret. His numbers were fine — 31.5 sacks in his six-year career, including two seasons of eight or more. But his career was short. He retired after the 2000 season, three years before Sapp and Brooks would win a Super Bowl in Tampa. He’d endured concussions. He’d suffered through 20 years of banging into hulking linemen. He’s still sore.

“I’m happy with whatever,” he said. “Everyone’s got their opinion. I don’t care either way. I know what I did and I’m still feeling it to this day, so I have no problem with what everybody thinks.”

The legend has far outlasted the career, and Mamula’s combine performance probably will still be Exhibit A for future GMs examining combine performances for another 25 years, even if it’s more narrative fiction than cold facts.

Truth is, Kiper said, it’s not as if GMs are routinely wary of those numbers now. If anything, GMs are more beholden to the combine results than in Mamula’s time, scared off by a slow 40 or — much to Joe Burrow’s chagrin — small hand measurements, and occasionally wowed by a ridiculous bench press or a 40 time in the 4.2s.

And so Mamula will do another round of interviews next year, and the year after, and the year after that. He’s gracious, even if his name gets mentioned in the same breath with Tony Mandarich and Vernon Gholston and Darrius Heyward-Bey, despite college and NFL production that dwarfs them all. And again, NFL execs will promise never to make a mistake like that again.

“Did people learn from that?” Kiper said. “No they don’t. I can give you plenty of examples. You always say that ended the workout warriors and the combine guys, but 1995, 2009, today — it’s the same thing.”

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