Up until mid-March, Joe Gaziano prepared for the NFL Draft at TCBOOST Sports Performance, an impressive facility just south of the Edens Spur in Northbrook. It’s the type of place newly-former college players flock to as they work to present the best version of themselves in their lead-ups to turning pro.
Now? Gaziano’s working out in his parents’ garage in Massachusetts, relying on a space heater (it's not insulated) and using whatever equipment he and his dad could scrounge up.
“I think the dumbbells are actually older than I am,” Gaziano said in an interview for Tuesday’s edition of the Under Center Podcast.
Gaziano, though, is one of the lucky ones. Northwestern held their pro day on March 10, 11 days before Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay at home order went into effect — and only one day before Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, setting off a rapid wave of closures that put sports as we know them on indefinite hold.
On March 13, the NFL sent a memo to teams barring them from traveling to college pro days. Those critical showcases — especially for players like Gaziano, who weren’t invited to the NFL Combine — were wiped out.
“(I’m) very lucky to be able to have that opportunity,” Gaziano said. “Credit to Northwestern, I don’t know if they predicted it. But having an early pro day is a blessing in the fact that I didn’t get an invite to the combine so it’s even better for me to be able to showcase my athletic ability and put up some numbers instead of kind of having to rely on internet sources and sending out different film or numbers that could be real or not realistic.”
North Central College quarterback Broc Rutter had similarly good fortune. He participated in pro days at both Northern Illinois and Northwestern, affording him the invaluable opportunity of getting in front of NFL scouts in person. Like Gaziano, Rutter is a fringe prospect, the kind of guy who could be a late Day 3 pick or wind up as an undrafted free agent.
Both Gaziano and Rutter have better chances of landing in good situations because they were able to squeeze in those in-person workouts before non-essential travel was axed and non-essential business were shuttered.
But for Rutter, who hoped to participate in the Bears’ local pro day in April, the lack of in-person visits has been challenging for a guy from an unheralded, tiny football school in the Chicago suburbs.
“It’s tough because usually (teams) could bring 30 guys into a facility and go on a visit, take you out to lunch, do whatever you need to do,” Rutter said. “Now it’s just a Zoom or FaceTime call. So it’s quick, it’s short and it’s different. You can’t get up on a lightboard, especially quarterbacks like you usually would. It’s a lot of talking, going over their offense and just creating those relationships with coaches and general managers.”
Those relationships will, largely, determine Rutter’s options in college free agency if he isn’t drafted. And while Zoom and FaceTime are as good a replacement for in-person contact as you can get, it’s not the same.
“It’s really tough,” Rutter said. “I just keep telling myself you gotta take it one day at a time. Whatever happens, happens. You gotta make the most of it.”
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Few draft prospects, though, have been as lucky as Southern Illinois’ Jeremy Chinn.
Not only did the hard-hitting safety and nephew of soon-to-be Hall of Famer Steve Atwater — who’s projected as a Day 2 pick and is very much an option for the Bears — get a pro day, but he was invited to the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine, too. Normally, a player participating in all three events wouldn’t be a big deal.
But this year, it is.
“(I’m) extremely fortunate,” Chinn said. “To have the Senior Bowl, to have the combine, to have my pro day under my belt, any questions coaches have I feel like I’ve been able to answer through those three things.”
You can learn more about these three prospects and hear about their experiences on the latest Under Center Podcast, which you can find embedded at the end of this article, on the MyTeams App and wherever you get your podcasts. But their experiences are a snapshot of what the hundreds of draft prospects readying themselves for this week have gone through over the last month.
“I haven’t done this before, so it’s all new to me,” Gaziano said. “There’s no comparison for me for having a different experience for the pre-draft process.”