The annual NFL combine is one of the most exciting weeks of the draft season, not just because of the workouts and the undercover meetings that go on between agents, coaches and front office members, but because it’s a chance for the media to interact with nearly every draft-eligible prospect as they step up to the podium – or sit at a table at the side of the room – and give the world a peak into who they are as people, not just players.
Along with answering the usual questions about possible character issues or lingering injuries, their time at the podium also allows the world to see what makes them tick and the road that got them to a possible future in professional football. With that comes some amazing stories, and here are some of the best stories that Pewter Report heard from this week at the NFL combine.
ST Johns OT Ben Bartch and his magic smoothie
When offensive tackle Ben Bartch showed up at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota as a freshman in 2016 he was a tight end, and weighed in at just 230 pounds. By 2018, the summer before his junior season, he would make the transition to offensive tackle and by 2020 he would be at Indiana Convention Center, officially weighing in at 309 pounds at the NFL combine.
His secret to putting on weight the summer after his sophomore year? A smoothie-like concoction that he came up with, a way to make sure he could take in all of his necessary protein and carbohydrates while also working as a strength coach at a local high school.
“I would get up at like five and I would have to go work,” Bartch said. “I was the strength coach at a high school, so (I made the drink) in order to get my breakfast in because I didn’t really have time to eat the full amount of carbohydrates and protein I needed. My friend had a NutriBullet so I would scramble seven eggs, then I had a big tub of cottage cheese, I had quick grits that I would make, I had peanut butter and banana and Gatorade and I would just throw it all in, plug my nose and drink it in the dark. I would gag sometimes but that’s what you have to do sometimes I guess.”
The method to his madness? Bartch didn’t have this recipe passed down to him from a coach or a trainer, he simply went online, found some of the best foods he could to add healthy mass and mixed them all together. It worked.
Bartch claimed that he went from 250 pounds to 275 that summer before eventually jumping up to 305. In 2018, Bartch started 13 games at tackle and earned second-team All-Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference honors before starting 14 games in 2019 and earning first-team All-MIAC honors along with being named Offensive Lineman of the Year. Bartch had a formal meeting with the Bucs this week and could potentially become the third non-FBS offensive lineman on Tampa Bay’s roster, following in the footsteps of Ali Marpet and Alex Cappa.
FSU RB Cam Akers foregoes the hospital, scores another touchdown
After being named Mississippi’s Mr. Football of the Year as a dual-threat quarterback in high school, Cam Akers headed down south as a top-10 national recruit and broke Dalvin Cook’s freshman rushing record at Florida State with 1,025 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns on 194 carries.
Akers fought through his fair share of adversity at Florida State, going through a coaching change in 2017 and running behind an offensive line that forced him to pick up 3.9 of his 4.9 yards per carry in 2020 after the carry, per Pro Football Focus.
He referred to himself as the “ultimate competitor” when speaking to the media this past week and perhaps nothing embodies that title more than a game he played when he was 14-years-old, fighting through severe dehydration.
“I was really dehydrated,” Akers said. “I was throwing up while I was running. Everybody wanted to take me to the hospital but I felt the need to finish the game. I felt like I knew I could, I know my body and I finished the game.”
Even Akers’ mother argued that he should make the trip to the hospital, but Akers remained dedicated to finishing the game. Akers didn’t say that he necessarily disobeyed his mom’s wishes so to speak, but merely disagreed.
Not only did the future NFL running back refuse to leave the game, he returned with a vengeance. Akers claimed that he took just three plays off, re-hydrating with water, Powerade and mustard on the sideline before returning to the game and eventually scoring on another 80-yard touchdown run.
“(Football’s) not life or death but you’ve got to look at it that way,” Akers said. “You never know when it’s going to be your last so you’ve got to take advantage of every moment you have.”
Akers said that he had a formal meeting with the Bucs scheduled for this week and should Tampa Bay look to add another running back to compliment third-year back Ronald Jones, but see top running backs like Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins, Georgia’s D’Andre Swift and LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire get plucked off the board before Tampa Bay is able to take one, Akers could be a potential selection in April.
Oklahoma LB Kenneth Murray saves a life
A preacher’s son and Missouri City, Texas native, linebacker Kenneth Murray immediately made his name known at Oklahoma as a freshman, earning Co-Big 12 Freshman of the Year honors following 7.5 tackles for loss, one sack and one forced fumble over 14 starts in 2017.
His production only increased while in Norman, culminating in third-team Associated Press All-American and first-team All-Big 12 honors as a junior in 2019, racking up 102 total tackles – actually down from his career-high 155 tackles in 2018 – with 4.5 sacks, 17 tackles for loss and four passes defended.
But arguably the most impactful play of his college career came off the field when he was thrust into a split-second decision while on his way home from church, a decision that resulted in the linebacker saving the life of a stranger.
“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Murray said. “Coming home from church with my girlfriend I just happened to come by a situation where somebody just needed my help.”
“Driving home from church a car flashed and pretty much ran the red light in front of me. They stopped in the middle of the road, a lady gets out of the car and just runs immediately over to the sidewalk area. As I pull up a little bit more I can see that on the sidewalk there was another lady laid out on the ground so I immediately parked my car in the middle of the street, got out and rushed over to the lady to see what was going on. When I arrived on scene she was bleeding from the head, completely unconscious and laying on the ground. The other lady was her friend and she was screaming and yelling at her, trying to get her to wake back up. That’s when I just immediately started CPR.”
It wasn’t Murray’s first time performing CPR however, according to a story by OUDaily.com that claimed Murray originally learned CPR as a counselor back home in Texas at around 12- or 13-years-old.
“I got between 70 to 80 pumps in and that’s when I finally got her revived and got her back to breathing,” Murray said. “Shortly after that the paramedics arrived. This whole situation is kind of funny because I didn’t intend for this to get out to the media.”
While the media getting a hold of this story wasn’t his intent, a writer for the school’s newspaper happened to be at the right place at the right time as well.
Murray claims that he left shortly after the paramedics arrived, not wanting anyone to see him at the scene. It originally appeared that he had left without being recognized until later in the week when Murray claims that Oklahoma’s assistant athletics director for strategic communications came to him, asking about the situation.
“Two days later I happened to be chilling in the locker room and our media director Mike Houck comes up to me and he’s like, ‘Hey, did you give a woman CPR a couple of days ago?’,” Murray said. “I was just like, ‘Uh, yeah.’ So then he said that a kid with the school newspaper was driving by and happened to see a big human being that looked like you was giving CPR to a woman. I was just like, ‘Yeah, that was me.’”
“It’s a unique situation,” Murray said. “(It was) just a blessing to be in the right place at the right time to help someone in need.”
LSU OT Saahdiq Charles relocates after Hurricane Katrina, returns to become National Champion
LSU offensive tackle Saahdiq Charles was one of the most coveted recruits coming out of Mississippi following his senior season in 2016, a four-star recruit who was ranked as the seventh-best high school prospect in the state.
In 2017 he headed down to Baton Rouge where he played in all 13 games for the Tigers, starting nine of them and seeing time at three different positions along the offensive line. After his freshman campaign Charles earned freshman All-SEC honors. In his sophomore season he started all 10 games that he participated in at left tackle and remained at left tackle in 2019 where he started and participated in nine games en route to a National Championship victory over Clemson. LSU’s offensive line also brought home the Jim Moore Award last season, given to the nation’s top offensive line, and played a large part in quarterback Joe Burrow’s Heisman Award-winning season.
Although he played his high school ball in Mississippi, going to Baton Rouge was a return to Louisiana for the New Orleans native who was forced to relocate, like many others in the area, following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“It was pretty crazy,” Charles said. “We didn’t evacuate immediately. My mom worked at the hospital and had to work. It was just me and my mom. (The) crazy thing is, I remember them feeding us like two or three sandwiches and some chips. My mom would give me the food, not really take it herself. After that, they loaded us up on some buses or 18-wheelers or something like that. Me and my mom, we kind of bounced around from Georgia to Alabama to Mississippi around fourth grade.”
Charles now sees Mississippi as his home, despite originally being from Louisiana and making some stops in Georgia and Mississippi along the way. Charles recalled when he finally felt like he had a place to call home.
“(It was) probably like when I moved to Georgia and we stayed for a year,” Charles said. “I had to find new friends. (Then) we stayed in Alabama for two years, but I call Mississippi my home. Most of my friends are there.”
A situation like that is tough on anyone, let alone for someone who has to go through the situation at such a young age. But Charles credits his mother, who he says worked hard to teach him strength and resilience in the face of adversity, claiming that the biggest impact on his life following Katrina was her keeping him in sports to remain active, something he remains thankful to her for.
“As a young kid, me and my mom, we never missed bible study on Wednesdays or church service on Sundays,” Charles said. “I would ask, ‘Why would God be doing this to us? We don’t miss a day.’ She would always tell us… she taught me how to be a soldier, how to keep fighting.”
And keep fighting he did, leaving college as a National Champion on his road to the NFL.