By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
"For most of the three years since then, I didn't even think about coming back," Toviessi said at the Crush tryouts. "But eight months ago I made up my mind to try, and I've been training ever since. I'm not in great shape yet, but the knee is fine. God will open the door if it's meant to be."
The door Toviessi was talking about leads right back to the bigtime. "I'll do anything I have to to return to the NFL," he said. For his part, Dailey was giving the big D-end a long look. "It's rare that you get a player of his caliber at a tryout like this," the coach said. "We know he's got some health problems, and if he's a guy we're interested in, the next step would be a pretty intense physical exam to see where he is."
Toviessi was not wholly pleased with the attention he got from the media. "Hey, you blew my cover," he half joked. "I was trying to stay low-key today." On the other hand, most of the tryout players would have been thrilled with a little more notice, especially from the Crush's cold-eyed coaching staff. Instead, a lot of them were busy dealing with their own issues. A sparrow-legged pass receiver named Jeremy Daniels, who played high school football at Hinckley and West high schools, said he has a scholarship offer from the University of Hawaii. But he would just as soon skip that part altogether and, at age eighteen and 165 pounds, go straight to the pros. "You play college ball just to get here, so why bother?" he reasoned. Raymond Gilmore, a 330-pound lineman out of Northeastern [Oklahoma] State, had something else going on. He looked mid-summer sweaty and thoroughly exhausted after just a few warm-up drills, and he had a theory about it. "Nobody really told me the air was thinner up here," he said. "So when I got off the plane from Fort Worth last night, I kind of felt the effects. I'm kind of feeling them right now."
Apparently, so were some of Gilmore's comrades. A version of the long-established "combine testing" that all pro football leagues use, the Crush regimen is designed to reveal what Dailey calls "good football savvy" and to find players "who take coaching well, who run well, who change direction well." Translation: a brutal boot camp of wind sprints, crab walks, high kicks and side shuffles, followed by timed 40-yard dashes, 20-yard shuttle runs, 225-pound bench presses, crossover step drills and jumping tests. This stuff separates the swift from the halt in short order, and winnows the committed from the lax even faster than having to tape your own ankles when it's still dark outside. By 9 a.m. -- two hours into the ordeal -- the sidelines were drenched in fatigue, and the men's room had become a bedlam of anguished gagging and retching.
Dailey had cautioned that some players might not be at their best. "That's part of it," he'd said. "Sometimes you don't know where you are until you get out here and you realize how hard it is. We may not totally discount a guy if he's got some talent, but if he's not in shape, it will be tough for him to have his best showing. What we're looking for is the guy with something special. It's hard to stand out in a crowd."
For Adam Fass and Blake Dart, that proved a challenge. A slightly built nineteen-year-old wearing a white pukka-shell necklace and a silver earring, Fass said it was his dream to be the Crush's starting quarterback. But a couple of things stood in the way of his displacing incumbent John Dutton. First, Fass's claim that he was 5' 9" and 150 pounds seemed a touch, well, optimistic. Second, he had an admission to make: "Actually, I didn't play quarterback in high school. I was a kicker." Dart, a quiet 26-year-old with battle scars on his face and about forty feet of Ace bandage encasing his legs, spoke from the other end of the experience spectrum. He played college football at Kansas's Washburn University, and for the past two seasons, the 245-pound fullback/linebacker was with second-tier arena-ball teams: the Billings Outlaws and the Wichita Aviators. At the Crush tryouts, his hopes were dashed when he pulled his left hamstring in the timed 40. As it happens, bad luck seems to follow Blake Dart to auditions: In June 2003, he was showing his stuff at an invitational NFL tryout camp in Denton, Texas, when he strained his right hamstring. "This is just terrible," he said before saddling up for the drive back to Garden City, Kansas. "Nothing I can do now except do well in the bench press and hope my 40 was quick enough to get noticed."
If the cruelty of bruised muscle fiber ruined Dart's day, the futility of sheer bulk spelled the doom of Walker's. After his seemingly endless bus trip, the big guy had slept pretty well, and he arrived at the sports dome -- it was a killingly expensive cab ride -- feeling just fine. "My chances are as good as anyone's," he said before drills started. "I gotta go in thinking I have a 100 percent chance and then play my best. I've made the commitment."