It was a dreary day late last spring, and SMU head coach Phil Bennett was standing to the side of the field wondering why the weather wasn't cooperating. The skies were overcast and the ground was damp--far from ideal conditions for SMU's "pro day," a workout where NFL scouts evaluate football players who aspire to something greater than getting their asses handed to them by sundry WAC opponents. There could be a joke here about pro day at a school that has averaged three wins the past two seasons, but why kick a program when it's (still) down? Besides, coaches are fond of reminding dim-witted columnists that team success matters little in the eyes of talent evaluators.
"If you can play," Bennett says, "they'll find you."
True enough. But, lately, they haven't been finding many at Ford Stadium. Which is partly why Bennett was bummed; having a Mustang figure prominently in the pros would do wonders for recruiting--come to SMU, son, and you could be the next so-and-so--and the kids that day were due some good luck. But the grass was wet, and Bennett assumed it would slow his players, which isn't good when scouts have their stopwatches out.
Then he saw Kevin Garrett tearing down the field, cutting through the muggy air. Bennett knew his cornerback was fast--earlier in the year Garrett had little trouble covering Texas Tech's lithe wideout Carlos Francis. Still...
"Golly, he was fast that day," Bennett recalls. "I think he ran a 4.32 [40-yard dash]. That's fast. That's unheard of on grass to begin with, and, believe me, it wasn't a good running day."
Fast forward to this past week. Garrett is still running, but now it's mostly in circles. He calls from his car just before he heads into Subway for a bite. Things are crazy, he says, but that's the usual now. Ever since the scouts picked up on his talent, ever since they saw him run, his life has been a lot like him--a blur. He is graduating with two degrees, marketing and psychology, and he's working toward a master's in liberal arts. In addition, Garrett played in the Senior Bowl and attended the invitation-only NFL combine, where the best college talent in the country audition for all the pro teams at once. And he works out every day, usually with some NFL rep in tow. Oh, yeah, and earlier today a camera crew from TXCN came to do a piece on him.
"Man, it's exciting," Garrett says. "Lots of things are going on, yeah. I'm just counting down. All my hopes and dreams..."
Garrett trails off. No doubt he's thinking about this weekend's NFL draft. He's going to hear his name called out on ESPN--on the first day, he hopes. (The better players are drafted, and the bigger contracts are given, to players drafted in the first three rounds. Rounds four through seven of the draft are on day two.) Garrett is regarded by most draft experts (including The Dallas Morning News' Rick Gosselin--see page 19) as a top-10 cornerback. There are some knocks on him, of course, as there are on all college players. Too small. Not physical enough. The kind of thing you generally hear associated with a cornerback who's fast as hell. Even so, depending on which service you believe or which talking head you like best, he'll be picked sometime in, or shortly after, the third round. Not that it matters. Because he's going to get drafted one way or the other, and he's probably going to stick with someone, too. That's a huge feat considering how SMU's program, post-death penalty, has been manned by players who, I'm pretty sure, were once cast in Sally Struthers infomercials. There have been a few Mustangs in the past five years to make the NFL (Donald Mitchell, a five-year pro who is now a nickel cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys, is one), but few are household names. Point is, if you're planning a trip to the NFL, you generally don't ask for a layover at SMU.
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"I get a lot of that," Garrett says, laughing. He was recruited by Kansas State and Texas A&M, among others. "When I told my friends from home that I was going to SMU, yeah, I caught a lot of ragging. But you're put in certain situations for a reason. You know, I wanted to study business, and SMU has a great business school. And I met a lot of great people here. I have a lot of good memories from this place. And I wanted to run track, too."
All that was great, sure. He was part of three conference championship track teams as a sprinter and probably could have run on the world-class level if he really dedicated himself (his bests: 10.29 seconds in the 100-meter dash; 20.9 seconds in the 200). But that would have required giving up football, and he wasn't about to do that, even though he thought about it now and again. Especially early on. Football, Garrett says, has always been his first love, but after red-shirting his first season and then going through two head coaches and four position coaches during his time at SMU, not to mention getting kicked around on Saturdays, a lot of the enjoyment was drained.
"I didn't get a chance to experience a winning program, and you never like to take losing, but I made a decision, and once I do that I try to work through it," says Garrett, who was recorded as "5-9 and change" and 194 pounds at the combine. "What doesn't kill you makes you better, right? And football, that's it for me, you know? If you put your whole heart into something, you can excel at it. But it's hard to really excel at two things. If I had tried to put more into track, maybe I could have run in the Olympics, who knows? But I chose to play football, and I chose to do it at SMU. And, as far as when you're playing, we didn't have so much team productivity--I don't want to sound selfish--but there was some personal productivity. I played pretty well, I think, and I'm proud of that. I just hoped that everything would work out in the end."
He's going back to Brazoria to watch the draft. That's where home is, 45 minutes outside of Houston. Garrett's family is going to join him, an intimate gathering--mom, dad, brother, sister. It's going to be another big day for him. That's the usual, now, remember. Which means we're all going to have to adjust our thinking some because he's an SMU grad, and he's going to be playing in the NFL soon. Go ahead and pinch yourself; I already did.