April 24, 2008
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By Ryan Schulz
Think of your favorite hobby and then imagine not knowing if you will ever be able to do that hobby again for the rest of your life. It's hard to even fathom, isn't it? That is the reality facing the almost 1,000 players eligible for the 2008 NFL Draft. With only 255 selections in April's draft and even fewer free agent contracts to be had, the majority of draft-eligible players are fighting to keep playing the game they grew up thinking they'd play for the rest of their lives.
Among those players facing an uncertain future is Vanderbilt defensive tackle Theo Horrocks.
"It is just kind of surreal," he said. "Football is what I have done my whole life, and now I'm not 100 percent sure that I'll ever play in another game the rest of my life. I don't like that, but that also drives me to work as hard as I can."
Having been passed over for All Star games and the NFL Combine, Horrocks knows that his fate very well may come down to the biggest day of his football career - Pro Day.
"It is huge," Horrocks says of Pro Day. "The way I look at it, it is the biggest job interview of my life."
Held at the majority of universities around the country, Pro Day is where NFL scouts visit college campuses to evaluate each school's potential prospects through a variety of tests, including the 40-yard dash, vertical jump and bench press.
At Vanderbilt, Pro Day is orchestrated by John Sisk, Vanderbilt's director of strength and conditioning. This year, the event will be March 21, and Sisk is expecting between 50 and 100 scouts to be in attendance.
"We should have more scouts here than when we did it with Jay (Cutler in 2006) just because we have such an array of positions," Sisk said.
For Horroks, Pro Day will provide one final opportunity to impress NFL scouts before April's NFL Draft.
"I'm used to being able to say that I have one more or two more seasons or there is always next year," Horrocks said. "I didn't get in an All Star game, so now all my focus is on Pro Day."
In order to prepare for Pro Day, Horrocks has been working out five or six days a week under the watchful eye of Sisk. Also working out with Horrocks have been Chris Williams (OT), Hamilton Holliday (C), Marcus Buggs (LB), Josh Eames (OG) and Gabe Hall (DT).
Having worked with numerous players who have made it to the NFL during his time at Furman, Western Carolina, Clemson and now Vanderbilt, Sisk knows exactly what Horrocks needs to improve on to get to the next level.
In fact, Horrocks has so much respect for Sisk that he turned down offers to work out at facilities across the country that specialize in training athletes for the NFL. Instead, Horrocks opted to work out under Sisk as he finishes his final 12 hours before graduating with a degree in human and organizational development this May. Had Horrocks opted to train elsewhere, he would not have been able to stay in school and finish his degree.
"He (Sisk) knows what it takes, and he knows what I need to do," Horrocks said. "He knows my body as well as I do. I could have gone and worked out with one of the different groups around the country, but I feel a lot more comfortable with Coach Sisk and he knows my body and how to push me."
Horrocks' preparation with Sisk began the day after Christmas and started with a heavy dose of time spent in the weight room. As time has progressed, Sisk has had Horrocks cut back his weight training and focus more on his speed and agility.
"The big thing was that he lost a little weight after the season and we want to make sure we keep him right around 290 lbs.," Sisk said. "He runs well with that, and we also don't want to get him too big. As we get closer and closer to Pro Day, we'll start trimming down the weight training and doing more change of direction and speed work."
On top of his play on the field where he was a stalwart on Vanderbilt's defensive line since his freshman season, Horrocks' reputation as a hard worker and great locker room leader are intangibles that could go a long way toward getting a look at the next level.
"Theo's been a hard worker his whole career, and I feel strongly he is going to have an opportunity to make it to the next level," Sisk said. "He has the intangibles that you want in a hard-working player. He is never satisfied, and he's never backed down from a challenge since the day he walked in here.
"He's a loyal teammate, and I'm speaking as a coach seeing him lead and seeing guys on the team gravitate toward him. He just loves football, and you can tell it is important to him."
Like Sisk, Louis Thompson, Horrocks' coach at Lincoln County High School in Fayetteville, Tenn., knows first-hand the type of teammate Horrocks is.
"He's always been a team player," Thompson said "He's just been a hard worker since when he came into the program."
Although he was passed over for the All Star games and the NFL Combine, Horrocks keeps an upbeat attitude and looks at being overlooked as more of a positive than a negative.
"Going to the Senior Bowl or any other All Star game would have been great, but I just look at it as a blessing." "I had more time to train for what I need to be doing at Pro Day than if I would have had to travel."
Having been snubbed by the All Star games also has taken Horrocks down a familiar road and one that reminds him of his senior year of high school - that of an underdog.
"Coming out of high school, I was in the underdog-type role as well," Horrocks said. "Lamar Divens, who came here with me (from Lincoln County HS), had all the big offers from my team. I wasn't necessarily overlooked, but I didn't get much attention from SEC schools. I came in here and took this opportunity to take a challenge, and I've just worked hard and I feel like I've worked myself into where I'm at today."
Having the odds stacked against Horrocks may turn out to be a positive according to Thompson.
"He's the type of kid that if you tell him he's not as good as the next, he's going to prove that he is," Thompson said. "That underdog effect makes him try to achieve a lot more."
For as much as Horrocks would like to think he will be playing in the NFL next season, he understands that there is a chance that he won't, but he would still like to keep playing football.
"I just want to keep playing football. The NFL is obviously the ultimate goal, so that is my focus right now. Come April when the NFL Draft is, I'll certainly check out other options if the NFL doesn't work."
And if he gets that phone call on draft day or a few days later telling him he's got a free agent contract?
"It would be amazing. It has been my dream my whole life, and it would just be the best feeling in the world."
However, if Horrocks never gets to play another snap or if it is one year or 15 years from now when Horrocks finally retires from the game he loves, Sisk has no doubt that he will have put every ounce of energy in his body into making himself a better player.
"If he doesn't get a chance, he's going to get his degree and he is going to be able to do something and move on with his life," Sisk said. "And if that does happen, he'll be good at whatever he decides to do.
"Some guys that don't give it their all say, `I wish I would have done that. I wish I would have played that hard. I wish I would have worked that hard.' I think when he looks back years from now when he just finished his last NFL game, he'll look back and say, `I did my best.' If its next week, next year or 10 years from now, I think he's a young man that is going to say, `I did everything I could. I left it all out there and I'm satisfied with it.'"
Whether Horrocks will get a chance to live out a dream and continue to play the game he loves is yet to be seen, but whether he's playing defensive tackle or trying to sell snow shovels in Florida, there is little doubt that Horrocks will do the job to the best of his ability.
"He could go out and be a mailman and he's going to be the best one," Sisk said. "Whatever he ends up doing, he is going to be the best that he can be at it, and I truly believe that."