Fresh Meat

A wave of excitement ripples across the field. Someone nearby whispers, “Leinart and Bush.” Necks crane, grown men quiver and Petros Papadakis says, “the fucking Beatles.”

Last Sunday, the NFL held its Pro Day workouts at USC, and Papadakis, host of the generally irascible, occasionally nonsensical Petros Papadakis Show on KMPC-AM 1540 the Ticket, L.A.’s nonstop sports station, isn’t happy. He isn’t happy because, well, it wasn’t all too long ago that Papadakis, a tailback from 1997–2000, was, in his own words, “the captain of the worst football team in USC history.” He too attended a Pro Day, but spent his on the sidelines, handicapped by drawbacks that would keep him from making it to the next level: a shattered foot and a near-pathological hatred of this sort of dog-and-pony show.

“It’s a circus,” says Papadakis, surveying the practice field.

And he’s right. The stands are crowded with people willing to get out of bed and shrug off their hangovers to watch USC’s pro-caliber meat do sprints, broad jumps and cone drills. This is the last chance for USC’s prospects to improve their standing for the NFL’s April 29-30 draft. Along with the players, the field is covered with scouts and agents and coaches and assistants and media folks and ex-USC stars of various statures. Everyone’s wearing spandex and carrying a stopwatch.

“The NFL is crazy about measurables,” explains Papadakis.

And they all want to measure USC players — the program has been a veritable NFL farm system for the past several years. Barring outright disaster, at least five USC players, including star quarterback Matt Leinart and star running back Reggie Bush, will be taken in the first round. Signing bonuses alone should exceed the gross national product of various South Pacific island nations. The experts pretty much agree that this is the single biggest Pro Day in the history of professional football or, as Papadakis puts it, “The exact kind of cluster-fuck that happens when 19-year-olds get too much attention.”

We make our way to the stands. A middle-aged woman named Liz walks over to us and asks what’s going on.

“I’ve never been to a Pro Day before,” she says. “I work for the Sports Business Daily. I don’t cover athletes, I cover agents.”

Clearly, this is a parable of sorts. The agents are fairly easy to pick out. Not only are they all wearing bread-loaf-size placards that read “player-agent,” they’re also the only guys with haircuts that can be described as ’70s jarhead meets ’80s gel meets ’90s super-queen.

“So, um, Liz,” I ask, “who’s the agent to watch out here today?”

Liz isn’t much help on that front. Which is not to say the day was not educational. Back down on the field, I did learn that, as a loose rule, a certain linguistic decorum is observed when speaking to pro or near-pro football players. For example, a proper greeting begins with a bit of slang followed by an “S” compliment.

“’Sup, Dawg, you’re looking ____” (insert “S” word here: sleek, slick, sly, smoking, svelte, swoll — as in swollen, i.e. pumped up — or some similar stuff).

This is then chased by an immediate inquiry into the state of one’s family, some compliments about the player’s just-displayed prowess — “Killing it, G,” and the like — then a back-and-forth about cell phoning and getting lunch. By then, once platitudes are exhausted and a quick exit is needed, it’s time to employ the old standard: “God bless you.”

“Yup, ‘God bless you’ works every time,” says Papadakis. “So yeah, God bless you, now can we please get the fuck out of here?”

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