A football player doesn’t need an invitation to the NFL scouting combine to succeed.
The New England Patriots are proof of that. Wes Welker, Malcolm Butler, Julian Edelman, Shaq Mason and Sebastian Vollmer have all started for the Patriots in Super Bowls. None was invited to the NFL combine. Neither was Stephen Gostkowski, New England’s kicker and a three-time NFL scoring champion.
So we asked our listeners and readers in our last Talk of Fame Network poll who became the best non-combine player in the NFL? Was it a Super Bowl MVP? A former NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Possibly Welker with all of his NFL receiving crowns?
It was none of the above. The winner, by a wide margin was Antonio Gates, who went uninvited to the 2003 NFL combine but still went on to set an NFL record for touchdowns by a tight end with 114.
“Antonio Gates is a guy who couldn't get an invite to the combine,” Talk of Fame Network host Clark Judge said, “but he's going to get one to Canton.”
Judge and fellow Talk of Fame Network host Ron Borges cast their votes for Gates. Host Rick Gosselin voted former NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison.
“I would like to be a contrarian and say someone other than Antonio Gates,” Borges said. “So I tried to say James Harrison. Then I tried to say Wes Welker. I tried but every time I started typing it came out Antonio Gates. He put up too many points to be overlooked.”
There’s actually a reason Gates didn’t get invited to his combine. He was a basketball player and a very good one. He led Kent State to back-to-back Mid-American Conference championships in his final two seasons and was an honorable mention All-America power forward, averaging 20.6 points and 7.7 rebounds.
But at 6-4, he was considered a tweener by the NBA. So he pursued an NFL career. He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Chargers and has gone on to play 15 seasons, getting voted to eight Pro Bowls.
Ironically, Harrison went to the same school as Gates – Kent State. But he was considered too short at (6-0) either to be a linebacker or an edge pass-rusher on Sundays. So he signed as an undrafted free agent with the Steelers and spent two seasons on the club’s practice squad. He then spent a season playing with the Rhein Fire in NFL Europe and was cut for the third time by an NFL team, this time the Baltimore Ravens.
Harrison returned to Pittsburgh in 2005 and became a full-time starter in 2007. He collected 16 sacks and forced seven fumbles to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2008. Harrison has now gone to five Pro Bowls, won two Super Bowls and collected 84 ½ career sacks.