Combine star Mamula was burdened by high expectations

His name forever is tied to the scouting combine, but that doesn't mean Mike Mamula is paying much attention to what will happen this week in Indianapolis.

"When does combine start, anyway?'' Mamula, 34, asked in a telephone interview Monday.

These days, Mamula lives in the Philadelphia area and has his hands full as director of business development for a company that does corporate drug testing and background checks. But, long ago, Mamula wowed the NFL in its best-known screening process.

It happened back at the 1995 combine, where, for better or worse, Mamula had one of the most impressive workouts in history. A defensive end, Mamula had recorded 17 sacks the previous fall at Boston College. That was enough to convince him to enter the draft, even though he had a year of eligibility remaining.

Mamula trained with Boston College strength and conditioning coach Jerry Palmieri (now with the New York Giants), whose philosophy was to practice repeatedly the same drills that would be performed at the combine. This probably was a big spark for the current trend in which many players spend the months leading into the combine at academies that focus specifically on the featured drills.

"At the time, nobody knew what the hell Jerry was doing because everybody else was more focused on football drills," Mamula said. "But I went into the combine having done every test hundreds of times while some other guys had never done some of the specific drills."

That worked out well as Mamula, who was viewed as undersized and about a third-round pick before the combine, vaulted himself into a top-10 overall pick. His 40-yard time was faster than some linebackers and he benched 225 pounds as many times as some offensive linemen.

He also set himself up for a big contract, ridiculous expectations and a lingering perception by some that he was nothing but a workout warrior.

In April 1995, Mamula was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles with the seventh overall pick, but that choice would become a tale of two franchises. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers actually started the day holding the seventh pick and, since the combine, there had been strong speculation in the Tampa media that the Bucs would grab Mamula.

After all, they'd sent a huge contingent of front-office types and coaches to Boston College for a post-combine workout, where Mamula solidly backed up his showing in Indianapolis. But Rich McKay, Tampa Bay's general manager at the time, now admits that was all a smokescreen.

"Mike had a great workout," said McKay, now team president of the Atlanta Falcons. "But we decided early on that he was an undersized, pass-rushing end and it wasn't in our best interest to draft him that high.

We were in a situation where we needed players, not just one player. We thought Mamula was a guy that might have greater value to other teams, so we didn't dispute the speculation that we were interested and we did everything in our power to push him up the board."

In the 48 hours leading into the draft, another significant event unfolded. There suddenly were reports that University of Miami defensive tackle Warren Sapp, once viewed as the potential top pick, had tested positive for marijuana at the combine. When the draft started, Mamula rose as fast as Sapp fell.

The Eagles and new coach Ray Rhodes, who held the 12th pick, wanted Mamula. They offered a trade that the Bucs quickly grabbed. The teams swapped first-round picks and the Bucs landed two second-round choices in the process. They took Sapp and used the extra picks to do some more maneuvering and added the 28th overall pick in the first round.

That turned out to be linebacker Derrick Brooks. In essence, the Eagles traded Sapp and Brooks -- two potential Hall of Famers -- for Mamula.

I mean, what was I supposed to do? Try not to do well at the combine?

--Mike Mamula

Eagles fans expected Mamula to be the next Reggie White. He wasn't and that point was hammered home by a media corps that Mamula spent most of his career refusing to talk to. The dreaded "bust" label frequently was attached to Mamula's name.

"There were a lot of things going on back then," Mamula said. "The team wasn't doing very well for some of my time there and you're going to take heat, especially when you're a high draft pick. That's just the way it works."

Mamula understands why the heat was on, but he's quick to point out he doesn't believe he was a bust. He played at about 250 pounds -- often surrendering nearly 100 pounds to offensive tackles. The Eagles refused to move him to linebacker where he might have been more effective.

In five seasons before retiring because of injuries, Mamula had 31½ sacks and had a respectable 8½ sacks in 1999. Not Hall of Fame numbers by any stretch, but better than Eagles fans might think. If Mamula had been selected late in the first round or in the second, he might have ended up being considered a solid player.

"I mean, what was I supposed to do? Try not to do well at the combine?" Mamula said. "The Eagles drafted me when they did and you can't change that. I played hard and I enjoyed my time there and I still call Philadelphia home because it's a great area."

Mamula is fine with how his life turned out. His combine workout was spectacular and that's the goal of every player who goes to Indianapolis. But Mamula's legacy is a bit of a cautionary tale as teams prepare for the draft.

"Mike was not a bad football player by any means," McKay said. "But we were never comfortable that his workout replicated the game tape we saw of him in college. That's why teams have to keep these workouts in perspective.

"They're an important part of the scouting process. But they're only a piece of the process. A lot of guys can open your eyes at the combine, but you have to be able to confirm what you see there with everything else you see about the guy and not get too caught up in a workout, no matter how great it is.''

Pat Yasinskas covers the NFL for ESPN.com.