CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- Christian McCaffrey's presence provided a gravitational force, pulling the media from all parts of the metro area. McCaffrey represented the star of performance coach Loren Landow's mock NFL combine at the South Suburban Family Sports Dome on Thursday.
McCaffrey projects as a first-round draft choice -- I made a case this week for the Broncos taking him -- and nothing he did in the dimly lit bubble changed minds. Other athletes at the combine, however, opened eyes for the first time. They are players holding onto their NFL dreams with white knuckles, wringing out every ounce of sweat, training with purpose with the hope that some scout somewhere will deem them worthy of a draft pick or free agent contract.
On a morning of vertical leaps, broad jumps, 40-yard sprints, and shuttle drills, two former local stars stood out: Erstwhile Western State star running back Austin Ekeler and Colorado State tackling machine Kevin Davis.
Ekeler is the type of story that can become lost in the margins, but shouldn't. He stands 5-foot-9 and weighs roughly 190 pounds, but is impossible to miss. Combines are different, akin to American Gladiator testing. They measure football skills, but it is not football. To be considered an NFL player, however, baseline skills are required. Running backs with 5.0 40-yard dash times don't exist in the league. They stand no chance. Players from small schools also fight the perception they are not ready for the spotlight.
Ekeler glowed in the moment. On a turf with other prospects, he turned heads with his 4.4 speed and explosiveness. He is built like a brick house. After watching New England's James White in Super Bowl 51, it provides a reminder why a player like Ekeler should get a look.
"Coming in from Division II you are an automatic underdog or seen that way. So every opportunity that is presented to us from D-II, we have to take advantage," Ekeler said. "We don't have room to make mistakes. That's why we are here with Loren."
Ekeler boasts an eye-opening resume. He rushed for a Western State-record 5,857 yards in his career as a four-year starter. He earned All-American academic recognition as he anchored the Mountaineeers' attack. He set a personal best of 344 yards on the ground against Western New Mexcio, and approached the mark last season with 316 against the Colorado School of Mines. His coaches even mixed in some special teams a year ago with four punt returns.
"Austin is a great running back. He can really do it all," Landow said. "He put forth a great effort today."
Ekeler recognizes versatility holds the key to his future. He's working hard on improving his route running from the slot and remains open to any role. Doubt fuels him. Despite a stellar career at Eaton High School in Greeley, Ekeler left coaches, including those at Northern Colorado, viewing him as a defensive back. He refused to relent and found a home at Western State with the promise of playing running back. Last season, he rushed for 15 touchdowns.
"I am looking for an opportunity," Ekeler said. "Being here is great. I love being around these guys who are competitive. We had different paths getting here, but we all have the same goal."
Davis, a former Fountain-Fort Carson High star and all-state selection as a senior, made an impact at Colorado State at linebacker. He led the Rams in tackles the past two seasons, finishing his career with 257 and seven sacks. He earned second-team All-Mountain West honors and received an invitation to the NFL combine later this month in Indianapolis. That's an indication that he has a strong chance to get drafted.
"I am grateful," Davis said.