Worth the wait

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Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich is relaxing in the team's lockerroom at Alltel Stadium following a recent workout when talk turns toward the upcoming NFL draft this weekend. Leftwich lets out a smile and laughs as he thinks about what the top draft prospects are going through.

"All of these guys were great college football players," Leftwich said. "You are trying to tell me they are still not great football players in five months. They got that bad in five months. But that is all part of the process."

The process consists of playing your final collegiate game and then preparing for the months ahead that consist of individual training, preparation for the combine, your individual workout on your college campus and extensive background checks.

"When you are one of the top players they are trying to find something wrong with you," Leftwich said. "They're not trying to find good things about you because they know those things. They are trying to figure out if you're a good person, if you stole a bag of potato chips when you were six years old. You have to understand it. It's a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with football. You have to be smart enough to not let the stuff you hear affect you."

Leftwich chose not to work out at the annual NFL combine in Indianapolis. He opted to invite the scouts to the Marshall University campus in West Virginia for his individual workout. He threw for 11,903 yards and 89 touchdowns in three seasons as a starter at Marshall.

Representatives from every NFL team assembled in the small city of Huntington to watch the record-breaking quarterback from the Mid-American Conference go to work.

"It was the day," Leftwich said. "It was my turn to show all these people what I can do. That is the fun part. You get the opportunity to meet the teams even if it's only for five minutes, and they get a chance to watch you throw the football. It feels more like football when you can go out there and drop back, throw the ball and run around. That is all you want to do as a player, just play football."

Former Marshall quarterback Chad Pennington was Leftwich's mentor throughout the process. Pennington was the 18th overall pick by the New York Jets in 2000, the first quarterback chosen in that draft. The two quarterbacks spent hours on the phone during Leftwich's senior season talking about what was ahead in the near future.

"I was very fortunate to have someone like Chad who played the same position and had to do the same stuff I had to do," Leftwich said. "He told me about the situation so I was prepared. It didn't really faze me. Maybe I would have taken it worse or harder if I didn't have that."

While the process can be draining from a mental and physical standpoint, Leftwich looks back and realizes it's almost a necessity.

"Nothing that good comes easy," Leftwich said. "You just came from a university where you were the man. In order to get back down to reality, I think you almost have to go through that process. You have to have your struggles to get the big prize. We all know the big prize is to get drafted and be one of the top guys."

The experts and gurus are in full mode this week as they look at the top of the draft and analyze which teams are looking at a certain position. Every sports website has a mock draft of the first round, their sleeper picks and players that have dropped in the draft.

"You have a bunch of people that don't know you that are making judgments on you," Leftwich said. "There are so called experts making judgments on you. These people have never met you before. It was difficult for me because you don't hear a lot of good things about yourself. Look at a guy like Reggie Bush. They are saying he is too small."

The most rewarding part of the process for Leftwich was getting the invitation to New York City to sit in the green room at Radio City Music Hall with the top players in the 2003 draft. He had the opportunity to spend time with the other top players, including eventual No. 1 pick Carson Palmer.

"Carson and I would just sit and talk," Leftwich said. "They would try to get him to say bad things about me and vice versa. We had never met before, but we talked about the differences and what people said what. Carson was the only player who knew where he was going. Everybody else there was just so happy. You begin to start hearing good things about you from interested teams because they know who they are going to take at that point."

Leftwich had the opportunity to appear on Good Morning America and ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange during the trip. The frantic schedule kept his mind off the draft, but the nerves hit him on Saturday morning.

"I didn't sleep much that weekend," Leftwich said. "When you starting putting that suit on then you start to get the butterflies."

Luckily, it wasn't a long stay for Leftwich in the green room. It was a foregone conclusion that Palmer would be the first overall pick by the Cincinnati Bengals and Leftwich would be the second quarterback taken.

"I think it was 1:11 p.m. when I was drafted," Leftwich said. "I knew I wasn't going past the seventh pick."

The Jaguars were slated to have the eighth pick in the draft, but Minnesota and Baltimore failed to execute a trade before time expired so the Jaguars moved into the seventh spot to land Leftwich. Leftwich will never forget the day he became a NFL player and he encourages this year's crop of players to be patient.

"Once they are drafted on Saturday, they are going to be like saviors," Leftwich said. "The greatest thing since sliced bread."

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