WOODRUFF - On a sun-soaked Saturday, less than one week before their lives would change forever, they ducked underneath blue tents and put the future on hold.
For three hours, stars of South Carolina and Clemson's past signed autographs for fans on the football field at Woodruff High. There was Jadeveon Clowney and Sammy Watkins, the cream of this week's NFL draft. There was Bruce Ellington, Kelcy Quarles and Victor Hampton, players with high hopes after spending the past five months outside the limelight.
Hampton said he hasn't flown to any private workouts with teams. ESPN hasn't run endless highlights. Analysts haven't debated which team will draft him. The former Gamecocks cornerback looked down the autograph line, toward Clowney and Watkins, and put his own situation in context.
"Some of my boys, they know they're going to be going (in the first round)," Hampton said. "I don't know what's going to happen to me. The draft, for me, it's exciting and it's nerve-racking."
Five months of work and a lifetime of dreaming boils down to three days this week. Each player on the Woodruff field took different paths to this moment. Each is hoping for the same result: a long, successful career in the NFL.
January: The journey begins
For two years, Ellington followed Alshon Jeffery. They shared a team, an area of the locker room and a position on the field.
Ellington, a Moncks Corner native and former Berkley High School two-sport standout, also hopes to track Jeffery's path to the pros.
The former South Carolina receiver watched as Jeffery established himself with a Pro Bowl season last year as a Chicago Bears star. So it was no surprise when, shortly after deciding to forego his final season with the Gamecocks and enter the draft early, Ellington called his former teammate and asked for advice.
On Jeffery's recommendation, Ellington made arguably the most important decision of the pre-draft process. The two receivers now share Tory Dandy as their agent.
"I wanted someone that, when I first met him, I knew that I could build trust with him," Ellington said. "Someone that I could connect with and someone that on a personal level I could go to when there's something other than football. When I call, any time of day he picks up the phone. You want someone that will be there for you after football is done, if football would end tomorrow."
Agents direct the path for hopeful draftees, a liaison between player and franchise. They are not alone. Just weeks after their final college game, players are surrounded by a new team. There is a trainer, a nutritionist, a marketer - each lending their hand in separate aspects of life.
For seniors, postseason games such as the Senior Bowl offer one final competition to showcase their talent. Underclassmen often work in quiet, away from national attention. Most prepare for the biggest event on the offseason calendar: the NFL Scouting Combine.
February: All eyes on Indy
Justin Turner has lost count of how many parents asked him the question. Can he, a sports agent, help their child's chances of being invited to the combine?
To each, there is the same answer.
"They don't understand that no agent is going to get somebody into the combine. It doesn't work that way," said Turner, who along with brother and partner Joel Turner represents former South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw. "The teams vote on who gets in. If you don't get the 51 percent of the vote to get in, you ain't getting in, even if you were close. Close doesn't count."
There's no denying the importance of the combine. While it is possible to be drafted without receiving the golden ticket, the odds overwhelmingly favor those who make the annual pilgrimage to Indianapolis.
This year, 335 players were invited to the combine - including five each from South Carolina and Clemson. Only 256 players will be drafted.
Naturally, the process of being invited is fierce. Turner said 16 teams - half the league - comprise National Football Scouting, Inc. They vote in December to invite players to the NFL's combine. Eight of those teams must have a player on the ballot to earn a trip to the combine, Turner said.
In Indy, futures can be made. Or dreams can be dashed. The difference often comes down to tenths of seconds. Few benefited from this year's combine more than Watkins.
Watkins entered Indianapolis as a potential top-10 pick. On Thursday, he's expected to be one of the first three players drafted, and the first receiver.
"Overall, I think we have a great class at receiver," Watkins said at the combine. "I've just got to be uncommon when I go out there and run those drills and separate myself some way, somehow."
March: Preparing for the NFL
The NFL Scouting Combine showcases the bells and whistles. Run. Jump. Cut and run again. They are just a sample of what's required in the NFL.
Ellington erased the most damaging negative perception scouts had of him - an alleged lack of speed - when he ran a blistering 4.45-second, 40-yard dash in Indianapolis.
More than speed goes into being a quality NFL receiver. With the dash behind him, Ellington focused on the finer details of his position for South Carolina's Pro Day. Through March, he polished his route-running, searching for any possible advantage.
"You have to be smart. You can't just be out there running the route," Ellington said. "You have to know what you're doing, and do it fast, because everybody's the same speed as you. You aren't faster than everybody out there trying to compete. It's the best against the best."
Hampton calls it a learning curve.
It starts in the months leading up to the draft. Before players ever get a taste for the speed of the NFL, they have to prepare for a new reality - on and off the field. The stakes couldn't be higher.
"Getting ready to set yourself up for the rest of your life," Hampton said. "In college, you've got a little bit of time to play around. Now, there's no more playing around at all. You've got to get to it.
"Opportunity can be lost. Once it's lost, it's hard to get back. So you've got to make sure you don't lose the opportunity."
Hampton admits he was anxious. When TMZ reported last month there was a fight at Greenhouse nightclub in New York City, and police wanted to speak with him and Quarles, conclusions were made before facts were released.
Two men in the club were smoking marijuana. When they were asked to stop, one of them punched Hampton. He and Quarles were never charged. Ultimately, attorney Joe Tacopina said the two players were victims of an attempted "money grab."
Even though they did nothing illegal, Hampton knew how the incident would be perceived. He didn't hesitate to defend himself, tweeting the truth would prove his innocence.
"I wouldn't say it was scary, it was just frustrating," Hampton said. "Because I knew that I was in the right. I was never in the wrong. So it was definitely difficult just seeing things that was said about the situation that wasn't true facts. It was tough.
"We all know the previous questions about my character issues, and things of this sort. So I was definitely anxious to get out there that I wasn't in the wrong."
Quarles said he tried to block out the reports. He does the same thing with mock drafts. An analyst's opinion doesn't bother him, he said. Neither do allegations separate from facts.
Still, the pause between Pro Day and the draft is hard to stomach.
"Waiting. Waiting," Quarles said when asked what the most stressful part to the pre-draft process has been for him. "I love doing the workouts and stuff like that, but just sitting here waiting on somebody to call you. I've been thinking every day, I hope nobody calls me playing, saying, 'Oh, this is the Patriots,' or something like that when I know it's not.
"Just the waiting part has been the longest part."
May: A new reality
The mock drafts embody this time of year. They are rooted in rumor and conjecture, with little substance. Often, they are crumpled up and tossed in the trash on draft day.
Hampton doesn't block them out. He said he reads everything - the slights, the doubts, the questions about his character.
"I don't think I can even describe how much (desire) I have in me right now," Hampton said. "I feel very underrated, disrespected. So, I'm definitely going in with a chip on my shoulder. I'm just excited about the process.
"I'm just ready for it to be over with. Get back to work, show people why I'm the best corner in the draft."
May is a new reality for hopeful draftees. This year, the draft was pushed back two weeks. It's an appreciated advantage for teams and the league, a headache for everyone else.
For the player at the top of the draft, the delay can be annoying.
Clowney isn't wired that way.
"It's a fun process," Clowney said, flashing his smile. "Everybody's telling you, 'Where you think you're gonna go?' So you just enjoy it. Everybody don't know where they're going to go right now. So I'm just hanging out, having fun and working."
Nothing passes the time like connecting with fans, under the shade of blue tents, in the upstate five days before the draft begins.
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