UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The "green room" is actually really boring when you think about it. Strip away the lights and history of New York City's Radio City Music Hall, the three-piece suits tailored to fit giants and the primetime TV slot, and ESPN is, essentially, televising a waiting room. The probability that 23 of the top prospects in the National Football League draft will hug commissioner Roger Goodell onstage is as predestined as a doctor's secretary sooner or later calling the name of a patient.
Real intrigue exists on the other side of the TV screen. More than a hundred borderline prospects are out there. They might get drafted; they might not. They are like Mike Farrell.
Mr. Farrell, a Shady Side Academy and Penn State University graduate, plans to watch the draft and all the green room happenings Thursday. He plans to watch it on Friday and Saturday as well, probably back in Pittsburgh, waiting to find out if his name gets announced or if his cell phone vibrates with good news later with a team inviting him to sign as a free agent.
The only aspect that is certain about his NFL future is he knows he wants it, and the offensive lineman believes he has done everything he can to earn a shot.
"All the work that we've put into this," he says, "makes it seem that there should be something coming from it, or that there should be the next part of it."
A mid-season revelation
Mike Farrell is sweating, his gray T-shirt soaked and darkened. It sticks to his chest. A navy sweatband has collected some of the perspiration, but the rest trickles down his face, clinging to his lumberjack beard.
It's a Friday in early April. He ran this morning, along with Matt Stankiewitch, Matt McGloin, Michael Yancich and a few other onetime Penn State players harboring NFL dreams. Now they're lifting weights.
Craig Fitzgerald, Penn State's strength and conditioning coach, huddles them together for some final instructions in the Lasch Building on the university's campus. They pair up. Mr. Farrell and his good friend Mr. Stankiewitch take turns working on legs, shoulders and chest, heaving cartoonishly heavy stacks of weights. Country music blares, possibly Tim McGraw, possibly Brad Paisley. Coach Bill O'Brien watches from a balcony above. He's exercising on an elliptical machine.
Staying in football shape is the purpose, the necessary goal at this point of the process. Mr. Farrell decided on this path several months ago.
As he remembers, the opportunity became real during Penn State's bye week. He had just played one of the most memorable games of his career. Against Northwestern, Mr. Farrell thrived on all 99 offensive snaps, moving from left to right tackle, a duty more complicated than pushing and shoving an opponent in a slightly different location.
That week, Mr. Fitzgerald pulled Mr. Farrell aside during a weights workout. All year long, NFL scouts had been routinely coming to practice, primarily watching Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges and Jordan Hill. Mr. Fitzgerald told Mr. Farrell that now many of the scouts who stopped by were asking about him.
"When the season ended, I kind of had that in mind," Mr. Farrell says. "I did have that mind-set that I was going to give a full shot at the NFL."
He hired veteran players agent Brett Senior to represent him. The plans were simple for both. Mr. Senior and his associates would live next to their phones, the way they do for all their clients, acting as promoters and go-betweens, ensuring NFL teams would get optimal exposure to Mr. Farrell through an all-star game in Arizona and hopefully individual interviews. Mr. Farrell would work for everything, March's Pro Day especially.
Pro Day amounts to an audition. You get your lines right, you provide the right moves for the material, and the director won't forget what he sees. But you only get one chance.
Mr. Senior provided a listing of the average numbers and metrics offensive linemen drafted from rounds one through seven had scored in recent years. Mr. Farrell studied what he needed to do: 305-pound weigh-in, 20-plus reps on the bench press, 5 seconds-flat 40-yard dash, 9-foot long jump, etc. He didn't write them down, just kept the numbers in his head, thinking of them every day.
Growing into his skin
In a half-sentence summation, the football story of Mr. Farrell is one of a skinny kid filling out. The use of skinny, of course, is highly relative. And filling out wasn't natural. Mr. Farrell lifted weights and ate and ran into his 6-foot-6-inch, 305-ish pound frame, and he studied and practiced to master the techniques of a lineman.
"He was a really tall, lanky guy," says Dave Havern, the Shady Side Academy football coach. "As he got older and matured, we knew he was destined for great stuff. He was a good football player, but he was a better kid."
Mr. Farrell emphasizes how much he wants to thank his high school coaches for their help. He's also grateful for the Penn State coaches. That's the type of person Mr. Farrell is. Both Mr. Havern and Mr. Fitzgerald specifically said something along the lines of, "you're writing about a guy who deserves it."
Mr. Farrell, an education major, made Academic All-Big Ten three times at Penn State. He was the president of the Penn State branch of Uplifting Athletes as a senior. He was a student teacher at a State College junior high school last spring. He doesn't like to say it, but others do for him: The student-teaching, all the studying, the fundraising for charity took its toll.
"He was 281 in January," Mr. Fitzgerald says, referring to 2012.
Take Mr. Fitzgerald's word for it. Two-eighty-one is skinny. But he and Mr. O'Brien saw what amounted to a pleasing but unfinished painting. Increase strength (which adds speed), then the technical aspects of the game that he has worked to master, like footwork, flexibility and movement, become further enhanced.
In the summer, Mr. Farrell added muscle and lowered his body fat, reaching just above the 300-pound mark. He carried a playbook with him. Between classes and at night, he studied the formations and his responsibilities.
Last fall, Mr. Havern attended the Wisconsin-Penn State game in person -- "the best moment I've had in sports, going back to when Kennedy was president." And he's a University of Pittsburgh guy. He saw an entire team to admire, but he especially thought of Mr. Farrell, the sturdiness he applied to the line, as well as the leadership.
There were no flash moments Mr. Havern could think back to in his former player's growth. Mr. Havern describes Mr. Farrell's approach as methodical. Mr. Fitzgerald says Mr. Farrell's focus in the last year was unparalleled.
That's all it lasted for, though. A year. A sprained right knee derailed most of Mr. Farrell's junior season in 2011 and he had played sparingly as an underclassman. Twelve games would be the baseline for gauging Mr. Farrell's professional worth, along with anything he could do to distinguish himself between December and April.
Signs of interest
Pro Day at Penn State in March contained every NFL scout-branded effect imaginable. The scouts themselves wore the colors and logos of their team. Cones were set up all over the indoor practice field at Holuba Hall. The number of timekeeping devices on hand was comparable to Greenwich, the number of notebooks to Staples.
In January, Mr. Farrell showed up in Holuba Hall in training shoes, prepared to cut, jump or sprint any which way between, past or around cones. So life went for two months. Under the tutelage of Mr. Fitzgerald, Mr. Farrell tried to become the best at activities he had never or rarely done so he could excel on Pro Day, where something as small as a cleat slipping in the turf can dash a lesser-known prospect's chances.
On Pro Day, Mr. Farrell met every one of his goals. His repetitions in the bench press and his times in the cone drill and 20-yard dash would have put him in about the middle of the pack for offensive tackles at the combine. His 5.1 time in the 40-yard dash would have put him among the top 10 in offensive tackles there, same with his 9-1 long jump.
"He knocked it out of the park," says Mr. Senior, his agent. "He just literally knocked it out of the park."
An army of scouts saw all of this. How much of a difference could it really make for someone like Mr. Farrell? NFL.com draft analyst Mike Mayock, who gets paid to know everything about every NFL prospect, says he has heard of Mr. Farrell but hasn't studied him. Mr. Farrell says he knew his short time as a starter could be a drawback; he only wanted to catch "a few eyes" with his workouts.
March dragged on, nothing; in early April, some promise. New Orleans called. The Saints had a limited number of prospects they host on visits and wanted to see Mr. Farrell.
Later that week, New England offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia came to State College to see Mr. Stankiewitch and Mr. Farrell work out. They then talked about offensive-line tactics and formations, and Mr. Farrell knew much of New England's style because of Mr. O'Brien, who had been the Patriots' offensive coordinator before coming to Penn State. Mr. Farrell was encouraged. If and when the time comes to prove his worth to a team, he felt as if he might just have a head start.
"The way I'm trying to visualize it," Mr. Farrell says, "when it will really count, when the stakes will be the highest is after that draft day or after that free-agent opportunity comes -- when I have to make the team, regardless of what unfolded."
Simply the next step
On the TV, in that green room, the lines of the draftees seem rehearsed. A dream come true. The biggest day of my life. I want to thank God.
Not once did Mr. Farrell ever talk about the NFL as the culmination of some lifelong dream for him. When Mr. Farrell was an eighth-grader, Mike Farrell Sr. says, his son began lifting weights because he wanted to play at a high level for Shady Side. The younger Mr. Farrell would see the numerous pictures of Shady Side graduates who made it to college and think about college football. Last summer and fall, he embraced the challenges of Mr. O'Brien and Mr. Fitzgerald.
"I always wanted to see how I could make the most of the current situation," Mr. Farrell says.
It's as his high school coach, Mr. Havern, says: Mr. Farrell has been methodical. He has always committed to the next step when the time calls for it and he's ready.
Whether his name is announced this week, this decision to dedicate himself to the NFL goal was his move and he'll try to make the next one, too, whatever, wherever and whenever it may be.
Mark Dent: email@example.com, Twitter @mdent05.