For most football fans, the Reese’s Senior Bowl Jan. 24 will serve as a farewell to collegiate athletes who captivated audiences around the country, but for the players themselves the opportunity can be the difference between hanging up the cleats for good or moving on to Sunday play.

Phil Savage, executive director of the Senior Bowl, called it “the ultimate job fair,” and said the connections players make to the National Football League can be as valuable as competing in the game itself.

This year, coach Ken Whisenhunt of the Tennessee Titans will try to break the North team’s two-year drought against the South, which will be under the direction of Gus Bradley and the coaching staff of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Players will also be evaluated and weighed by representatives from 31 of 32 NFL teams throughout the week.

However, players aren’t the only ones who have benefited from the Senior Bowl’s 64-year history in Mobile. The annual event packs around 40,000 people into Ladd-Peebles Stadium, and economists and business owners in the area say the game’s related exposure and tourism is second only to Mardi Gras.

The spurt in tourism falls during what might otherwise be a slower time of the year for hotels and restaurants, which is one of the reasons city and county officials continue to support the game financially. This year the city of Mobile gave $132,300 to the Senior Bowl while Mobile County pledged $165,000 to the game’s parent organization, the Mobile Arts and Sports Association.

Because of that continued commitment, financial and otherwise, Savage said Mobile has become part of the fabric of the Senior Bowl and the annual event has become one synonymous with the Port City.

“When you look at the landscape of all-star games, most of them have moved around trying to find a home and are trying to figure out somewhere they can get any kind of support,” Savage said. “Here, there’s no questioning the kind of support we get, not only from the local governments, but from the community itself. It’s a date that people look forward to. Regardless of who’s in the game, the fans are still going to show up because the Senior Bowl is bigger than any individual player.”

Something to Prove
Some say the week of practice preceding the showcase in front of representatives of nearly every NFL organization is just as valuable to the 110 invited players as the game itself.  

Savage, who worked behind the scenes in the NFL for more than two decades, said “connections and competition” are the two main components needed by players looking to make a name for themselves in the pros. With 35 percent of professional football players having played the Senior Bowl, for some, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Mobile native Jaquiski Tartt is one of the players hoping to become a household name, and he feels like the Senior Bowl will give him a chance to shine on his biggest stage yet.

Tartt just wrapped up a successful career as a safety at Samford University, but as an athlete at Davidson High School, most of the larger football programs — notably the two biggest in-state rivals — weren’t interested in his services on defense. But that was five years and 38 pounds ago.

Throughout his college career, the three-time All American has had NFL scouts from every team visiting Birmingham to see his abilities, and now he wants to show everyone else.

“[The Senior Bowl] will give me an opportunity to show that I can compete against the guys from bigger schools and show the scouts there’s not a big dropoff in my game playing against guys from bigger programs,” Tartt said. “Personally, it’s big for me too. It’s going to be good to represent my school and my family well and show that no matter what school you go to, if you can play football, you can play.”

Tartt is not alone. There are currently 500 Senior Bowl alumni on active rosters in the NFL, and the 110 prospects playing in Mobile Jan. 24 are only hoping to add to that number.

Savage said performing well in the Senior Bowl can really benefit players like Tartt who may have had less exposure in college or who developed pro-level skills later in their collegiate career. He also said the game is good chance for players to showcase how well and how quickly they learn a new system.

“If you’re a good enough player, the NFL will find you,” Savage said. “They’re going to go to every school where there’s a potential prospect. It takes a little luck, but they find those diamonds in the rough, and they find the late bloomers.”

Jalston Fowler grew up in the same neighborhood as Tartt, but at least for the time being, his name is more widely recognized. A graduate of Vigor High School, Fowler was listed as a fullback at the University of Alabama, but in truth he was multidimensional as a running back, halfback, wide receiver and specialist, all the way up until his final game in the 2015 Sugar Bowl.

Savage said Fowler’s versatility makes him quite desirable to NFL teams because he can save them a draft pick. Though it’s very likely an NFL team will extend Fowler an offer, he’s playing in the Senior Bowl to show his hometown what he couldn’t at Alabama.

“It’s big for me because I get to showcase what I can do, and I’m hoping they’ll let me play a little bit of running back so the scouts can see that side of me too,” Fowler said. “But, the biggest reason for me playing are the people who wanted to see you, but didn’t get to — your family and your friends. Just being from the neighborhood and this area made me really want to play in this game.”

64 years in Mobile
Wide receiver Sammie Coates just finished up a dynamic season with the Auburn Tigers, but long before his days showing up on the Saturday night highlight reels of ESPN, Coates was sitting in the stands of Ladd-Peebles Stadium with his dad.

Though his father passed away in an industrial accident when Coates was only 11 years old, he was a big part of Coates’ childhood sports endeavors. As a self-declared “football fan,” Coates said they would travel to the Senior Bowl from Leroy to see the best players, regardless of what school they represented.  

“He used to always tell me, ‘you’re gonna play in that game one day,’” Coates said. “Getting this opportunity to be in the Senior Bowl, it’s really big for me. It’s truly a blessing from God, and I wish he was here to see it.”

Coates is one of many players from southwest Alabama — regarded as a hotbed of football talent — with memories of the game. Its location in Mobile was also a determining factor to participate for some of the local players, like Fowler, who may not have needed a boost in their draft stock, but wanted to play again in front of hometown crowd.

Savage said the all-star game is a perfect bridge between collegiate sports and the pros, and acts as a “rite of passage” for players bound for the NFL. At the same time, he also said it gives Mobile national exposure and an extra identity.
“Phoenix, Atlanta and New Orleans — those are ‘Super Bowl cities,’ but we’re a ‘Senior Bowl’ city. Leading up to the game I’m usually on a national platform on a daily basis,” he said. “ESPN, Fox Sports NBC, CBS — they all will have representatives here and their bylines are going to all say Mobile, Alabama.”

Despite the exposure the city gets from its investment in the game, Savage said when he took the helm in 2012, he noticed there wasn’t much interaction between the players and the Mobile community outside of the autograph tents, practices and the game itself.

“I said, ‘we’ve got 110 of the best players in the country. These are super kids that have done all the right things, why are we not incorporating them into our local schools?’” Savage recalled. “So in 2013 we branched the players out in groups and sent them across Mobile and Baldwin counties. It was met with a lot of enthusiasm.”

This year, on Friday, Jan. 23, players will visit patients at the University of South Alabama’s Children’s and Women’s Hospital and in the children’s division at Mobile Infirmary. The athletes will also be dispatched to 15 elementary and junior high schools in the area.

Savage said in years past, only schools with returning local players would get a chance to interact with those participating in the Senior Bowl. He said both the schools and the players now consider the community service day a real highlight of the week’s festivities.

“Football is huge in this area, and a lot of these guys can really relate to the kids,” Savage said. “When these kids recognize a Jalston Fowler or a Sammie Coates, it’s going to resonate with them when they talk about the importance of graduating or making it to the college level from a small town or a large inner-city school.”

Fowler said he’s been able to come back for a few Vigor High School games, but his schedule at Alabama has kept him from doing as much community service work as he’d like  — though he has done work through the Crimson Tide program in cities like Anniston and Gadsden.

In interactions like those, Fowler said he always emphasizes the importance of education, even to students who are already on the path to a college football career.

“I always tell the young players to stay focused, and that schoolwork is more important than football,” Fowler said. “If you can get the grades and all that, you won’t worry about passing the ACT and all that type of stuff. That’s what I always harp on when I talk to the kids.”

Fowler said he owes a lot to his coaches and teachers from Mobile County. One could even argue the Tide faithful might also owe at least a thank you to Florence Howard Elementary School, which is where Fowler was first convinced to pull for Alabama by a third grade teacher.

Fowler’s head coach at Vigor, 10-year veteran Kerry Stevenson, actually joined his former fullback in Tuscaloosa when he was hired as the team’s director of player development in 2014. The good news for Stevenson, might have — at least at first — seemed like bad news for Fowler.

“It was a good thing for me because he came in and he pushed me,” Fowler said of Stevenson. “Because he (had) coached me, he knew when I wasn’t going as hard as I could, and he would push me harder. It got on my nerves a little bit at first, but I’m so thankful for that now.”

Once rivals, now teammates
Alabama is also perhaps a fitting place for the Reese’s Senior Bowl because of the state’s love affair with college football. With the state’s two largest programs represented in the national championship game for five straight years until 2015, there’s also no doubt the state plays an important role in professional recruiting and player development.

The rivalry between Auburn and Alabama runs deep, even for the players. Coates wouldn’t admit growing up as an Alabama fan, but did reluctantly say he “watched Alabama more than Auburn.” Even though he finished his career as a Tiger with 82 receptions, 1,757 yards and 13 touchdowns, Coates said he was only able to turn “a few” of his family members into Auburn fans.

However, the 2015 Senior Bowl will also give some of its rival players a chance to line up on the same side of scrimmage for a change.

“It’s crazy knowing I’ve been playing against these boys for like three years,” Coates said of his Alabama counterparts on the South team. “Being on the same team is going to be a little weird, but at the same time, I know it’s going to be fun.”

Fowler said he really doesn’t see it that way. He even said he was looking forward to Auburn center and Spanish Fort native Reese Dismukes opening up some holes for him to run through during the game.

“It’s just football. It’s really not that serious, but the fans make it bigger than what it is,” he said. “It’ll be a great feeling just playing with these guys.”

Like many of the fans of the Southeastern Conference, a lot of the players take pride in all of the SEC, no matter what school their degree comes from. After a disappointing 7-5 finish in the bowl season this year, there was a lot of talk that the SEC’s days of dominance had come to an end.

Coates, however, said that every team in the SEC starts off the season with ambitions to win the national championship, and the competition among teams causes them to “beat up” on each other during the regular season.

“We all want to prove a point, but once you get knocked down a couple of times, it’s hard to get back up,” Coates said. “A lot of the guys in the SEC that are playing for the South in this game, they’ve got a lot to prove. I think it’ll be fun to watch.”

But perhaps more important than conference pride, is pride in your community, and that’s something both Fowler and Tartt say continues to drive them. Tartt said he didn’t idolize many professional or college safeties before or during his career with the Samford Bulldogs. However, he did look up to Jalston Fowler, but not for his performance on the field.

“Jalston grew up in the same neighborhood as me, and he’s always been a great guy. Everybody has always looked up to him since we were young,” Tartt said. “Being able to see him get his master’s degree, that kind of set the bar for me.”

That sentiment is something both Tartt and Fowler say is prevalent among all college players recruited from the Mobile area. There’s a sense of competition and pride, but there’s also an underlying respect amongst the athletes, no matter what side of Mobile Bay they hail from.

“It’s really a pride thing,” Tartt said. “Growing up you want to win in everything. When you line up against the friends you grew up with, you want to have the bragging rights at the end of the day.”

Fowler said that competitive pride and a desire to “show up and show out” will be on display during Senior Bowl, but he also said playing with people like Tartt and Dismukes again gives him a sense of joy.

“Some of us are from the same neighborhoods, and we know what it was like coming up in this community,” Fowler said. “That support is always there. No matter where they’re from, if they played at Spanish Fort or Davidson, I want to see them doing good on and off the field.”