NFL Combine: Preparing for Draft turns rivals into friends

jkendall@thestate.comFebruary 20, 2014 

South Carolina Missouri Football

South Carolina's Connor Shaw, center, holds the Mayors Cup as he celebrates with teammates Cody Gibson, left, and Jordan Diaz, right, after the team defeated Missouri 27-24 in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, in Columbia, Mo.

L.G. PATTERSON — AP

— On Oct. 26, Connor Shaw broke Kony Ealy’s heart.

Two months later, Ealy couldn’t wait to meet him.

The pair worked out together of six weeks at Chip Smith Performance in Duluth, Ga., to prepare for this week’s NFL Combine. The moment Shaw walked in the door, Ealy, who played defensive end for Missouri during last season’s 27-24 double-overtime loss to the Gamecocks, sought out Shaw for a picture, which he immediately posted on his Facebook page.

“He walked over to Connor and said, ‘I want to shake your hand,’” Smith said. “He said, ‘This dude single-handedly beat us.’”

Shaw entered that game in the fourth quarter and completed 20-of-29 passes for three touchdowns on a bad knee, but all is forgiven the moment college players strip off their team colors and start focusing on the same goal, Smith and many players say.

“We have instant respect for each other,” Shaw said. “We may have gone to different schools, but we went through the same stuff. Now we are all working on the same goal. I think we all kind of just gel together.”

At The Performance Compound in Tampa, Fla., former South Carolina players Bruce Ellington, Victor Hampton and Kelcy Quarles worked out with former Clemson star Sammy Watkins for six weeks and became fast friends.

“These guys definitely came down here and took me in,” Watkins said. “On that field, we know we have to battle, but after the game we are best friends.”

Ellington and Watkins became especially tight, eating lunch together at a Tampa restaurant every day after their on-field workouts. On Thursday, Watkins tweeted a picture of him and Ellington waiting to board a flight here for their time at the combine.

“Between those white lines, we have to fight for our team, but after that we are the best of friends,” Ellington said.

The days when it was tough for South Carolina and Clemson players to get along are long over, Gamecock Victor Hampton said.

“That was more the 2005 era, when they had to shake hands and all that,” he said. “There wasn’t no hate or nothing like that. There was no beef. We could always talk and chill. We are all trying to get to a common goal, and that’s the NFL so we are all just working to get better.”

The same easy transition from rival to respect takes places no matter the schools or the history, said Smith, who has trained more than 1,000 NFL draft picks.

“I get Georgia-Georgia Tech kids. I get Clemson-South Carolina kids. I get Cal-Stanford kids. I get kids that hate each other when they are playing,” Smith said. “When they walk in that door, I say, ‘Fellas, you are now on my team.’ It’s not what everybody thinks it is.”

Even the players are sometimes surprised how smooth the transition is, Missouri offensive tackle Justin Britt said. Britt battled South Carolina end Jadeveon Clowney during the season and then worked out with him in Pensacola, Fla.

“It’s kind of weird that you go from hating someone during the season to being friends just like that,” Britt said.

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