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Labor and Agents: The story behind some speedy times at NFL combine

Tyquan Thornton ran so fast at the NFL combine, he felt weightless at the end, a sign to him that he was really rolling. But he actually tripped — ever so slightly — the first few steps. And when he finished his run, there was silence in Lucas Oil Stadium.

“I felt I was running super fast — I couldn’t feel my body,” Thornton said. But the Baylor wide receiver was both puzzled and a bit dismayed by the lack of a reaction. “The crowd was applauding all the guys who ran fast. When I stopped running, the crowd didn’t applaud at all, so I was kind of discouraged a little bit, like, ‘Did I run slow or not?’”

Tyquan Thornton slowed down long enough for this photo with his agent, Ron Butler (right), mother, Latasha Jackson, and father, Tyrone Thornton.agency 1 athlete management

Matt Gates, co-founder of XPE Sports, which trained Thornton leading up to the draft, was watching the run from a sports bar in Indianapolis. NFL Network had gone to commercials when Thornton ran. When his 40-yard dash was aired, Gates saw Thornton’s less-than-perfect start. “It wasn’t a terrible stumble,” he said, “but it was a pretty good stumble when you go in slow motion.”

Because the run was interrupted by a commercial, Gates tried to see if someone had tweeted Thornton’s time on Twitter. Inside the stadium. Thornton did the same thing, trying to look on Twitter from another player’s phone. And then they saw the number: 4.21 seconds.

The record for the 40-yard dash is 4.22 seconds, set by now New York Giants wide receiver John Ross at the 2017 NFL combine, which preceded him being drafted No. 9 overall by the Cincinnati Bengals that year. So Thornton, inside the stadium, took a second to digest the number.

“And I was like, ‘What?’” Thornton related. “‘4.21?’ Then I saw the camera was following me around and the guys were congratulating me and giving me some love.”

Thornton’s unofficial 40 time eventually was downgraded to an official 4.28 — not the record, but still the fastest at the position of wide receiver at this year’s combine.

Veteran NFL agent Ron Butler represents Thornton and said that before his dash, teams had him ranked all over the draft board. “Honestly, what he did yesterday I needed him to do, which was to put the attention on him so that teams will go back and really watch the film,” Butler said the day after Thornton’s run.

In that same interview, Butler said that another player his agency represented, Thornton’s teammate, Baylor cornerback Kalon Barnes, might run faster and break the 40 record. Two days later, Barnes ran a 4.23, the fastest at the 2022 combine and 1/100th of a second off Ross’ all-time record. 

Butler launched Agency 1 Athlete Management in 2020 with entrepreneur Stanley Aimes. The agency’s first draft class last year included four players who were drafted.

Barnes’ primary agent is Aston Wilson, who recruited him for two years and knew that he had elite speed. Barnes turned down the chance for a six-figure deal to run track professionally after he broke the Texas high school record for running 100 meters. He and his family felt he had a better career choice in becoming an NFL player.

Wilson said he recruited Barnes for two years with the idea that he could light up the NFL combine. “After doing our due diligence, we were like, ‘You know what? He may really have a legitimate chance at breaking this thing.’”

The surprise came when Barnes and Thornton started training together and XPE’s Gates called Wilson to apprise him of their progress. 

“Matt called me and said, ‘Hey, look … they are going to go neck and neck,’” Wilson said. “When they pre-tested the first day, Tyquan ran faster than Kalon.”

Thornton said that he and Barnes are best friends and have pushed and rooted for each other along the way. 

The training facility, XPE Sports, is having its best year since it was founded in 2002, Gates said, as the company trained this year’s fastest cornerback, wide receiver, tight end and running back. XPE also trained another player, University of Texas at San Antonio cornerback Tariq Woolen, who also ran a 40 under 4.3 seconds. Woolen, who is represented by Sportstars NFL agent Jason Chayut, ran a 4.26.

DiDia

CAA HOCKEY ADDS KINGS EXEC: CAA Sports has hired Dominique DiDia away from the Los Angeles Kings to work as an executive in its CAA Hockey division.

DiDia worked in a variety of roles for the Kings, most recently as director of marketing and content publicity, where she was responsible for the management of digital, social, outdoor, print, radio and TV advertising strategies, as well as managing celebrity and influencer campaigns, among other things.

At CAA Hockey, she will work closely with Jen Kardosh, who was recently promoted to head of hockey operations, marketing and client management.

DiDia grew up playing hockey in Los Angeles and was the captain of the women’s ice hockey team at Trinity College. 

Liz Mullen can be reached at lmullen@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @SBJLizMullen.

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