AUBURN — If life was still proceeding as normal, and the threat of coronavirus hadn’t brought much of the country to a halt in order to slow the spread of a global pandemic, Marquel Harrell probably would have been in Auburn this past weekend.
The football team’s former starting left guard is still taking classes at the university as he works toward another degree. He was using Auburn’s weight room to train for the professional career he hopes will begin soon after the NFL Draft does on April 23.
But Auburn’s athletics facilities are closed. The entire campus has been since mid-March and will be until the middle of the summer. So, Harrell went home to Fairburn, Georgia.
That’s how he ended up working out with Cam Newton.
It wasn’t completely random, Harrell said, but it was serendipitous. He was at a park in the Atlanta area training with a friend and one of his former coaches at Creekside High. Then other area athletes and coaches began showing up, including former Auburn teammate and current New York Giants wide receiver Darius Slayton. Before long, Newton and a camera crew were there, too.
Newton, a free agent after the Carolina Panthers released him March 24, was there to work out and throw with receivers. The camera crew was there to document the offseason workout, at least for Instagram but possibly for the former Auburn quarterback’s forthcoming Quibi show, “Iron Sharpens Iron.”
Either way, Harrell got to be a part of it for a day. After watching Newton, a star at nearby Westlake High, do battle with Creekside standout (and future Tennessee and Kansas City Chiefs defensive back) Eric Berry as a kid, Harrell got to snap the ball to the Heisman Trophy-, national championship- and MVP-winning quarterback as an NFL hopeful.
“Not a lot of people have that opportunity. I’m just thankful for it,” Harrell told the Montgomery Advertiser this week. “He gave us some pointers and worked us with and stuff like that, had some conversations here and there. I was kind of nervous at first, because I didn’t want to mess up and embarrass myself. But once I got used to it, it was pretty cool.”
That experience is representative of the attitude Harrell has taken into an incredibly uncertain time for football players like himself making the transition from college to the pros.
It would be easy to look at the circumstances with a woe-is-me-attitude. Harrell said he had a couple visits lined up with NFL teams that have been canceled due to league-wide restrictions in response to COVID-19, so he’s not going to get the opportunity to travel to and work out in front of any coaches or general managers this month. Most public gyms have closed their doors, so he’s not going to be able to train like he normally would.
Harrell, though, has chosen to make the best of an unusual situation. He feels “blessed” that he already had the chance to work out in front of scouts and meet with teams at Auburn’s Pro Day on March 6, as a lot of players won’t get the same chance. He has received some introductory phone calls from teams interested in drafting or signing him to their roster, and believes he’ll get the opportunity to do more in-depth Skype calls with some of them in the coming weeks.
He’s also making the most of the extra time he has at home. Harrell said he’s going on runs around the neighborhood. He’s stretching more (he’s big into yoga). He’s eating right. He’s watching more film.
“Basically, just becoming a better person and a better player, mentally and physically,” Harrell said. “I may not always be in the weight room or able to run the way I want to, but at the same time, I can sharpen my skills in other things.
“Everybody is affected by this. It’s not just me. I’m not going to have a self-pity party because I can’t do this, can’t do that. There are people out here that are facing way more hardships than I am right now.”
That attitude is one of the qualities Harrell believes he can bring to an NFL team.
“You're going to get a hard worker. You're going to get a leader. Somebody who's a team first guy,” Harrell said after Auburn’s Pro Day. “They don't have to worry about me outside of the complex and stuff. So just all-around a great person.”
On the field, the 6-foot-3, 307-pound offensive lineman believes he can bring consistency and versatility. Auburn struggled up front the past two seasons, but that wasn’t Harrell’s fault — according to Pro Football Focus, he led all SEC interior linemen allowing just five quarterback pressures as a junior and was a third-team All-SEC selection as a senior. And while he finished his career with 31 consecutive starts at left guard, he has been working on snapping the ball (like he did to Newton last weekend) in order provide more potential value as a reserve.
Whether or not that’s enough to be a Day 3 pick in the NFL Draft later this month remains to be seen. But Harrell should be fine even if he doesn’t hear his name called — he’s logging plenty of experience making the best out of less-than-ideal circumstances.
“The best thing you can really do is just take it day by day,” Harrell said. “Make sure you take care of yourself, stay safe and realize that you’re not bigger than what’s going on.”