Ah! Wonderlic!

I am a sixty year old woman with nothing obvious in common with a pro football player. My forty yard dash could be timed with a clogged hour glass, my bench press might not exceed a full load of laundry, and most embarrassingly, I throw like a girl. But today I have found some common ground. Like all the other aspirants at the National Football League Combine, I am taking the Wonderlic test, a twelve-minute, fifty-question “cognitive ability” test. From the neck down, I am clearly not a football player, but could I qualify from the neck up?

Every February, the National Football League (NFL) invites draft-eligible players to participate in the “Combine,” a three day event created to provide a standard pre-draft assessment. Each player undergoes a medical exam and is meticulously measured – height, weight, strength, vertical and broad jump, bench press and various measures of girth. This year’s top quarterback prospect is Marcus Mariota. The Combine has reported that his hand measures exactly 9 7/8th inches long. The players are then put through various tests of speed and agility, such as the forty yard dash (a decent score is less than 5 seconds), ability to zig zag through closely spaced cones (presumably without stumbling), or ability to catch quick fire passes from different directions. All of the players are outfitted in skin-tight Spandex that showcases their impressive physiques – carefully sculpted Popeye arms, legs as sturdy as tree trunks, and a six pack of quivering abs. In contrast, my six pack is carefully swaddled beneath protective mid-torso layers and I aged out of Spandex before it was even invented. Thank goodness the Wonderlic test provides common ground.

Tom Landry, the legendary coach of the Dallas Cowboys, introduced the Wonderlic test in the 1970s as a simple way to assess a player’s intelligence, on the presumption that a team should not invest millions based on physical attributes alone. He concluded that surely playing football is more than a game of brute force, and that the Cowboys did not want to be saddled with a million dollar body topped by a dime brain. Of course, Landry had access to players’ high school and academic records, including the standardized SAT test, but understandably he felt a need to fact check these potentially bogus stats. How Landry chose the Wonderlic test is not recorded, though perhaps he was impressed that the United States Armed Forces has used the test to identify candidates for flight school.

The questions involve math, grammar and vocabulary.  Each correct answer is awarded one point, so that fifty represents a perfect score; above twenty is considered average. Although the NFL states that the results are proprietary, inevitably some scores leak out, perhaps by agents who are eager to bolster their clients’ status and undermine competitors. The quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick scored a very impressive 47. Only one player, a punter named Pat McInally, has ever scored a perfect 50. In a curious validation of the test’s validity, both players went to Harvard. McInally commented that his perfect score probably hurt more than helped, since coaches didn’t want a player in their midst who was smarter than they were. Such is the stigma of perfection!

In 2012 the top cornerback prospect Morris Claiborne arrived at the Combine pumped and ready to go, his body a freakish paragon of fitness, his 40 yard dash time an impressive 4.5 seconds.

ClaiborneBut then came the Wonderlic.  Claiborne commented, “I came to the Combine for football.  I looked at the test, and wasn’t any questions about football. I didn’t see no point in the test. I’m not in school anymore.” I imagine that Claiborne, like many other hopefuls, knew they were finally at the threshold of realized dreams. They had trained relentlessly, managed to have a clean rap sheet, took the vow of poverty when they entered college and endured the sham of the student-athlete while their alma mater made millions on football. Now a twelve minute test quizzing them on such things as the price of four boxes of pencils was the final humiliation.  I’m with Claiborne, “screw this” comes to my mind. And that’s what he did, blew off the Wonderlic and scored a record low four. Clearly his shimmering physique trumped any concerns about his intelligence; he was picked sixth overall in the draft by the Dallas Cowboys.

Agents for other more marginal players probably take their clients aside for a little prep work. Like the SAT, the Wonderlic claims that you cannot prep for the test since the questions change every year. However, just like the SAT, Amazon sells an array of prep books that promise soaring scores or your money back. I decided to go into the test cold and found a sample test on the internet. On your mark, get set, go!

At the top of the screen there was a ticking stop-watch, and I immediately felt kinship with James Bond racing to disarm a “life as we know it” death bomb. I was as confident as 007, sure that with eleven years of post graduate education I could crush the Wonderlic. Each question carried the same weight, so immediately I knew that I should make sure to answer all the easy questions, and leave the harder ones for the end. This is simple to do in the SAT test, because the questions always get harder as you progress. However, my sample Wonderlic had no particular order and the test did not did not allow me to skip around. This fiendish format defeated any sophisticated time management strategy, arguably an important football asset during a game-winning drive.

Yes, the test did have simple questions, such as distinguishing between the noun emphasis and the verb emphasize, but some were so simple that I wasted valuable time trying to figure out the hidden agenda. For example, “What is the largest number: 5, 35 or 400?” was one question. I thought there must be a trick, but if there was I fell for it when I penciled in 400. There were some questions that clearly required more than the allotted 14.4 seconds per question, for example a math question about a class with twice as many girls as boys, and the overall class average on the test was 70, and the girls’ average was 80, so what was the boys’ average? Another asked me to pick out the one word that did not belong in a group of words. Simple enough in concept, except that the answer involved the age old conundrum of whether a tomato is properly classified as a vegetable or a fruit. A couple of questions asked me to pick out two proverbs with similar meanings and I anticipated well known sayings, such as “Waste not, want not,” or “The early bird gets the worm.” Instead I was presented with the very obscure, “Mother’s darlings make but milksop heroes,” whose meaning is apparently similar to “As a twig is bent, so the tree is inclined.” The answer options did not include, “Fuck this.” I was also thrown into a moral dilemma when asked to arrange four words into true statement. The possibilities were, “Better fortunate than rich,” or “Better rich than fortunate,” a particularly problematic choice for a young man on the verge of finally cashing in on a long-awaited payday.

The seconds were ticking away and I realized with horror that I was not going to  finish the Wonderlic. My dreams of a glorious, ego-validating perfect score were dashed. I was now in pure damage control, just guessing when the answer was not obvious. As time expired and the screen went dead, I slumped into my chair, limp and defeated. As a matter of personal dignity, I’m going to keep my score confidential and will only divulge that I am very simpatico with Peyton Manning and Cam Newton. However, according to the Wonderlic, along with Cam and Peyton, my score places me somewhere between the average scores of a train conductor and firefighter.

I rethought my vow to take the Wonderlic cold, and repositioned my initial attempt as a practice run. My new strategy was to wisely abandon the quest to be perfect and skip questions that take more than the average time.  I would just make a wild-ass guess, get through the damn thing and ensure that at the very least I would answer all the easy questions. Ready, set go.

Yes, I improved my score, and am now in the lofty range of the Dallas Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, but I think with even more practice I could improve on the time management skills demanded by the accursed Wonderlic.  However, I remain in sync with Morris Claiborne’s initial observations, what the hell does Wonderlic have to do with football? Academicians have tried to answer this question. Even though they admit that assessing the performance of an individual in a complex team sport is fraught with error, their studies generally have reported the same thing – the test is not predictive of football success. The Wonderlic is in good company with the SAT test, which is, at best, poorly predictive of college performance. One academic article, complete with impenetrable tables and graphs with criss-crossing slopes, even concluded that among defensive backs a lower Wonderlic actually predicts better performance.

I’m sure that I could answer all the questions in an untimed test, so I am presuming that the Wonderlic is supposed to simulate the quick thinking skills required in an actual football game. Yes, I did feel the pressure of the ticking clock of the Wonderlic, but I can’t imagine that this replicates the true game-time anxiety of becoming a human target the moment the ball is snapped. The only personal analogy I can come up with is giving birth. I was meticulously coached in Lamaze breathing techniques for labor, but as the blessed event approached and I was splayed out and vulnerable in the stirrups, every carefully orchestrated huff and puff quickly evaporated. I threw the Lamaze playbook away and even banished my patient and loving coach to a time-out corner. Then I let out a piercing scream.

This is just one woman’s perspective, but I posit that the anxiety and fear of a fetus bearing down from within would not be that dissimilar to a 300 pound lineman bearing down from without. To stay with the game plan at that critical moment, or even realize that you might need to alter your game plan is a testament to courage and commitment to long term goals.

If I was in charge of the NFL, I would offer this advice. If you truly want to objectively assess intelligence, spend more than twelve minutes. Consider, perhaps, some pattern recognition exercises. I have spent many hours watching football and you’d think I would have picked up on some of the patterns, but I am still impressed that the color commentator can spot if the quarterback picked up the blitz or that the defense has shifted into a 4-3 configuration. Then I would consult with the Armed Services to see what type of psychological testing they do to determine whether Army Rangers can stay true to the mission in the face of personal danger – some sort of situational judgment test that assesses the combination of intestinal fortitude and improvisation. Now you might have some useful information.

My alternative advice to the NFL would be to junk the Wonderlic and admit the futility in quantifying something as nuanced and multifaceted as intelligence. How can a number reflect how humans make very complex real time decisions? My friend Martha notes that she spent more time deciding whether to buy a pair of shoes than whether or not to get married. The shoes had a limited number of variables and had a doable risk/benefit analysis. Marriage was just way too complicated. And I think that she’s right. When a decision involves so many intangibles and the stakes are “to have and to hold for richer or poorer,” or a sixty million dollar rookie contract over six years – well, sometimes you just have to go with your gut, work hard, hope for the best, but be prepared to cut your losses if your choice bombs out.

The missing words in the following poem are anagrams (i.e. share the same letters like spot, post, stop) and the number of asterisks indicates the number of letters. Your job is to solve the missing words based on the above rules and the context of the poem. Scroll down for answers.

The Heisman is on his ****** and he thinks he’ll be picked number one

But despite this top award, there is still more work to be done.

He’s told that Wonderlic test is nothing really, it should be inconsequential.

It’s just that the NFL wants to assess skills that are less physical and more ******.

So he says it’s a joke and tells the NFL they can shove it up its ass.

Oops, bad decision, his ****** is that the first round picks decided to take a pass.






Answers: mantel, mental, lament

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