Thursday, October 9, 2008


One of the most closely followed events in sports is the pro football draft which is held annually to determine which newly eligible players will play for which NFL teams. It was created in 1936 to create a competitive balance among the teams. Today the NFL Scouting Combine tests and rates college players' talent on everything from the obvious drills like the 40 year dash and broad jump to an intelligence test and something called the three-cone drill, which appears to test the player's ability to negotiate a gauntlet of the three avaricious agents--Sam Cone and his brothers, Morrie and Irv.

As we all know, some general managers are better evaluators of talent than others. The best example is the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970's who were notable for their prowess in selecting the best players in the draft.

Their initial 1936 draft was a Comedy of Errors when they selected, in the first round, All-American halfback William Shakespeare (his real name) from Notre Dame. That became more of a Midsummer Night's Dream because he never played in the NFL. However, it became Much Ado About Nothing when the Steelers chose superior players in subsequent drafts. Instead of becoming the next William Shakespeare, he became a war hero and later the president of a rubber manufacturer in Cincinnati. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983.

The Steelers hit the jackpot in the 1974 draft when they selected receiver Lynn Swann in Round 1, linebacker Jack Lambert in Round 2, receiver John Stallworth in Round 4 and center Mike Webster in Round 5. All were later elected to the Hall of Fame. No other team ever selected more than 2 Hall of Famers in a single draft. The 1970 Steelers (who won 1 and lost 13 the previous season) chose future Hall of Famers in quarterback Terry Bradshaw in Round 1 and defensive back Mel Blount in Round 3. Other Hall of Fame draft choices by the Men of Steel included tackle Mean Joe Greene in
1969, linebacker Jack Ham in 1971 and running back Franco Harris in 1972. Not surprisingly, the Steelers won 4 Super Bowls in the 1970's. All's Well That Ends Well.

The Chicago Bears' best draft came in 1965 when they selected superstars Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers with the third and fourth picks in the first round. With those guys picked third and fourth, one must wonder who was considered better and selected ahead of them. The NY Giants selected the forgettable, often injured running back Tucker Fredrickson first, and the SF 49ers picked journeyman running back Ken Willard second. Even with legends like Butkus and Sayers on the field, the Bears never had much of a supporting cast playing alongside them, and suffered several losing seasons in the late 1960's and 1970's.

You might like to know which Hall of Fame players were not rated high out of college and were chosen in the late rounds of the draft or not drafted at all.

Undrafted Hall of Famers included Oakland defensive back Willie Brown from Grambling; defensive back Dick "Night Train" Lane from Scottsbluff Junior College by way of the U.S. Army (see KENSUSKINREPORT, Sept. 24, 2007); the great Miami Dolphins guard Larry Little from Bethune Cookman College; quarterback Warren Moon from Washington; Browns' running back Marion Motley from South Carolina State; the great Giants' safety Emlen Tunnell from Toledo University; and Green Bay Packers safety Willie Wood from USC. What they all have in common is they are African-American, and received little recognition in college, perhaps because of that. Several came from historically black colleges. Once major colleges began recruiting black players, it became much more difficult to discover overlooked, but talented players.

Some other Hall of Famers selected late in the draft include: Dallas Cowboys' tackle Rayfield Wright from Fort Valley State was selected in Round 7 in 1967; Houston Oilers defensive back Ken Houston from Prairie View A & M was selected in Round 9 the same year. The Cleveland Browns running back Leroy Kelly, from Morgan State was selected in Round 8 in 1964. The Cardinals tight end Jackie Smith from Northwestern (LA) State, was selected in Round 10 in 1963. The 1961 draft featured Rams defensive end David "Deacon" Jones of South Carolina State in the 14th round.

In the 1958 draft, one finds John "Ace Hardware" Madden, a tackle from Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, going in the 21st round, the 244th player picked. Its questionable whether he would have made the all-Madden team. The 1956 draft featured the great Packers' duo--defensive end Willie Davis of Grambling in the 15th round and the great quarterback Bart Starr in the 17th. Starr's Alabama Crimson Tide team lost all 10 games his senior year.

One year earlier saw the legendary quarterback Johnny Unitas of Louisville drafted by the Steelers in the 9th round. He was traded to Baltimore where he teamed up with receiver Raymond Berry who was drafted in the 20th round in 1954.

Among non-Hall of Fame players in the drafts, my personal favorite was wide receiver Fair Hooker (actually Fair A. Hooker Jr.) from Arizona State, drafted by the Cleveland Browns in Round 5 in 1969. A dangerous wide receiver, he played 6 seasons for the Browns, catching 129 passes for 8 touchdowns and no fumbles. Hooker's other claim to fame was being traded to New Orleans for someone named Jubilee Dunbar
in 1974. Hooker later became a bank Vice President in Los Angeles, and I'm sure he had good name recognition. When Fair Hooker calls, most people return the call.

Another favorite of mine was Jack "Mad Dog" O'Billovich, a fearsome linebacker from Oregon State who was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the 11th round in 1966. Despite his awesome nickname, the only ones "Mad" were the angry fans, as he played only briefly for the Lions and for the Hamilton Tiger Cats in Canada. His career was cut short by injuries, and he died young, at age 53.

There are many other great names of players drafted, but our space is limited. As all football fans know, hope springs eternal every year in the draft as your favorite team dreams of picking the next Johnny Unitas or Bart Starr, or even Tom Brady (6th round from Michigan) in the late rounds.




Blogger Rising09 said...

Great Blog was a pleasure to meet you @ the GLMV mixer last night...Mike D.

I personally have always been intrigued by the 1983 draft. Especially with Dan Marino being the 6th quarterback taken that year. The following synopsis, taken fromanother website, articulates the particulars iof the draft much better than I could.

1983 NFL Draft

That being the case, let's take a look at some of what the 1983 NFL Draft had produced by 1988:

The single-season record holder for passing yards and touchdowns (Dan Marino )
The single-season record holder for rushing yards (Eric Dickerson )
Three quarterbacks who started in the Super Bowl (Marino, John Elway and Tony Eason; Jim Kelly would later become the fourth)
Seven starters on the Bears' 1985 Super Bowl team, including three-fifths of the offensive line and Super Bowl XX MVP (Richard Dent)
A two-time AFC rushing leader (Curt Warner)
The 1988 leader in receiving yards (Henry Ellard)
The 1984 leader in receiving touchdowns (Mark Clayton)
The 1988 leader in combined scrimmage yards (Roger Craig)

And that's just after five years. It's now been 20 years since the 1983 draft, and there is enough evidence in hindsight to call it perhaps the greatest draft class in NFL history.

Of course, the Class of '83 will be forever known as the "Year of the Quarterback," because of the six signal-callers chosen in Round 1 -- Elway, Marino, Kelly, Eason, Ken O'Brien and Todd Blackledge. But the overall talent produced in that draft -- from top to bottom -- makes the quarterback story just one chapter of a blockbuster tale.

Top schools in the 1983 Draft
No less than 127 schools were represented in the 1983 draft, ranging from football factories such as USC and Penn State to small schools like Langston and St. Mary's. Here are the schools that had the most players taken that year (first-round picks in parentheses):
School No. of Picks

Washington 11
USC 10
Clemson 10
Pittsburgh 9
Penn State 9
Arizona State 9
Miami, Fla. 7
Nebraska 7
Two members of the Class of '83 already are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- Kelly and Dickerson. Four others are virtual locks as soon as they become eligible -- Marino, Elway, Bruce Matthews and Darrell Green. Dent and Craig are on the bubble.

Of the 28 players drafted in the first round, 15 made at least one Pro Bowl appearance -- Elway; Dickerson; Warner; Chris Hinton; Jimbo Covert; Terry Kinard; Matthews; Kelly; Joey Browner; Gary Anderson; Gill Byrd; O'Brien; Don Mosebar; Marino; and Green.

Of course, any debate about the greatest draft ever is going to be just that -- a debate. Many observers think this year's draft will go down as one of the best in a long time. And Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, who played a pivotal role in the '83 draft when he was GM of the Baltimore Colts, has another year in mind.

"I think that the 1983 draft was one of the best in the history of the NFL, but not as good as the 1957 draft," said Accorsi. "In 1957, 12 clubs selected eight Hall of Famers, including two players -- Jim Brown and Jim Parker -- who various polls have chosen as the greatest players ever at their positions."

Two teams in 1957, Accorsi pointed out, drafted two Hall of Famers apiece -- Cleveland, with Brown and Henry Jordan and Philadelphia, with Tommy McDonald and Sonny Jurgensen . Not bad.

But what makes the '83 draft impressive is that even after calling out the Hall of Famers and big-name first-round picks, there are more than a dozen other notables who appear in later rounds:

Round 2: Ellard; Craig; Leonard Marshall; Darryl Talley
Round 3: Albert Lewis; Dave Duerson; Charles Mann
Round 4: Tom Thayer; Greg Townsend
Round 5: Riki Ellison
Round 6: Reggie Roby; Babe Laufenberg
Round 8: Dent; Clayton; Mark Bortz
Round 10: Tim Krumrie; Mervyn Fernandez
Round 11: Jesse Sapolu
Round 12: Karl Mecklenburg

Mecklenburg nearly went undrafted in 1983 before the Broncos got him in the 12th and final round. "For a late-rounder, Karl went on to have a really outstanding career as a player with the Denver Broncos," said John Beake, the Broncos' general manager in 1983. Mecklenburg played in six Pro Bowls for the Broncos and surely stands as one of Beake's best late-round gems. "I would say that Karl would have to rank up there," he said.

On the sideline

While Darrell Green, Bruce Matthews and long snapper Trey Junkin were playing in the NFL up until last season, there are a few class of '83 members who are still making an impact in the league.

For instance, eighth-round pick Gary Kubiak was merely a backup most of his career to John Elway in Denver but he still pays dividends to the Broncos as their offensive coordinator.

The Steelers, who did not have a particularly great draft in 1983, nevertheless have benefited in the long run. Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey was a ninth-round pick of the 49ers. Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Tim Lewis was a first-round pick of the Packers.

Of course, Beake also played a role in what he understandably calls "the greatest trade in the history of the NFL." Elway, the top overall pick by the Colts, was threatening to pursue a pro baseball career unless the Colts traded him. A week after the draft, the Colts traded Elway to the Broncos in exchange for Denver's first-round pick -- offensive tackle Chris Hinton -- a first-rounder in 1984 and quarterback Mark Herrmann.

"That trade goes down as what solidified the Denver Broncos," said Beake, now an executive in the league office. "To have a quarterback and leader with the skill and ability of John Elway, to take the Denver Broncos to five Super Bowls and win two of them."

Twenty years after the fact, Accorsi has no regrets about drafting Elway despite the quarterback's warning that he wouldn't play for the Colts. "I was entrusted with the legacy of the franchise," Accorsi explained. "I simply picked the best player in the country. If the Baltimore franchise was good enough for John Unitas , the greatest quarterback in the history of the league, it was good enough for John Elway."

Accorsi said he was willing to force Elway's hand on the baseball threat, but it was then-owner Bob Irsay who orchestrated the trade to Denver. "I would never have traded him," Accorsi said. "I would have waited until the next draft if need be and found out how good a baseball player he was."

It's impossible to say what might have happened had Elway not been traded. But with 20 years of hindsight, there is no denying he was part of a historic draft class.

Give it another five years, and we'll see how the class of 2003 stacks up against it

December 4, 2008 at 6:49 PM  

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