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Original Issue


The author of 'Paper Lion' sits in on the Detroit pro football draft and learns about the market in rare gems

The Detroit contingent arrives in Philadelphia the afternoon before last week's NFL draft: the Lions' coach, Joe Schmidt; Russ Thomas, who is the general manager; the chief scout, Jerry Neri; and Lyall Smith, who is in charge of public relations.

The official ritual of the draft will be performed in New York's Belmont Plaza Hotel, where the picks will be announced before the newspapermen and the television cameras. But the real work will take place in the home offices of the football teams, where the scouts and coaches or their representatives are gathered with their data, and, in the case of the Lions, Steelers, Eagles, Bears and Vikings, in the Eagles' offices.

The Lions check in at the Penn Central Motel. They go to Bookbinders' for dinner. The waiters tie paper bibs with lobster designs around their necks. Clams are ordered. Joe Schmidt offers a toast: "Well, men, a good draft." The big men with the bibs drink solemnly and then reach for the bags of steamers. Forks squeak against the shells. The football discussion begins. The speed of Steve Zabel, an Oklahoma tight end, becomes an issue. "He can do 4.8, I swear," someone says. He is referring to the number of seconds it takes an athlete to sprint 40 yards. Joe Schmidt snorts. "If he can do a 5.0 I'll blow a lunch in that guy's hat." He points to the chef behind the clam bar. He leans across the table. "It's like arguing about broads," he says.

The draft begins at 10 the next morning. Each of the individual teams takes over an executive's office. Jerry Neri sits behind a big teak desk. He has his tin box of 3-by-5 scouting report cards and a list of 11 players. Detroit has the 19th pick in the draft. Neri's desperate hope is that one of the 11 will still be available by the time Detroit's turn comes up. The names are Bradshaw, Cowlings, Olsen, Hardman, Stegent, Owens, Zabel, McKay, Asher, McCoy and Files. Cedric Hardman, a defensive end from North Texas State, is the man Neri would really like to get, but the chances are slim. Neri has a second list marked "seven who could help us for trade or depth: Farmer, Shanklin, Gillette, Burroughs, Phipps, Cappleman, Shaw." At the top of his projections for the second-round draft is Ray Parsons, a tight end from Minnesota. If all 18 names fall to other clubs, Parsons will be Neri's first-round choice.

The Lions depend primarily on Neri's astuteness as a scout for their picks. But they also have the counsel and research facilities of a group of a dozen or so scouts—the mysterious BLESTO-V—who comprise one of the three scouting services used by pro teams. These men are in an outer room, available for consultation—a surprisingly varied group whose only common characteristic is the big signet ring from his college days that each one wears.

Originally, BLESTO-V was called LESTO. It was put together six years ago by the Lions, Eagles and Steelers. Each team gave its first initial to the title, with the "TO" standing for Talent Organization. The Bears subsequently joined the pool, as did the Vikings, with their initials enlarging the group's name to BLESTO-V. After the Vikings won the NFL championship there was a mild move afoot to reposition the letters to read V-BLESTO, but the Super Bowl outcome ended that. Some interesting anagrams can be made of BLESTO-V (VOBLETS, for one), but Jack Butler, an ex-Steeler assistant coach who is the head of the organization, has kept his head. Some of the scouts wear the odd letters done up in red thread on their dark blazers.

The BLESTO-V scouts have a special numerical jargon. Superstars are identified as being in the range from 0.0 to 0.6. If a player is marked from 0.7 to 1.2 he is almost sure, according to the scouts, to make the starting team of whatever organization drafts him. If his grade ranges from 1.3 to 1.8 he'll make a 40-man squad; 1.9 to 2.4 indicates that he is a good prospect; from 2.5 to 3.0 the player is of questionable prowess, and anyone above 3.0 might as well pack it in and try something else.

The grades are derived from a complex form sheet that the scouts fill out, marking various categories pertinent to the player's position. The average is then determined, which is the player's grade. A perfect athlete in every respect—including character—would be rated 0.0, which has never been given. Indeed, Superman himself would be hard pressed to achieve it. The scouts would probably misjudge his "mild manner," his apparent backing down from confrontation, his age, of course, and he might very well end up with a 2.3.

The best rating ever scored on the BLESTO-V scale is O.J. Simpson's 0.4. This year the ratings were comparatively high. There were none in the zero range. The only ones designated as sure starters—that is, rated under 1.3—were Norm Bulaich, the running back from TCU and Mike McCoy, Notre Dame's defensive tackle, both rated at 1.0; Phil Olsen, Merlin's big little brother from Utah State (1.1); and Cedric Hardman (1.2). Terry Bradshaw was 1.3.

There is very little that goes through a scout's mind that does not translate itself immediately into a numerical evaluation. A pretty girl in a restaurant could be a 0.7. A stale Danish pastry will ring up a 3.0. Towns, their motels, get rated, too. When scouts consider a college they think of it numerically, and whether it is a "producer." Johns Hopkins is not a producer. It is a 3.0. Alcorn A&M is a big producer. It rates 0.4. So does Texas Southern.

Fortunately for everyone's sanity, the human element is important in BLESTO-V's operation. A good, pungent descriptive phrase about a player can say more than any grading system. The master of this in BLESTO-V is Jess Thompson, who has been in football 43 years and is now the scout for Zone Six, which is the Southwest. "He's as fat as a town dog," he'll say to a coach; or "he runs like a chicken with frozen feet"; or "he couldn't break a dish with a ball peen hammer in both hands"—and the coach no longer has to derive a mental image from a set of numbers. "Thanks, Jess," he says. "I get the message." You ask a scout if he's ever walked out on the sidelines of a small campus football field, just moseying over from his car with his legs stiff from the long ride to get there, to suddenly look out and see a kid scrimmaging and ripping things apart with such skills that the pencil drops from his fingers and he says, "Mah God! Mah God!"

Most scouts won't admit to this simple pleasure. Will Walls, though, is somewhat less blasé than the other BLESTO-V people. He says that he almost went to his knees this past fall scouting Cedric Hardman. "He's got greatness," Walls says. "I could scarcely believe what I was seeing. Against Memphis State, oh my what a night he had! He's another Deacon Jones. He's as big as Gino Marchetti and quicker and faster." He shook his head and clucked in sympathy. "I mean, I don't know what quarterbacks are going to do with that man reaching for them."

The players can always tell when the scouts turn up at practice. By the clipboards. The heavy coach's shoes they wear. The players almost fall down trying to look nonchalant—a strange, loose-kneed walk as if they were carrying something on their heads. But they run the practice with hustle. The scouts are saying that the head coach at Nebraska a few years back had a succession of people come out and stand on the sideline with clipboards to trick the players into high-spirited practices. But then one of the dining hall cooks was recognized behind a clipboard....

Detroit makes its pick. Steve Owens, the Heisman Trophy winner. Hardman had long gone—to San Francisco. Joe Schmidt is ecstatic. "A ruby!" he shouts. He lights a cigar. So does everyone in the little office. The hyperbole begins. Russ Thomas, the general manager, gets on the phone and begins reading Jerry Neri's scouting report to someone back in Detroit: " 'He's by far the best running back I've seen this fall. A complete football player who is tough, strong and durable and does everything well.' " Schmidt leans against the desk. "A ruby!" he says again.

Dick Haley, a former defensive back for three NFL teams, is the BLESTO-V scout for the Southeast. Five players from his area are picked in the first round, three from relatively small colleges: John Small from The Citadel, Douglas Wilkerson from North Carolina Central and Richard McGeorge from Elon.

Scouting the smaller colleges is tricky. The word "project" is often used—as in "Can I project this guy high enough so our people should consider him a high draft possibility?"

It is established BLESTO-V procedure to have the scouts attend the professional training camps each year for a couple of weeks. The scout is able to establish in his mind the professional norm against which he must rate the college athlete and he can see how his choices of the previous year are measuring up. "It's a time of reckoning," Haley says. "You see a rookie you've picked for the draft getting banged around and you say to yourself, 'Man, how did I ever send that up here?' But on the other hand, you see one of your kids slamming other people around and the noise going up from the spectators standing along the sidelines and the coaches looking at each other—well, when you see that, your chest swells up like a toad's."

"You can tell a lot from film," Charley Mackey, who supervises the Far West, is saying. "We always ask for as much as we can see. I remember this film man at Weber State was getting so exasperated feeding film into the projector that he stuck in a home movie—a 200-foot reel of a Pop Warner little league game. I was sitting there in the darkness with my pad, and I was looking for what I always do: I was spotting the tight end break from the huddle, because that's the key to where everyone is going to position himself. Well, I see this tiny little guy break from the huddle and it brings me right up out of my chair. 'Holy cow!' I yell out. 'Look at the size of that tight end!' I'm telling you, they haven't forgotten me at Weber State."

The tools of scouting are a stopwatch, a measuring tape and access to an accurate scale. Steve Owens says that at the East-West game eight different scouts weighed him. "They just won't take each other's word for it," he says. "So you step on the same scale you've just stepped down from two seconds before, and the new scout looks over your shoulder and he says, 'hmmm,' like it's all big news."

Scouts don't trust the measuring rods for height that come with most scales, either. They use their measuring tapes to mark off a height against a wall and they have the athletes stand up against that.

Charley Mackey says that after measuring countless athletes he believes that a person's height changes during the day. "Gravity pulls a guy tighter. A guy lies in bed all night long and everything relaxes—ligaments, tendons, muscles, the whole structure relaxes and lengthens. I've measured height changes during the day that have gone down one inch."

At the end of the scouts' table sits Tom O'Connor. He is looking at the ceiling. Occasionally he revolves in his chair. He comes from the Zone One, the somewhat quiet New England area. O'Connor is defensive about his territory. He is convinced that some of the Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Dartmouth teams of the last few years could have taken anyone in the country, an opinion that he must offer with considerable shrillness against the skeptical guffawing of his fellow scouts.

O'Connor grimaces. "They say things like 'Amherst? Where the hell is Amherst?' Well, they've got this kid there, just a sophomore, called Fugett, who really flies, let me tell you." He spins in his chair. "He'll be making some noise."

Detroit's second draft choice comes up. Ray Parsons, the tight end from Minnesota, is picked. Joe Schmidt is beside himself. Cigars are lit. "A ruby!" Schmidt shouts through the smoke. "They got to be dancing down Woodward Avenue."

Jerry Neri had picked Parsons to be taken at the top of the second round. He can't believe that Detroit had a shot at him. "Someone up there is smiling on us," he says. He is smiling himself, hugely. Phones start to ring. The superlatives begin again. General Manager Russ Thomas says, "His coach at Minnesota tells me Parsons is a better tight end than our Charlie Sanders, and you know how we feel about Charlie Sanders [Sanders was a starter in this year's Pro Bowl]." On his phone Jerry Neri is saying, "He can cave in a whole line opposite him. I've seen him do it." He hangs up the phone. He walks over to a green blackboard on which the Detroit squad is marked by positions and writes down Parsons' name. He underlines it with two heavy chalk marks. He steps back to survey the name. Then he marks a star beside it. "Oh my, a ruby," he says, turning to Schmidt.

The second day of the draft, when the teams make their final selections (eighth through 17th rounds), is often referred to as "throwing darts." Joe Schmidt is no longer talking about rubies. He selects Dave Haverdick, a defensive tackle from Morehead (Ky.) State. "A diamond in the rough," he says.

"Every year three to 15 players make it in the NFL you don't give a chance to," says Jess Thompson. "Mick Tingelhoff of the Vikings. Cornell Green, Otto Brown of Dallas. Ron East. Larry Watkins of Detroit was at Alcorn A&M and, damn, I dragged my feet. I missed him. Well, he was used mostly for blocking at Alcorn, and then, too, I couldn't measure his desire. He had a big old box full of things when he arrived at Detroit's training camp and he set that thing down and he said he had come to stay, he wasn't going to be budged. Well, he made it. If I had a little gadget that I could clip on a guy's vest pocket and get a reading on what's inside, his desire, his mental toughness, I'd be a helluva scout."

While the Lions were drafting, Alex Karras, Detroit's veteran tackle, was sitting home in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., wondering what sort of a cane he should buy to ease him through his convalescence from a cartilage operation—an elegant number, with a silver head, for twirling purposes, or a more knobby, utilitarian type. He had followed the draft closely, as had everyone on the Lions.

"Naturally, there's some resentment when the rookies come in," Karras says, "the trophy winners, with those great sums of money. But, you know, I've mellowed. In the old days this guy Owens would turn up all eager and no one would talk to him for three years. He'd have a horse-feed bag hanging by his locker. That's the way rookies were treated. But now all we want to know is how quickly he can help us. When Lem Barney turned up on the practice field you could see in 10 minutes how great he would be. That's what you hope for. I worry about this guy's speed. He's sound enough. But it isn't power anymore. What you want is someone who can break it all the way. It's a game of speed. Christ, I hope he's fast."