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THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS

Alabama linebacker Keith McCants heads a group of some 40 college juniors who may challenge the NFL's policy by giving up their eligibility to enter this year's pro draft

Keith McCants is not new to the work force. As a kid, he picked up the trash in front of a neighborhood greengrocer in exchange for fruit. When he was eight years old, he began delivering The Mobile (Ala.) Press Register, rising at four in the morning to get the Sunday paper out. He did that until his sophomore year at Murphy High. He also worked in a car wash, bused tables and laid carpet. At night he would spring up in bed wide awake with a money-making scheme and scribble down the idea before going back to sleep. In those days, when he was just another poor kid growing up in the Orange Grove projects in Mobile, nobody seemed to mind all his industry. Nobody seemed to mind Keith McCants's making a buck.

But now that he stands to make more than one million of them, the average signing bonus for a first-round NFL pick last year, some folks seem to mind. The way they see it, the 21-year-old McCants intends to earn all this money without staying for his senior season—uh, year—at Alabama. By entering April's NFL draft, they say, he is making the biggest mistake of his life. He's going to leave school without his degree!

McCants's decision places him foremost among a crowd of as many as 40 juniors who intend to challenge the NFL's policy of not drafting athletes who have yet to graduate or have collegiate eligibility remaining {chart, page 38). The league has allowed a number of fourth-year juniors to enter the draft for various reasons—e.g., their class had graduated, their team was on probation, or they had been thrown out of school. Last year Oklahoma State tailback Barry Sanders became the first third-year player to turn pro without having earned his degree. (Miami quarterback Bernie Kosar obtained his degree in three years and was taken in a supplemetal draft by the Cleveland Browns in 1985.) But the league conveniently assigned Sanders a qualifying exemption as a Heisman Trophy winner whose school was about to go on probation. With the exception of Houston quarterback Andre Ware, a Heisman winner whose school is already on probation, none of this year's juniors who either are pondering entering the draft or have already announced their intention to do so would qualify for special consideration from the NFL.

McCants, a consensus All-America and the runner-up to Michigan State's Percy Snow for the Butkus Award as the nation's best linebacker, plans to turn pro for the following simple reason: He wants to. The NFL can find no loophole for McCants to fit through (he's 6'5", 256 pounds and fits through very little) but is understandably reluctant to test its draft policy in a court of law. Thus McCants ushers in a time when the NFL's gentleman's agreement with college football—the league will take no line before its time—is likely to expire, as other pro-college arrangements have in baseball, hockey and basketball.

The consternation McCants's decision is causing is considerable, and McCants is bewildered by it all. "I don't get it," says McCants, shrugging several acres of shoulders. "Don't you go to college so you can get a good job?"

And isn't a job with a nearly $700,000 starting salary (last season's average for first-round picks) by definition a good job—especially if it's something you've always dreamed of doing? "God didn't give me the hands to be a surgeon, or the intellect to be a lawyer," says McCants. "He gave me the skills and the personality to be a football player."

In a somewhat belated concession to the 20th century, the NCAA and the NFL are struggling to formulate a policy that will accommodate precocious talents like McCants. NCAA executive director Dick Schultz would like college athletes to have a fair idea of their value from NFL coaches and scouts before they plunge into the draft, at which time their college eligibility ends forever. For its part, the NFL, eager to keep peace with professional sports' cheapest and most obliging farm system, is unlikely to stage an all-out raid on underclassmen.

Caught somewhere in the middle are college coaches, who are careful not to arouse cynicism by claiming that this exodus is bad for the game. Bill Curry, McCants's coach at Alabama, did not stand in his player's way. But how could he have? As soon as the Crimson Tide's season ended, Curry was soon off to greener pastures (bluegrass, actually) at Kentucky. Penn State's Joe Paterno has said, "If our game depends on young men's sacrificing better opportunities, it deserves to go down the drain." Coach Larry Smith of Southern California, where linebacker Junior Seau and free safety Mark Carrier, both juniors, are considering entering this year's draft, also sees the bigger picture: "Even if they leave, USC will still be here, and Larry Smith will still be here."

Try telling that to McCants. After Curry left, McCants asked Gene Stallings, Alabama's new coach, to write him a letter petitioning the NFL. Stallings refused, asking him to stay for the sake of the team. "What happens?" says McCants. "Before Stallings came to Alabama, he'd been fired from the Phoenix Cardinals—and they criticize me for looking at the bottom line."

Still, there are those who sympathize with the plight of the college coach. "You sort of wish they could stay in school for the sake of those coaches," says Jack Faulkner, an executive with the Los Angeles Rams. "The coaches work like hell, all the problems they go through with freshmen, sophomores and juniors. You'd like to have them there for a fourth year, a kind of payoff."

For those who want it both ways—accomplished athletes who graduate and are capable of going on to high-powered jobs on Wall Street after their pro careers—agent Leigh Steinberg argues it was never thus. "That idea assumes 100 percent of the seniors get college degrees," says Steinberg. "In fact, my figures say just 41 percent of them do."

But Charlie McClendon, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, worries that "these players [underclassmen] are taking a poke in the dark. Some of them are going to get shocked. Oh, some can make it, we agree to that. But through simple greed, some are going to fall fiat on their faces and be in real trouble. There's a question in my mind whether they're mature enough to step up to this next, higher level."

Illinois coach John Mackovic, who coached the Kansas City Chiefs from 1983 through '86, says, "When you go to the pros, when you are drafted that high, there are a lot of expectations. Take [quarterback] Todd Blackledge, who came out a year early in 1983 [he had graduated but had another year of eligibility remaining]. He was quite mature for his age, but that extra year might have made a difference in the kind of start he got. He just came out too early." Blackledge has never been anything more than a mediocre pro.

We're bound to hear some sad stories coming out of training camps this summer. Even without juniors clogging the draft, only about half of the roughly 330 players selected each year survive the final cut. Many of the underclassmen who are turning pro are frightened by rumors of an impending NFL salary scale, which would place automatic limits on rookie wages. These players may be rushing into short-term money and long-term failure.

And what group is doing its best to keep these rumors alive? Agents. "Football has more irresponsible agents than any other sport, [and they're] giving these kids a false idea of how good they are," says Bob Woolf, an agent himself. If the agent promises millions and convinces a player that he is a certain first-or second-round selection, who is the loser if the money does not materialize? Not the agent; he can find other clients. "So they figure, Why not encourage a kid to leave school?" says Woolf.

McCants says he has not been influenced by an agent—he has yet to sign with one—and that his credentials alone are sufficient to assure him that he will be a high first-round choice. He also says he enjoyed his three years at Alabama, where he was a C+ student in criminal justice and broadcast communications; he wants to return for his degree after his first pro season. Nevertheless, he is astounded by the number and variety of agents who have been willing to counsel him. "One day these guys, like hitchhikers or something, just showed up at my door," says McCants.

He claims to have made every decision regarding his football career on his own. That is the way it has always been in his life. His father, who died two years ago, was rarely a presence in his home. "We talked this many times," says McCants, holding up both hands. Mostly, McCants is a carefree soul, preoccupied with girls, cars and football with a disarming intensity. But his smile fades when the subject is his family.

He is the fourth of five children, yet his father insisted that Keith alone was not his child. "He said I wasn't his, even when it was proven I was," says McCants. "I will talk no more about it."

For the moment, as a huge celebrity in Mobile. McCants is enjoying life immensely. The South holds its football stars in high regard, and he cannot finish a meal in a restaurant without signing a dozen autographs. Tooling about town in a 1986 black Nissan 300ZX—provided by an uncle, he says, who promised it to him if he did well in school—McCants does not seek a low profile. In fact, he rather enjoys the attention, especially when it's provided by young ladies.

One rings him on his car phone on his way to dinner. He cups his hand over the phone and says, "I thought I gave her a wrong number. I meant to." Back on the phone he engages in some sweet talk and finally announces, "Well, I have reached my final destination," and excuses himself.

The conversation gives him an idea. He calls up another young lady, whom he has been teasing good-naturedly. He has asked her over and over for a date he doesn't really want. She, just as good-naturedly, has resisted him. He phones her, asks why she won't go out with him and then falls into a stunned silence when she tells him to name the time and place if he's really interested. He cups his hand over the phone and turns to his passenger. His eyes are wide with alarm. He says, just like any 21-year-old millionaire-to-be caught in a jam would say, "Now what should I do?"

PHOTO

PHIL HUBER

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DAVID L. JOHNSON/ACTION IMAGES

McCants became first-round material by devouring runners like Tennessee's Greg Amsler.

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PHIL HUBER

McCants stays in touch with his legion of female admirers from behind the wheel of his sports car.

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BILL FRAKES

Smith could be the NFL's No. 3 pick.

TWO WAYS TO VIEW THE DRAFT

If the NFL opens its gates to third-year juniors in the April 22 draft, nearly half the picks in the first round could be players who still have a year of collegiate eligibility. With the help of NFL scouts, we have projected the order of selection in the first round with and without juniors. Things to remember: Not all the juniors listed here have indicated they will enter the draft. The NFL has not announced its new policy regarding the draft eligibility of true juniors (numerous fourth-year juniors have been drafted in the past), although the league is not expected to try to block them. Finally, because Dallas, Phoenix and Denver used their 1990 first-round choices in the '89 supplemental draft, the '90 first round consists of 25 picks, not 28.
—PETER KING