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Original Issue

The Dish From Mel

Mel Kiper Jr. embodies the dream of every NFL draftnik: He has turned the rabid fan's off-season obsession into a lucrative, full-time job

Mel Kiper Jr.
6'1", 195
A veteran pundit who doesn't pull any punches. Seems like yesterday that everybody was saying, "Who the hell is Mel Kiper Jr.?" but these days he's all over the field, offering his opinion whether anyone wants it or not. Speed is his greatest asset; no pundit talks faster. Fans like his decisiveness, but scouts say he's reckless and tends to cough it up in pressure situations. Good ears, questionable eyes. Bad haircut keeps his rating down.

Who is this guy, anyway? It's Senior Bowl week in Mobile, Ala., and everybody else who walks and stalks the lobby of the swankiest hotel in town—the Riverview, across the street from the city's swankiest bail bondsmen—announces, by his dress or by his bearing, who he is and what he does. There are the players, who are young and huge and outfitted in shorts and baseball caps and are showing extraordinary deference to the coaches, who wear team togs and are as hale and ruddy-faced as charter-boat captains. There are the scouts, who are finicky and fidgety and try at all costs to avoid the agents, who wear checkbook smiles and suits that shine. There are also the parents of the players, who pray before they cat, and the groupies, who don't, and the reporters, slinking at the fringes, and the autograph hounds.

The Senior Bowl is a college football all-star game designed to showcase college seniors to the NFL, and so the Riverview lobby hums and throbs with whispers of appraisal—a meat market, yes, but one in which the cattle are genuinely thrilled at the prospect of the sale.

Then into the middle of this scene strides a man who talks to everybody, except the groupies, or whom everybody talks to. As he walks through the lobby, you can hear the drumbeat of voices in his wake: "Hey Mel"..."Hey Mel"..."Hey Mel"..."Hey Mel." Everybody knows him, but who is he, and what does he do? He's not a player, that's for sure; he's average-sized, with thick legs and a slight paunch. He's not a coach, either; he looks indoorsy instead of outdoorsy, with a haircut that rises straight off his forehead and would fit just right on a fellow selling odd-lot carpets on late-night TV. He's not a scout, because he wears a tie, and he's not an agent, because the tie isn't pure silk—and besides, he's too nice a guy—and he's not a reporter, because on occasion he's followed by the autograph hounds. He's a star of some sort, but what role does he play?

Then he opens his mouth, and it becomes clear.

Mel Kiper Jr. is the draft expert. How does he announce such an arcane calling? Well, feed him the name of any player in the lobby, any player in the Senior Bowl, any player in the world, and he'll dip into a memory crammed with facts, figures, rumors and oodles of received and original opinion. Then he'll spit out, without hesitation or even a breath, the data. The data, in Kiper's case, always have to do with how a player will measure up—or should measure up, in a perfect world that would let Kiper do all the picking—in the NFL draft on April 26-27.

O.K., Mel. Let's give it a try. How about...Greg Skrepenak, enormous offensive tackle, University of Michigan? "The bottom line on Greg Skrepenak, in my opinion, is that he wasn't the true dominant lineman he should have been," says Kiper. "He's not a strong lineman; he's 315 pounds. 320. but he's not doing the 25 reps |he's not bench-pressing 225 pounds the requisite 25 times], he's not attacking and burying people at the line of scrimmage. He only did 16 reps at the scouting-combine workouts, but the problem is at the strength program at Michigan, where they do a lot of machine lifting instead of free weights.... I think Skrepenak will be better once he gets in the NFL than he appears now, which means that someone like the Bears, picking in the latter part of Round One, could be interested in bringing in a guy like that."

Excellent! about David Klingler, quarterback, University of Houston? "I like David's physical and athletic ability. He's a great kid," says Kiper. "The problem with David is that he played option football in high school and a run-and-shoot offense in college. He has to forget everything he learned at Houston and pick up the nuances of running a pro offense. Footwork and mechanics all need to be developed, but he's a down-the-road potential—and I say potential—franchise quarterback."

Kiper is never at a loss for words, and you can't tire him out, either. He can opine for as long as you want him to, or as long as necessary, in two-minute or two-hour bursts. One day Kiper drove for nine hours in a car with Ernie Accorsi, the vice-president of personnel with the Cleveland Browns and Kiper's mentor, and the two men talked nothing but football the entire time. Kiper, says Accorsi, "did 80 percent of the talking. I've never heard anything like it." Oh, Kiper's a prodigy, no doubt about that—he's encyclopedic, logorrheic, a monologuist extraordinaire. But the question is. Who listens to him?

The answer, at first, seems obvious: The guys who listen to Kiper (and it's safe to say that his audience is composed of guys) are just like him—fanatics, obsessives, Rotisserie League wheeler-dealers, couch potatoes who get cable and satellite dishes in order to watch coaches' shows, kids who would rather fail math than forget a stat, grown men who clog the lines of call-in radio shows and never tire of talking, talking, talking about sports. They are nerds, of course, sports nerds—and Kiper is both their guru and their apotheosis.

At the furthest extension of their obsession, they become draftniks. They don the jersey of their favorite team, make the pilgrimage to the draft room at the Marriott Marquis on draft day and weep tears of deliverance when their team selects a pass-rushing defensive end. Kiper did them all one better: He turned pro. He's a professional draftnik. He's on ESPN, offering his opinions during college football weekends, during the Senior Bowl and on draft day. In April he sells around 8,000 copies of his 172-page Draft Report at $21.95 a pop. His October draft preview and his three updates throughout the year sell nearly as well. He has a syndicated radio show on 140 stations. He's a paid guest on three other weekly radio shows, in Houston, Dallas and Providence. He writes columns for the hard-core jock press—the team fanzines, the football tabloids. For god's sake, the man has his own 900 number, and last April he received 7,500 calls at 95 cents a minute.

Yes, Kiper has learned how to make money off the draft, but he has also learned how to help others make money, and when you see him at the Senior Bowl, he's preaching not to the Rotisserie League crowd but rather to an assortment of, shall we say, interested parties who hope to actually profit from his opinions. See, it's a matter of who listens to whom. Kiper listens to the coaches and the scouts, and then everybody else listens to Kiper. The players listen to him, the parents listen to him, and the agents sometimes even pay Kiper for the privilege of listening to him. 'There's not a new idea in the entire NFL," says one agent, "and because Mel talks to everybody, he becomes an excellent and very useful synopsis of what everybody else is thinking." Useful is the operative word. Mel Kiper Jr. is useful, and the interested parties who pursue him across the lobby of the Riverview Hotel try to use him as best they can.

"Who is this guy?"

That's what some Baltimore Colt executives used to think when they saw him hanging around their training camp back in the late '70s. Who is this skinny kid telling us who to draft, stuffing his picks in our pockets? The executives didn't know, of course, that Mel Kiper Jr. had been charting the draft since he was 12, and by the age of 16 he couldn't conceive of making a living any other way.

Accorsi knew, though, that the kid was "something special," he would say later, with a purity of purpose granted only to the truly obsessive. Accorsi was the assistant general manager of the Colts at the time, and when he talked football with young Mel, he remembered the days when he himself was young and innocent and didn't have to negotiate contracts. In 1979, when Kiper graduated from high school, he wrote his first comprehensive draft preview and asked every team in the NFL to grade his efforts. The first man to write him back—and congratulate him for his prescience—was Accorsi. One who did not write him back was Chuck Noll, the coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who thought that Mel had bugged the Colts' offices.

The pattern was thus established: Kiper made friends in the NFL, and he consequently made adversaries of those who thought he relied too heavily on his friends.

In 1980 Kiper wrote another report and again circulated it around the league; the following year he decided to offer the report, for sale, to fellow fanatics. He found 130 subscribers at $20 for 96 pages. The next year he had 860 paying customers, and by that time he was spending virtually all of his time in the basement of his parents' Baltimore row house, watching films, calling his contacts, talking to subscribers—"I would talk to anyone who called me, two minutes or two hours," remembers Kiper—and getting on every radio show that would have him. He did nothing else; he was a full-time draftnik from the very start. Sure, he went to college at nearby Essex and studied broadcasting, but his father supported him, and he never had to go out and get a job, at least not a real one. Indeed, until he died in 1988, Mel Kiper Sr., who had a vending machine route, sold some real estate and coached high school and college baseball, worked alongside his son in the basement, keeping the books, doing the advertising and stroking the subscribers. In the early '80s he owned the only row house in Baltimore with a satellite dish on the roof.

In 1983 Accorsi, by then the Colts' general manager, approached Kiper about joining the Colts as his personal assistant. The young man had arrived. He had done exactly what he, with his father's blessing, had set out to do—he had built his credibility with his draft report, and now he was ready to work for the NFL. But the Colts drafted John Elway out of Stanford that year and traded him away without even informing Accorsi. Accorsi wound up leaving the team shortly after that, and Kiper was without a job. But in 1984 an agent mentioned his name to a producer at ESPN. A few weeks later Kiper appeared for the first time on ESPN's draft-day broadcast ("Who is this guy?"), applauding the teams that confirmed his choices and criticizing those that didn't. A year later Accorsi, by then-with the Browns, sounded him out about another job. Kiper turned him down, fearing that once he went with one NFL team, the other 27 would never trust him again with their secrets and he could never go back to the business of independent punditry.

Kiper would live off the proceeds of the secrets he divined. He was national now, and as his name and his business grew bigger, his job became easier and easier. People called him. Teams called him, wanting to know what everybody else was thinking: players called him, wanting to know where they stood: parents called him, wanting to know what their sons had to do to improve their standing; and agents called, wanting to know which players were worth pursuing. A player ran a 4.3 40? Call Kiper, because you know he'll spread the word. The kid did 25 reps? Call Kiper. The team with the fifth pick took the kid out to dinner? Call Kiper.

Cousins, brothers, uncles, family friends, pastors—if they're involved with a player, they call Kiper. He still has a satellite dish, as well as three VCRs set up to tape games. But if he misses anything, agents send him highlights. He doesn't just follow the draft anymore, doesn't just offer comment; he's in it now, a player, a conduit of information in a world where information is the only hard currency.

Oh, sure, they have lied to him. Of course they have. The scouts, the coaches, the front-office guys all talk to Kiper, and yet they all profess a simple code, articulated here by Accorsi: When speaking of the draft, "you don't ever, ever share what you're really thinking." In the beginning, when Mel was just a kid, he was shocked by the intrigue surrounding the draft, the paranoia, the disinformation he encountered in his quest for information. Today he says, "I love disinformation. I love it when someone tries to lie to me. Because I see right through it." Today he says he protects himself with his own code: Never trust anyone who lies to you: never screw anyone who tells you the truth. Today he says that when he evaluates a player, "it's nobody's opinion but my own."

Can Kiper evaluate talent? Around the league that is the big question. If you gave him a pair of binoculars and sent him out on the road, could he survive as an NFL scout? Some people, among them Accorsi, think he could. A lot of others don't. They call him "a listener." They say he's got ears but no eyes. "You chart his picks, and you know exactly where he gets his information," says Lide Huggins, director of football operations for the Denver Broncos. "I got a Far Side calendar, so I can laugh on days when Kiper doesn't have something in the newspaper."

How good is Kiper? Well, he didn't like 1986 first-rounder Anthony Bell of Michigan State, who had a journeyman career with the St. Louis Cardinals. Nor did he like 1988 first-rounders Ted Gregory of Syracuse or Eric Kumerow of Ohio State, and the Hopped (with the New Oilcans Saints and Miami Dolphins, respectively). In 1990 he didn't like No. 1 pick Jeff George of Illinois—still doesn't like him, in fact, because the current Colt starter is "not my prototype quarterback"—and he loved Houston's Andre Ware, who finished last season as the third-string quarterback of the Detroit Lions. He alerted the Senior Bowl to Towson State's Dave Meggett in 1989, and at the behest of agent Dick Bell he talked up Eric Swann, the giant tackle from the sandlot leagues of Massachusetts who became the sixth pick in last year's draft. Meggett has become the spark plug of the New York Giants, and the jury is still out on Swann, who has been nagged by injuries since joining the Cardinals. In 1988 Kiper didn't like Chris Spielman of Ohio State, and the Detroit Lion linebacker has played in three Pro Bowls. Kiper didn't like Virginia's Jeff Lageman, either (or, rather, didn't like the Jets' choosing Lageman with the 14th pick in the 1989 draft), and Lageman, who led the Jets in sacks last season, will never forget hearing the fans screaming during his rookie year that he was a "wasted pick."

This year Kiper has been highly critical of Skrepenak, a consensus All-America, and Skrepenak has said, "I just wonder, Why is Mel Kiper picking on me? Does he really have it in for me that bad?"

Skrepenak is not the only one trying to divine Kiper's motives. Two years ago Kiper projected Florida's Emmitt Smith as an early first-round pick; when Smith dropped out of the top 10, Kiper opined on ESPN that Smith's stock was falling because his agents. Richard Howell and Pat Dye Jr., had a reputation for scorched-earth negotiations. Howell and Dye were shocked; right on cable TV, Kiper was killing them. Players read his ratings obsessively, and for him to say that a player was sliding because of his agents, losing hundreds of thousands of dollars because of them—well, he was killing them. Sure, they had negotiated tough for one of their clients, Auburn receiver Lawyer Tillman, the year before. Sure, they had played hardball. They just wished they hadn't played hardball with Ernie Accorsi and the Cleveland Browns.

"I like him."

This is how the buzz begins at the Senior Bowl. Kiper and the rest of the ESPN broadcast crew are having lunch with Eric Tillman, the Senior Bowl's executive director. They talk about how players have looked at practice during the week, and when the word is that a kid has looked good, someone says, inevitably, "Oh, I like him." This is a cue for the conversation to lurch into draftspeak, for someone else to say that the kid really helped himself this week, and although he's a 'tweener who would be a reach by a team drafting for need, he could now he an the bubble Ion he first round come draft day. But should the kid last until the third or fourth round, he'll be a plummeting pick, and though no one will doubt his athleticism, everybody will raise questions about his character.

Anyway, the kid everybody seems to like Senior Bowl week is Eddie Blake, a 320-pound offensive lineman from Auburn. In fact, over lunch Tillman intones a solemn recommendation: "Eddie Blake put on the finest performance I've ever seen in a Senior Bowl practice."

Kiper nods, scribbles something on a pad and looks at Tillman. "So he may have solidified a spot in the first round?" he asks.

"I think he may be one of the first 15 picks," says Tillman.

That night Kiper goes on the six o'clock news for a Mobile TV station. He repeats, almost word for word, what Tillman told him about Blake. Three hours later an agent walks around the lobby, asking. "Has anyone seen Eddie Blake?" Another agent has hired a masseuse and wants Blake to come upstairs for a backrub. Another claims he's taking Blake to dinner. Another agent says he has signed Blake. Blake, in fact, has dozens of messages waiting for him at the switchboard, and when he finally comes downstairs, wear-in" a bandanna and a short leather coat, he has the swagger of someone who has been anointed, and girls float in and out of his path like festive balloons.

Two months later Kiper publishes his big blue book on the 1992 draft and projects Blake as the 21st pick, the first choice of the Saints. Within a few weeks, though. Blake's stock begins to drop mysteriously. Suddenly he is no longer the anointed one; suddenly he falls, in everyone's predraft predictions, through the magic floor of the first round. A whisper, a rumor, perhaps a slow 40, a bad workout or some issue of character—that's all it takes to send Kiper hustling to revise his appraisal, to banish Blake to the second round. After all, Kiper was there for the kid's rise: he has to be there for his fall.



Kiper's divinations have been beamed skyward by ESPN's satellite dish since 1984.















At practices for the Senior Bowl, Kiper did some looking—and a great deal of listening.



Of this week's candidates, Kiper says that Klingler (left) has the tools to become a star but that Skrepenak's value has been inflated.



[See caption above.]

Kiper said:

Take 'em

Kiper was on target with his praise for Meggett, a star for the Giants...
...but he has fared less well with Ware, now serving bench time in Detroit...
...and the verdict is not yet in on the Cardinals' huge but oft-injured Swann.

Leave 'em

Kiper was not impressed by Spielman, who is now a Pro Bowler with the Lions...
...and he still dislikes No. 1 pick George, the bright hope of the woeful Colts...
...but he was right about Bell, a first-round Cardinals pick who was never a star.