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Original Issue

Youth Has Been Served

The NFL has been tapping underclassmen, and the results have been mostly for the good

Did you feel the earth tilt off its axis on that dread day in February 1990 when the NFL announced it would allow college players with eligibility left to enter the league's annual spring draft? Neither did I.

For years the NFL and the NCAA had a relationship that was the embodiment of one hand washing the other: The NFL did not draft these so-called underclassmen; in return, the schools developed the players for four seasons and then let NFL scouts poke, probe, weigh, time and rank them for orderly dispersal through the draft.

The system—was it borrowed from the meat-packing industry?—worked remarkably well for 54 drafts, except for one glitch. It didn't take into account the fact that even underclassmen had certain rights and, as has become obvious, certain football skills coveted by the pros. So when the NFL announced that underclassmen could petition for admission to the draft, two things were widely expected: 1) Half-witted juniors and sophomores would swarm to the league like bees on a picnic lunch, and 2) chaos similar to that which preceded the fall of Babylon would engulf Division I football programs.

Who was saying these things? College coaches who didn't want to lose their hard-recruited stars, and knee-jerk academicians who felt that college football players must be protected from the impulse to chuck a degree for the lure of big bucks. Well, these Chicken Little types can take two steps backward, sit down and breathe normally. Everything is just fine, folks.

Only 105 underclassmen have petitioned for inclusion in the last three drafts, including 34 in Sunday's. And that overall figure was inflated by a number of athletes who feared that their football careers were on the downswing, who would have been ruled academically ineligible or who were just fed up with school. Two third-year sophomore quarterbacks, Todd Marinovich and Tommy Maddox, fit the last category. Marinovich signed a three-year contract worth $2.27 million with the Los Angeles Raiders after being taken No. 24 in last year's draft, and Maddox figures to make similar money this year as the 25th pick, by the Denver Broncos.

The late of the 62 underclassmen who have been drafted has been as varied as one would expect in a league in which the average career lasts less than four years. Some players, such as quarterback Major Harris, who was a 12th-round pick of the Raiders in 1990, found themselves on the street in short time. Others, such as safety Mark Carrier, who was the first-round choice of the Chicago Bears in '90 and led the NFL in interceptions his rookie year, quickly became well-adjusted standouts.

The myth that even the best underclassmen are not physically ready for the rigors of the NFL died fast when the likes of Emmitt Smith, Junior Seau and Leonard Russell became overnight successes. And this year's draft, with four underclassmen among the first five picks and 11 taken in the first round, should prove once and for all that playing in the NFL is about talent and desire, not age and grade point averages. In fact, if there is any unfairness here, it is in the NCAA's refusal to allow underclassmen who enter the draft but are not selected, or who choose not to sign, to go back and complete their college eligibility.

A shrewd collegian will treat his football skill as a commodity and sell it when it is most advantageous for him. It is no coincidence that three of the last four Heisman Trophy winners left school before their eligibility had expired, striking while the iron was hot. Those who decry athletes' leaving school early should be reminded that one of the main reasons anyone goes to college is to be qualified to land a good job, and that an athlete can always come back and finish work toward a degree. Raghib (Rocket) Ismail, who last year signed a four-year contract worth a minimum of $18.2 million with Toronto of the CFL, is doing just that at Notre Dame.

Timing is critical. Ouarterback David Klingler had a spectacular season in 1990 and almost certainly would have been the No. 1 pick in a weak draft last year. But he elected to stay in school, had a disappointing season in '91 and, despite his being the sixth player chosen on Sunday, lost upward of $5 million by not joining the NFL while his star was rising. Still, by staying in school he may be wiser, more mature and happier for having spent an extra year with his college buddies. What price do you put on intangibles like that?

Two star underclassmen addressed that point before this year's draft and had different opinions. Bob Whitfield, an All-America tackle from Stanford, scoffed at the notion of waiting another year to enter the draft. "You're asking a player who has a chance to make money he never had before—a young, desperate, black male—to stay at a school that can't really help me out as much as I can help myself?" he said. "That's ludicrous. I may be young, but I'm not stupid."

Notre Dame quarterback Rick Mirer disagreed. "I'm not in a hurry to start paying taxes," he said. "Twenty years from now I'd be disappointed if I gave away my senior year. You're only a senior once."

Whitfield soon will he a millionaire, as the eighth player chosen Sunday, by the Atlanta Falcons. Mirer is taking 18 hours of courses this spring, planning a trip to Europe this summer and looking forward to his senior season of football. Both men are right. It's good they were free to choose.