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Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer are the draft's classiest passers

From the practiced way Drew Bledsoe went about trying to break into the apartment, it was clear that he had done this before. He loosened a screen from its moorings and peered in through the window, surveying the debris scattered about the floor. It was his apartment, all right, an apartment that Bledsoe had evidently not picked up since he was a sophomore. The keys had to be in there somewhere amid the Dorito shards, the gym shoes and the discarded underwear. Bledsoe, the 6'5", 235-pound Washington State junior, is likely to be the first quarterback—perhaps the first player—taken in this month's NFL draft, if Notre Dame signal-caller Rick Mirer is not. Two NFL teams would soon be knocking down these quarterbacks' doors to sign them, but last Friday the NFL was nowhere in sight, so Bledsoe, encountering a locked window behind the screen, trudged off dejectedly in search of his roommate's key.

Though the New England Patriots, who hold the first pick in the draft, had not revealed their plans last week, both they and the Seattle Seahawks, who have the second selection, are in desperate need of a quarterback around whom they can quickly rebuild their offenses. "There used to be that mythical five-year period that it took for young quarterbacks to develop," says one AFC general manager. "But you can't wait that long anymore. It only took Troy Aikman four years, and he's as good as anybody." The Dallas Cowboys went from 1-15 in Aikman's rookie season to the Super Bowl championship this year, a progression that will now become the learning curve for Mirer and Bledsoe.

They are both coaches' sons who grew up in small towns—Mirer in Goshen, Ind., and Bledsoe in Walla Walla, Wash.—and stayed close to home when they went away to college. Notre Dame is some 30 miles from Goshen, and Washington State's campus in Pullman is just 2½ hours from Walla Walla. "We're basically living the same story," Mirer says, "and we'll probably go on for years and years just like this. People think we're supposed to be mortal enemies, but there's plenty of room in that league for both of us."

For months Bledsoe and Mirer have been enmeshed in the intricately plotted courtship that goes on each year between the top quarterback prospects and NFL teams. The flirtation grows serious at the college all-star games in January amid cocktails with little umbrellas in them, turns into a low-end peep show at the February NFL scouting combine held in Indianapolis and culminates on April 25 with the ritual dance of codependent scorpions that is the NFL draft. The players rightly despise this process, but few inveigh against it until long after they have stopped inhabiting the dreams of ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.

"They all start with the assumption that you're a pretty good quarterback," Bledsoe says. "What the scouting process is all about is trying to find something wrong with you." The prospects of players such as Mirer and Bledsoe are gauged by the collection of skills that constitute their "stock," which alternately rises and falls like the Dow Jones. Mirer's stock fell sharply in October following a dismal 13-for-38 afternoon in the Irish's 33-16 loss to Stanford, then rallied as he finished his career with more total offense yardage and touchdown passes (41) than any of the quarterbacks in the legendary Notre Dame pantheon, which includes Terry Hanratty, Joe Theismann and Joe Montana.

Yet another dip in Mirer's stock occurred when he decided not to throw the ball in Indianapolis. "I don't think I deserve special treatment just because I played every week on NBC for two years," Mirer notes wryly. "But the combine is really sort of degrading." Mirer performed in a private workout for NFL scouts, coaches and front-office people two weeks ago in South Bend and raised his stock once more.

Bledsoe did throw for the assembled clipboards in Indianapolis, but afterward he felt used and tossed aside. "You go in [dressed] in a pair of shorts, and they just look at you like a piece of meat," he says. "Then they tug at every part of your body."

Bledsoe drew the line at taking the New York Giants' three-hour battery of psychological tests, which he suspects the Giants of administering to players whom they don't plan to draft for the sinister purpose of "having stuff they can use to rattle you for the rest of your career." In the end all of these final exams still can't produce a consensus of opinion among NFL coaches and general managers. Mirer is the better athlete, but Bledsoe has the stronger arm. Mirer is the more charismatic natural leader, but Bledsoe is more polished in a pro-style offense. "I think Mirer will develop faster, but Bledsoe will go further," says one head coach, who actually demanded anonymity before loosing this now-I've-said-it-and-let-the-consequences-be-damned prediction.

Mirer averaged only 19 pass attempts per game in his three seasons as a starter, while in each of his two full seasons starting for Washington State, Bledsoe averaged 34. "When you've got the running backs we had, it's stupid not to give them the ball," says Mirer, who in 1991 and '92 quarterbacked the two teams that scored more points than any in Notre Dame history. Still, the school's subway alumni often howled that he was inconsistent, and he received dozens of hate letters after the loss to Stanford.

Says one AFC general manager, "The guy who easily stands out this year is Bledsoe, among these two quarterbacks and in the whole draft. I can't imagine that people wouldn't take Bledsoe if they had the choice. Mirer has not been as impressive in games, and he doesn't always make the plays a good quarterback makes. But the kid is loaded with ability, and sometime in the near future he will be the guy."

Be the guy? How could Mirer or Bledsoe ever be any more the guy than they have always been, growing up the sons of small-town high school football coaches? Mirer's father, Ken, coached for 20 years and won the Indiana Class 2A state championship at Goshen High in 1978. He quit in 1985, when Rick was a freshman, because he didn't want any part of the aggravation that attends coaching your own son in a town of only 23,000 people. "I think it was a hard decision for him," Rick says, "but he's not your basic meathead football coach, where it's the only thing that's important in his life." There were certain advantages to having his father, who is now first vice-president for the National Bank of Detroit, step aside. "I threw 30 passes a game in high school," Rick says. "My dad would never have let me do that. People would have accused him of showing off his son."

Mac Bledsoe's passion for football was never so constrained. He moved his family five times before Drew was in the sixth grade, chasing coaching jobs all over eastern Washington. At one stop he was the coach of a high school team playing 11-man football with a 13-man roster. The first substitute was 4'11" and weighed 85 pounds.

When Drew was a year old, his father began taking him along to a summer football camp that he still runs with Shorty Bennett, now the coach at Whitworth College in Spokane. "It's a real advantage," Drew says. "You learn football the way a normal kid learns language. I've known cover-two and cover-three [defensive alignments] since I was in the third grade." Over the past two decades the camp has welcomed such NFL stars as Houston Oiler quarterback Warren Moon and Seattle Seahawk wide receiver Steve Largent as guest instructors. In the summer of '73 Fred Biletnikoff, the Oakland Raider receiver and future Hall of Famer, was invited to the camp, and on his first day there he kicked off the pair of expensive shoes he was wearing to wade in a pond. "Fred had a hard time getting those shoes," Bennett recalls, "and he wouldn't let anybody come near them."

"Fred and my dad were just getting to know each other," Drew says of that day. "My dad looked over Fred's shoulder and said, 'I hope our friendship is strong because it's about to be tested.' " When Biletnikoff asked what he meant, the elder Bledsoe pointed at a little one-year-old boy standing not far away. "That's my son over there," Mac Bledsoe replied, "and he's peeing in your shoes."

Was there ever a doubt that Drew would be a great quarterback after successfully completing the first thing he ever passed to a wide receiver? When Drew was in high school, his father told him to wear white shoes for games because black shoes, he believed, made his big son look slow afoot. Even now Drew insists on being listed at no more than 6'5" because, he says, "Six-six sounds slow." Oh.

At Washington State, Bledsoe wrapped his game shoes in massive amounts of white tape to increase his quickness, but he could not outrun the quarterback controversy he brought on during his freshman season. "That year was a zoo," he says. Six games into the season he was made the starter by coach Mike Price, ahead of a fifth-year senior named Brad Gossen and sophomore Aaron Garcia, who had come off the bench when Gossen was hurt the year before to lead the Pac-10 in passing efficiency. "When the announcement was made, the team sort of divided itself," Bledsoe recalls. "It was ugly. There were three separate cliques on the team, and the ones that weren't for me wouldn't talk to me. Running backs and receivers I was throwing to would come back to the huddle and never say a word to me."

The Cougars finished 3-8 that season, losing four of their last five games under Bledsoe. Gossen and Garcia, however, became reluctant converts in Bledsoe's first outing as a starter, a 55-24 victory over Oregon State in which Bledsoe led Washington State to 46 first-half points. Scrambling for the sideline under pressure on one play, he fired the ball across his body to the opposite side of the field, a perfect rope to tight end Butch Williams. Standing not far away, Price swore in disbelief under his breath.

"I could do that," muttered Gossen, standing next to the coach.

"I could do that," added Garcia. Then they looked at each other and laughed.

When Mirer heard Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz swearing on the sideline, it was rarely under his breath. During Mirer's wretched freshman season, he routinely incurred Holtz's high-decibel wrath. "Coach Holtz had high expectations for me," Mirer says, "and he spent a considerable amount of time in my face screaming at me. If he thought I had forced a pass, he'd be convinced I was trying to show off my arm. He'd yell, 'We're not going to change for you!' If I ever got too up, he had a way of bringing me down."

Bespectacled, screaming, middle-aged guys notwithstanding, there's nothing that can bring you down quite like an arrest for public intoxication and disorderly conduct, which Mirer learned two years ago after a fight broke out at an off-campus party. Mirer says he was only a spectator, and no charges were ever filed against him, but he suddenly found himself dealing with the unspoken suspicion that he was a drunken roughneck. "I quit trusting people," he says. "I wanted to be one of the guys, but I found out I couldn't be."

This week he has tickets to see Guns 'N' Roses, the standard in heavy-metal rock, whose rebel roar he adores. Mirer, the clean-cut 23-year-old from the button-down football school, has even discovered some similarities between himself and the group's lead singer, Axl Rose. "It's pretty amazing," he says. "You raise your arms, and the volume goes up. I've seen it happen. Come to think of it, I've made it happen."

While traveling in Europe last summer as part of a class in international marketing—he earned his degree in marketing studies in only 3½ years—Mirer made a special pilgrimage in Paris to see the grave of Jim Morrison, one of the original bad boys of rock 'n' roll, who died in 1971 at the age of 27 of heart failure, brought on by massive ingestion of drugs and alcohol. "It was the highlight of my trip," Mirer says. "Here's a guy who was like a god for a period of time, who liked to rebel against things, so it's like you pay tribute to that."

Well, groovy. And now Mirer and Bledsoe are waiting to find out who will pay tribute to them and just how big the tribute will be. Mirer considered entering the draft after his junior year but decided to return for another shot at a national championship. The NFL's new rookie salary cap—an average of $2 million per team this year—could cost him millions. "If you look at it financially, I got destroyed," he says. "But I've seen how money can corrupt people, how it makes people evil. I'm not antifunds or anything, but I think it's sick the way people treat you differently because of money."

Bledsoe, who was once ticketed by the state police because his car was so dirty—he sold the car rather than wash it—doesn't mind if people treat him differently over a little thing like cash or even being the No. 1 pick in the draft. He just doesn't want anybody mad at him if he comes in and fills somebody's shoes.



Quarterbacks Bledsoe (left) and Mirer are both small-town heroes with big-time arms.



[See caption above.]



At the helm of three uneven Cougar teams, Bledsoe threw for 46 TDs and 7,373 yards.



Mirer handed off so often he didn't get much chance to showcase his arm.