NFL Draft: Former USC first-rounders recall a different era

04/23/2013 11:36 PM

04/23/2013 11:49 PM

It might be hard to believe, but once upon a time, draft day in the NFL wasn’t that big of a deal.

Willie Scott was at lunch when the call came from the Kansas City Chiefs. Surely, the standout USC tight end was happy to hear he had been selected 14th overall in the 1981 NFL draft, 13 spots behind teammate George Rogers.

He was, but ...

“That was my long day of class,” Scott said, laughing at the memory. “The Chiefs called me during lunch and said, ’We’re going to draft you.’

“I said that’s fine, but I’m going to class,” Scott continued. “I went to class and I came back and they had drafted me. They said, ‘You have to come out to Kansas City,’ and I said ‘I can’t come, I’ve got class.’ ”

Scott’s position coach at USC set him straight on the importance of going to Kansas City that evening. Scott scrambled to the airport.

“So I’m running through the airport like O.J. Simpson, but I missed the 4 o’clock flight,” Scott said. “But I caught the second one at about 6.”

Scott got to Kansas City by 9:30 and was hustled to a local television station to launch a whirlwind trip through the Kansas City media. But he did it on one condition.

“The only reason I agreed to come was because I had a big test and presentation on the next day at Dent Middle School,” Scott said. “I said y’all need to have me back by 12 tomorrow and I left Kansas City at 6 that morning and came back to Columbia.”

In 2013, draft day proceeds much differently. For one, it’s a major television production. As someone projected as a mid-first round pick, Scott most definitely would not have been sitting in class. He would have been in New York City, surrounded by friends and family with a camera fixed on his face.

The Gamecocks will not be seeing a pair of their players going in the top half of the first round this year as they did in 1981, but draft analyst Mel Kiper recently offered safety D.J. Swearinger as a potential first-round caliber player who could sneak into Thursday’s first round proceedings should the right set of circumstances come to pass.

The process that Swearinger and his fellow draft-eligible Gamecock teammates have endured since January is both different and similar to Scott and Rick Sanford, who was taken 25th overall by New England in the 1979 draft.

“The big thing that is different now from then is, we didn’t go to a combine,” Scott said.

Rather, there were several mass workouts spread around the country. In the time of Scott and Sanford, roughly a dozen teams would gather prospects in Philadelphia while another dozen or so would congregate in Dallas.

“The Oakland Raiders had their own scouting,” Sanford said. “Growing up, I had always loved the Oakland Raiders. That’s my team but it just happened the year I was getting drafted they didn’t have a first-round pick.”

Sanford spent his draft day at The Roost. As the draft unfolded, Sanford got a call from New Orleans, who said they planned to take him in the second round. Soon after he got off the phone, the Patriots called.

“It probably was the happiest day of my life because I realized everything I had worked so hard to do, I had accomplished,” Sanford said. “Even now, it probably was the singlemost happy day outside of my children being born. It’s hard to put into words because it’s so indescribable.”

Neither can imagine what it will be like this weekend for those Gamecocks who are drafted, considering all the poking, prodding and other scrutiny they have undergone as a part of today’s evaluation process. Both make a point of telling any prospective draftee that there is much more to the process than what shows up on video and the stat sheet.

“It’s not just watching film; they’re watching everything else,” Scott said. “It’s not about what you do, what you’ve put on film. It’s what you see in the classroom, what kind of person you are. Your classwork. All that stuff.”

That’s why Scott finds it funny when a big deal is made of things such as 40-yard sprint times for offensive linemen. As impressive as a fast time might be, its importance in the grand scheme is virtually nil.

“Where’s he going to run to? When is he ever going to run 40 yards? That’s a media thing,” Scott said.

“I really think those kinds of things are overstated, but a lot of guys can really move up just on their workouts at the combine,” Sanford said. “It’s hard to me. I can’t judge a guy by how fast he runs. You’ve got to have the head and the heart, and that’s what you can’t measure.”

Had Scott been in this year’s draft, considering his devotion to classwork, perhaps he would have gone higher than 14th. When Kansas City asked if he would make it to the team’s first mini-camp during the first week of June, Scott said no.

“I’ve got to graduate,” Scott told the Chiefs. “My grandma was coming to see me graduate that day, so I can’t come, and they said OK.”

Had Sanford been in this year’s draft, one thing he knows for certain:

“Being an NFL player is kind of like being a rock star now,” he said. “There’s so much more hoopla around these guys, probably due to the amount of money. If I had been a first-round pick nowadays? I’d probably be retired.”


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