The multi-million-dollar melodrama that the NFL Draft has become used to be a simpler affair. Time was, any two skinny kids could run the pro football draft. I know, because me and my brother Joe did exactly that about 45 years ago.
I was 14 and Joe was maybe 12. Lord knows we weren’t qualified to run the American Football League draft, but we ran it anyway.
A bit of background first. The AFL was The Other League, the upstart brainchild of millionaires like Lamar Hunt and Bud Addams and Ralph Wilson, guys with tons of money who had not been allowed to buy NFL franchises of their own.
Millionaires aren't used to rejection. So they got together and started their own eight-city league, much to the scorn of the solons of the NFL.
The early years of the AFL were predictably rocky. But slowly, the teams started catching on in cities like Buffalo and San Diego and Denver. Contrary to the NFL’s fondest wishes, the AFL refused to go away. It even prospered.
Most ominously for the NFL, the AFL owners were willing to put their money where their teams were, which meant that for the first time ever, NFL team owners had to bid for the services of hot college prospects. Capitalism had been visited upon the NFL owners and they didn't like it one bit. The AFL “stole” any number of big-name college stars in its early years, and they did so under the auspices of a secret college draft.
That’s where Joe and I came in. Although painfully skinny (our combined weights barely equaled that of a tackling dummy’s) we made up for it with our blinding speed. We had what’s now called certain “intangibles,” such as the fact that we were willing to work for the occasional hot chocolate and the possibility of seeing former President Harry Truman.
It also helped that our father was the PR director for the AFL. It was he who volunteered us for the job of running the draft.
Here’s how it worked: Joe and I would hang around the league office on Fifth Avenue until one adult or another, after taking a phone call from a team rep, would write down a name of a college player and the team that had just selected him. He would then hand off the slip to one of us, and we would take off down Fifth Avenue to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where we’d hand off the selection to another bunch of adults. They’d take our secret messages and send us back on our way to Fifth Avenue, where the process started all over again.
We ran all day and into the night. And no one but a select few knew.
I have no idea why running two kids around Manhattan was deemed necessary or even wise. But this I can say: it sure kept things secret.
Nor do I have any idea whose names we delivered. You could say that information was out of our hands.
The thrill of running the draft that day was in knowing we had this unique and secret mission that required us to dash through city streets clutching in our hands the fate not only of college prospects but of entire football teams and the league itself.
We were superheroes with secret identities that day. No one knew, would even guess, that those two annoying kids zipping past their plodding city selves held the fate of thousands in their hands.
It didn’t even matter that we never saw Harry Truman that day. The former president was the Waldorf Astoria’s most prominent resident in those days. But even if he’d been out for a stroll, I doubt we would have stopped to gawk and I think he would have been OK with that if he’d known the full story. A former president, of all people, would surely have understood the importance of our mission that day.