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Thirty Years Later, The Drama Of The 1983 Draft Still Potent

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It was going to be a big day.

Well, everyone suspected it would be at least a long day, as the attention of the football world turned to a ballroom inside the New York Sheraton Hotel to watch the entire 1983 NFL Draft unfold. Commissioner Pete Rozelle acknowledged as much in his interview with ESPN, predicting that the league’s first single-session draft since before the merger would go past midnight. And his interview was taking place around 10 a.m. on that historic Tuesday morning.

When you look back 30 years and remember how that 12-round draft developed, it’s impossible not to do so the way a kid who watched Phantom Menace first must look at Star Wars. It was state-of-the-art coverage for the day, but seems perfectly prehistoric compared to the veritable Oscars ceremony we’ve become accustomed to. It was only the fourth year of ESPN’s draft coverage (the network itself hadn’t yet had its fifth birthday), and the hundred or so fans who hovered nearby the draft area were a smaller crowd than what we see on the set of Sunday NFL Countdown.

And yet it truly was as big an event as the NFL draft could ever be. Not just because of the talent, though no draft could reasonably expect to top this crop – we all know about the six quarterbacks taken in the first round, but people forget that six first-round picks would go on to Hall of Fame careers (John Elway, Eric Dickerson, Bruce Matthews, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, Darrell Green), as would eighth-rounder Richard Dent.

More than anything, the 1983 NFL Draft really was about the storylines. Sports is the only true reality TV, and it’s impossible to imagine the level of apoplexy we’d witness if such a combination of pure dramatic elements were to converge today.

Start with the setting. The draft was held less than four months after the USFL, a new challenger to the NFL kingdom and a legitimate competitor for talent, held its inaugural draft. On the heels of its own strike-shortened 1982 season, The Shield was under attack, and it needed to make sure the top prospects would be playing on NFL fields.

But Rozelle couldn’t even be sure if the No. 1 pick would play for the team expected to draft him. And it wasn’t the USFL that Elway, the Stanford quarterback, threatened to take his talents to. If the Baltimore Colts were to select him, Elway assured, he would play baseball -- for the New York Yankees, no less.

Few people expected Elway would actually go so far as to pass on football. Jim Deshaies was Elway’s teammate on the Oneonta Yankees, and while he saw a talented outfield prospect, he suspected the summer the quarterback had spent in the New York-Penn League was more about establishing leverage than working on his swing. “(Yankees owner George) Steinbrenner was of the mind that he could convince him to play baseball, but John was smart enough to play his card,” Deshaies said recently.

The early minutes of the ESPN broadcast focused on the Elway dilemma (can you fathom what the build-up would’ve been if Andrew Luck would’ve pulled the same routine with the Batavia Muckdogs?). Guest analysts Gary Zimmerman from Sports Illustrated and Howard Balzer of The Sporting News reported on the swirling trade rumors. The New England Patriots, it seemed, had offered the Colts first- and second-round picks in both the 1983 and 1984 drafts for the first overall pick. The San Diego Chargers had been viewed as a potential landing spot for Elway, but they were negotiating with their quarterback, Dan Fouts; when ESPN went on the air that day, they couldn’t confirm whether or not that deal was done. The Los Angeles Raiders were late to the conversation, as were the Denver Broncos.

We all know what happened. The Colts took Elway, he held his line, they traded him to Denver for the fourth pick in that draft (tackle Chris Hinton), quarterback Mark Herrmann and Denver’s first-round pick in ’84.

But the drama didn’t end with the Elway saga. The L.A. Rams traded their first pick (No. 3 overall) and two others to switch places with the Houston Oilers (No. 2). The day before the draft, the Rams had traded away running back Wendell Tyler, clearing the path for them to draft Dickerson, who would retire as the second-leading rusher of all-time.

The Oilers would move back down from No. 3 and still got Matthews, a tackle who made 14 Pro Bowls in 19 NFL seasons.

And then there was Kelly, whose shoulder injury left his draft status as uncertain as what Matt Barkley is enduring today. Kelly had entered the 1982 college season as a Heisman Trophy candidate at the University of Miami, but a separated throwing shoulder ended his senior year in Week 3. It was such a severe injury, the surgeon who fixed his shoulder reportedly told Kelly when he awoke post-op, “Jim, I hope you studied.”

To prove himself draft-worthy, Kelly staged in the spring of ’83 what would essentially be the first pro day. After months of throwing in secrecy, Kelly told his college coach, Howard Schnellenberger, he was ready. Schnellenberger then invited coaches and scouts from the NFL, USFL and even the CFL to campus to see for themselves whether Kelly could still sling it. “I wanted this to be the biggest day there had ever been for a player trying to make a comeback,” Schnellenberger said.

It worked, for the most part. Of the several hundred evaluators who had come to campus, they all came away convinced Kelly could play. And still the Buffalo Bills passed on him with their initial first-round pick, taking Notre Dame tight end Tony Hunter instead. Two picks later, they selected Kelly.

Of course, Kelly wouldn’t play for the Bills immediately. Unlike Elway, he had left open the possibility of playing in the USFL (pre-Pro Day, the Chicago Blitz had taken a 14th-round flier on him).

From Marino’s well-documented first-round freefall to wide receiver Willie Gault’s own decision (would he forego football to run the high hurdles in the 1984 Summer Olympics?), the 1983 NFL Draft was loaded with subplots that in any other year would have been the headlines.

To football fans, April 26, 1983 (and into the wee hours of April 27) remains a true “Where Were You When?’’ event. Green, for instance, reportedly had to sneak into an event hosted by the Oilers to watch the televised coverage of his own selection; this was, after all, before basic cable.

Mel Kiper, legend has it, was providing commentary to fans during a draft day function at the Baltimore Convention Center. He would become part of ESPN’s draft coverage the following year.

Nothing about the NFL Draft has been the same the 30 years since.