I’ll Take Old Days Any Day When Covering NFL Draft

Back in the day, all this reporter needed to cover the annual NFL Annual Player Selection Meeting – i.e. “The Draft” – was a big, comfortable bed on which to lay research material, notebooks and pens, a television set connected to cable network ESPN, a good telephone and a Hibachi grill.

In 1982, a good pair of walking shoes also came in handy in traversing the 400 yards to the apartment where Lisa and Bob Crable lived at Portage Place, a complex northwest of South Bend, Ind., where I then resided as well. Crable, an inside linebacker and still the all-time leading tackler in Notre Dame’s storied history, was expected to be a first-round draft choice.

Crable, naturally, was anxious but had some unfinished work at Notre Dame, where he had matriculated after playing for three unbeaten teams at Moeller High School under Gerry Faust, who later became his head football coach at Notre Dame.

Bob Crable (43) was about 14 feet in the air when he blocked Bryan Virgil’s potential game-winning field goal and preserved visiting Notre Dame’s 12-10 victory over the Wolverines in the 1979 season opener in Ann Arbor, Mich.

“The last couple of days I tried to keep my mind off it because I had work (a term paper) to get done,” Crable told me.

His anxiety became reality came shortly after 3 p.m. on the afternoon of April 27 when the New York Jets rang up Crable to inform him, Lisa and her parents that they would draft the 6-foot-3, 228-pound Cincinnati native with the 23rd pick of the first round.

Shortly afterward, I heard the announcement from host Chris Berman, Sports Illustrated’s pro football writer Paul Zimmerman and draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr., who headed up ESPN’s coverage from the Sheraton Hotel in New York City, and I quickly slipped on my loafers to hustle over to the Crables.

When I arrived, Bob already was fielding calls from local, state, Midwest, New York and national newspaper and media outlets. “It’s been like this since he was drafted,” Lisa told me.

The Jets were among a half dozen teams that had shown pre-draft interest in Crable, whose most famous Notre Dame play was not one of his 521 career tackles, including a single-season high of 187 in 1979.

Until knee injuries cut his NFL career short, Bob Crable (50) terrorized the enemy, including Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway, as the middle linebacker of the New York Jets, who took him in the first round of the 1982 NFL Draft.

It was his last-second block of Michigan’s possible game-winning field goal to preserve a 12-10 Irish victory over Bo Schembechler’s Wolverines in the 1979 season opener before 105,111 at Michigan Stadium and a nationally televised audience.

Just before the play, Crable heard two Michigan offensive linemen tell long-snapper Mike Trgovac to stay low and they would take care of everything above him. So Crable ran up, jumped on Trgovac’s back and trampolined 14 feet into the air to block Bryan Virgil’s 42-yard attempt with seconds left.

The football hit Crable in the left hip. His momentary ecstasy then turned to terror when “I realized my landing was not going to be pretty.” Crable indeed landed on his helmet but he got up and celebrated with his teammates.

Three years later, he had a similar sick feeling after another flight, but that landing also worked out.

“I flew to New York for a physical with the Jets but I forgot my X-rays,” Crable said. “They wanted to take some more. They said, ‘Bob, we might be talking some big money.’ As soon as they said that, I said fine, take the X-rays.”

Crable signed a 5-year contract worth, with bonus, $1 million to play for a Jets defense that featured the New York Sack Exchange front four of Mark Gastineau, Joe Klecko, Abdul Salaam and Marty Lyons, who totaled 66 sacks in the 1981 season. His bonus check of $250,000, after taxes, amounted to $148,000, which Crable used to pay for he and Lisa’s first house, one built by his brother-in-law.

“We used it several times for collateral on loans,” Crable said.

My interview done, I walked back to my apartment, wrote the story and then fired up the Hibachi to grill some Italian sausage, something I had done watching the NFL Draft after Chet Simmons, an ESPN executive, convinced then Commissioner Pete Rozelle to allow his network to televise the event.

Rozelle didn’t think there would be an interest. He was wrong about that, just as he wrong not to postpone the slate of games on Nov. 24, 1963, the Sunday following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, right, seen here presenting Troy Aikman with his Dallas Cowboys jersey, had to be convinced that televising the NFL Draft would benefit the league. When ESPN’s cameras started doing so, America became more familiar with Chris Berman and Mel Kiper Jr.

With Berman, Kiper and others coming along for the ride, ESPN’s telecasts helped off-season interest in the NFL grow. The draft, held over two days in the middle of the week back in the 1980s, now has become a three-day affair: The first round on Thursday, rounds 2 and 3 on Friday and rounds 4-7 on Saturday. Plus, the NFL moved the draft out of New York, staging it in Chicago for two years and this year returning to Philadelphia where the NFL Draft was first held back in 1936.

Called the NFL Draft and the NFL Draft Experience, most of the events take place on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art made famous by boxing underdog Rocky Balboa when he ran its 72 stone steps in the movie “Rocky.”

The Super Bowl, of course, is the NFL’s premier event but “The Draft” is a solid No. 2. Most of the top players now are brought in with their coaches and their families to await their selection, to receive their new team’s hat and to walk out on stage to receive their jersey and a sometimes very uncomfortable-looking man-hug from Commissioner Roger Goodell, who now is routinely booed wherever he goes.

“Come on, Philly, come on,” Goodell urged Thursday night’s crowd of almost 100,000 Eagles fans who let him have it. I mean, what would you expect from a fan base that once booed Santa Claus.

Still, I miss the good, old days of the NFL Draft, days when covering it were a challenge but still a lot of fun. Back in 1987, my computer and research material then occupied the dining room table of the apartment I shared with my future wife and a push-button phone was nearby.

It was my good fortune that I could dial a push-button phone quickly, and I managed to get Purdue’s all-purpose player, Rod Woodson, on the phone after the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted him with the 10th pick of the first round. Woodson was not in New York; he watched the draft from his home in Fort Wayne.

“I expected to go earlier but it worked out,” Woodson told me. “Pittsburgh is rebuilding and I think I fit in well. They have a great tradition and Chuck Noll is a great coach.”

Woodson learned a lot from Noll’s defensive coordinator – future Hall of Fame head coach Tony Dungy, who won a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts. Woodson had a 17-year Hall of Fame career as a defensive back for Pittsburgh, Baltimore, San Francisco and Oakland. He retired after making 71 interceptions, including a record 12 returned for touchdowns, and after a broadcasting career, he is now the cornerbacks coach for the Raiders.

Jim Harbaugh, a first-round draft choice of the Chicago Bears, learned a lot about the game and became one tough customer playing for fiery Michigan head coach Bo Schembechler.

About the time I finished talking with Woodson, I had just enough time to wolf down an Italian sausage when Berman informed me that the Chicago Bears, who already had four quarterbacks on their roster in Jim McMahon, Doug Flutie, Mike Tomczak and Steve Fuller, decided to take Michigan quarterback Jim Harbaugh with the 28th pick of the first round.

Harbaugh grew up around the Michigan program when his father Jack was an assistant to Bo Schembechler for seven seasons, and he jumped at the chance to play for Schembechler while his father Jack spent five seasons as head coach of Western Michigan. After Rozelle read the Bears’ draft card at New York’s Marriott Marquis, I caught up with Jim Harbaugh quickly at the family home in Kalamazoo.

“I’m the fifth string quarterback now,” Harbaugh told me. “I’m just looking forward to the chance to compete with those guys. I’d like to play in the NFL and I know what my abilities are and I’ll prove that to the Chicago Bears.”

Harbaugh later became Ditka’s starting quarterback in 1990 and stayed with the Bears through 1993 before spending four seasons in Indianapolis, one in Baltimore and his final two in San Diego. As a head coach, of course, he had successful stops at Stanford and with the San Francisco 49ers, coaching against brother John and his Baltimore Ravens following the 2012 season, and he is now in his third season as head coach of his alma mater, Michigan.

Meanwhile, Crable and I had not seen each other since that night he was drafted. We met again earlier this week when he and Lisa drove up from Cincinnati so he could speak to 34 high school scholar-athletes being honored by the Edward “Moose” Krause South Bend Chapter of the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame.

Knee injuries cut his NFL career to seven seasons but Crable used his Notre Dame business degree well after his playing career ended. He then later returned to Moeller where he taught religion and was head coach of the Crusaders, and Crable also has had successful stints in business, real estate and investments.

“Portage Place sent me over to collect your last month of rent,” I joked upon seeing Bob and Lisa, parents of two sons and two daughters and grandparents to two more.

Then Lisa told me an interesting story. “We moved into married housing before his senior year,” she said. “But there were roaches everywhere. I once got a blanket and one fell out of it. I couldn’t live there anymore. So we looked at Portage Place and they charged us exactly what the university was charging us – one hundred dollars a month.”

One hundred dollars a month? Guys like us we had it made. Those were the days.

Playing for Schembechler gave Jim Harbaugh a healthy dose of respect for authority figures. Now the head coach of his alma mater, Harbaugh presents the famous winged-Michigan helmet and some Air Jordan sneakers to Pope Francis during a visit by the team to Vatican City last week.