HISTORY CLASS: NFL DRAFT LATE-ROUND LEGENDS
By George Somerville
Unearthing late round talent is how football scouts earn their living. George’s latest article looks at some stars in NFL history whose careers have epitomised a favourite phrase of draftniks all across the world – ‘late round sleeper’:
PAY ATTENTION CLASS!
In the very first article of this series I wrote about Tom Brady’s pick in the sixth round. Which got me wondering as to who else was picked from obscurity to go onto stellar NFL careers. And as it turns out, some of the greatest names in NFL history were late draft picks. Which goes to show, it’s not all about first round glory. As the next couple of hundred words proves…
This list is far from exhaustive but does contain some of the biggest names to participate in the pro game…
9th Round, 1955: Johnny Unitas
With pick 102 of the 1955 draft , the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Johnny Unitas in the 9th round. Yes, the Pittsburgh Steelers. ‘But wait, didn’t Johnny Unitas have a Hall of Fame career with the Baltimore Colts’ I hear you say? Yes, he did. Incredibly the Steelers cut Unitas in 1955, with the Colts picking “Golden Arm” up as a free agent in 1956.
Unitas would win Superbowl V with the Colts and would go on to be League MVP in 1959, 1964 and 1967. Unitas would hold the record for the most consecutive games played with a touchdown pass in each (47) until it was surpassed by Drew Brees in 2012. Unitas would go on to play in 10 pro bowl games and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.
Before he got to the Draft, Unitas had grand desires to play for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. His hopes of playing in South Bend ended when he was rejected by the Irish due to his small size. Unitas would instead go to the University of Louisville and play there for four years. However before he got to play for the Cardinals he was thrown a curve ball. In 1952 the University President moved to downgrade the School’s focus on sports and in the process reduced funding for all sports across the board. The President also looked to improve academic standards at the University, and as a result of this fifteen of the Cardinals team were forced to leave as they could not meet the new increased demands. Johnny Unitas was spared this fate when he took an additional elective to be able to meet the new requirements. Fun fact- what was that elective? Well pub quiz friends, I’m impressed if you know this. His elective was….Square Dancing. Johnny Unitas’ football career was rescued by square dancing.
So round nine is pretty far down. Surely that’s as far as a future Hall of Famer would fall, right? Well, no. Let’s move to the Tenth Round.
10th Round, 1964: Roger Staubach
In 1964, the Dallas Cowboys would select with their 102nd pick, Quarterback – Roger Staubach. While Staubach was a star of the college game and a 1963 Heisman winner, he was also a student at the US Naval Academy – meaning that he would need to complete National Service before going on to play football professionally. Staubach would complete his service (including one tour of Vietnam) before joining America’s Team in Dallas.
Staubach would eventually join the Cowboys in 1969 and would play in Dallas for 11 years until his retirement from the game in 1980.
In doing so, Staubach finished his NFL career with 1,685 completions for 22,700 yards and 153 touchdowns. He also gained 2,264 rushing yards and scored 21 touchdowns. Staubach recorded the highest passer rating in the NFL in four seasons (1971, 1973, 1978, 1979) and was selected to play in six Pro Bowls. ‘Rodger the Dodger’ as he was affectionally known would be voted the Greatest Cowboy of all time in 2010, and he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985.
So here is an interesting fact about Staubach. He gained a reputation as a scrambler who would make plays out of nothing. But in a 1975 Play Off game, Staubach’s play took on an extra dimension and would change the game forever. In this play-off game against the Minnesota Vikings, the Cowboys trailed the Vikings late in the game 14-10. With the final play of the game, Staubach would throw the ball 50 yards to Drew Pearson to clinch victory. Afterwards, Staubach was asked about the play by the press. His Response? “I threw the ball and said a Hail Mary”. And so, the Hail Mary pass was born.
Surely, surely that’s the best pick from the late rounds? Well we can go later. Let’s go to the 17th round. Yes, round seven-teen.
17th Round, 1956: Bart Starr
Interesting fact here for draft geeks. The first three rounds of the 1956 Draft were held in Philadelphia in November 1955. The remaining twenty seven rounds, yes 27! (I know I do this a lot and yes, it is annoying, but c’mon – 27 rounds of draft!)- were held in January 1956 in Los Angeles. The reason for the early draft rounds?…..to ensure that the NFL Draft was held before the Canadian football league draft, making sure the best players stayed in the USA. Sneaky, huh!
So this meant that the next super value pick who would go onto be a Hall of Famer had a long time to wait until his name was called. Two hundred picks to be precise.
With the 200th pick of the 1956 NFL Draft, the Green Bay Packers would go on to select the Quarterback who would lead them to their first Super Bowl and would make Packers history – Bryan Bartlett Starr of the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Bart Starr, as the world would know him – both a Quarterback and Punter – did not have a stellar college career, mostly as a result of a bad injury caused during a hazing incident which meant he missed most of his Junior year. He was recommended by the Head Basketball Coach at Alabama of all people to the Packers through mutual friends. Starr was taken in the later rounds of the draft, and never looked back.
Starr is the only quarterback in NFL history to lead a team to three consecutive league championships, and as we know he would lead Green Bay to victories in the first two Super Bowls. In both games Starr was named the Most Valuable Player and during his career earned four Pro Bowl selections. He also won the league MVP award in 1966.
In postseason play Bart Starr has the highest passer rating (104.8) of any quarterback in NFL history and holds a postseason record of 9–1. His career completion percentage of 57.4 was an NFL best when he retired in 1972.
This giant of the game was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977 and can rightly be considered a trail blazer.
21st Round, 1958: John Madden
Our next Hall of Famer would go on to be a great name in the game, but not as a footballer. John Madden was selected in the 21st round of the 1958 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. Having injured a knee in college, Madden suffered an injury to his other knee in Eagles training camp, ending his pro football career before it started. John Madden would however go on to become not only one of the Game’s greatest coaches, but also perhaps the games greatest brand name. In fact the name John Madden spans across three separate generations – those that know him as a coach, a broadcaster and as the face of the famous video game.
For those of a certain generation, ahem – we know John Madden as the Head Coach of the Raiders.
John Madden would win Super Bowl XVIII and would become the youngest coach to reach 100 career regular season victories, a record he compiled in only ten full seasons of coaching at the age of 42. He remains the coach with the most wins in Raiders history.
Incredibly, John Madden never had a losing season as a head coach, and his overall winning percentage, including playoff games, ranks second in league history. Which, all in all, means that John Madden is widely regarded as the best coach in Raiders history and also in the history of the game itself. And to put this into perspective, Madden’s winning record came during an era where Tom Landry, Don Shula, Chuck Noll and Bud Grant were coaching at the peak of their careers.
Incredibly, Madden would go on to even greater fame as a Broadcaster with ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC over a 28 year period, making his analysis synonymous with NFL. Of course, the youth of today know John Madden as “Madden” and the face of the EA Sports game which introduced Madden to a brand new audience.
John Madden was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006.
So these are my favourite picks, although this list could be a lot longer. Chris Hanburger would be drafted in the 18th round of the 1965 NFL Draft, while Leroy Kelly would be drafted in the 8th round of the 1964 Draft by the Browns. The great Shannon Sharpe was selected by the Denver Broncos in the 7th round in 1990 and the late Kevin Greene in the 5th round in 1985. Which goes to prove that our fixation with the first round and all those ‘hot takes’ is largely stuff and nonsense. But I should say that quietly around these parts…..
College football writer
A GLASWEGIAN LIVING IN LONDON, GEORGE IS A COLLEGE FOOTBALL FAN WHO FOLLOWS THE ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE. HE PROVIDES CFB CONTENT FOR THE TOUCHDOWN AND IS ONE THIRD OF THE COLLEGE CHAPS PODCAST.