The Draft That Changed it all (or "Who the hell is ken o'brien?")

By George Somerville

In the next of his series of memorable moments from Draft history, George looks at what is considered the greatest Draft of all time.

To this day, the 1983 NFL Draft is still considered the greatest draft of all time. But more on that later.

When you watch this years draft think about Rich Eisen describing this scenario unfolding before the audience’s eyes. 

– Joe Burrow is selected at #1 but refuses to play for the Bengals. He instead declares his intention to play baseball for the New York Yankees; 

– Tua Tagovailoa isn’t picked at #3 and falls all the way to pick #31 to the San Francisco 49ers.

– Justin Herbert is drafted by a team that plays its football in the snow.  Being a Californian native he declines this offer. He instead chooses a career playing for the Houston Roughnecks in the XFL. 

– Add in an NFL team suing the NFL. Then, two teams conspiring to agree on which running backs they will choose with the 2nd and 3rd picks? 

It may seem like an incredible fantasy. But that, my friends, sums up the 1983 draft in a nutshell.

The Draft Room at the Sheraton Hotel, New York City in 1983. Photo credit:

Record Breaking Draft

The 1983 Draft was to be remembered for a number of reasons but principally because of its stellar cast of quarterbacks. Three would go on to be Hall of Famers and become the best to ever play the game. I’m talking about John ElwayJim Kelly and Dan Marino

The 1983 Draft would also be the first time that six quarterbacks would ever be drafted in the first round. 

The Quarterback Class of '83 - Marino, Elway & Kelly. Photo credit: ESPN.Com

Elway or marino?

Going in to the 1983 draft, a young quarterback coming out of Pitt University was considered by many to be a generational talent. Although the consensus number one pick was Elway, the debate was whether Stanford’s John Elway or Pitt’s Dan Marino would be the number one pick. 

However no-one could predict that Marino would fall to the second to last pick of the first round.

The Californian Elway would be picked first, but refuse to go to the then Baltimore Colts. He subsequently declared his intention to play baseball for the New York Yankees. Marino’s story of how he ended up playing his football in Miami is more complicated.

John Elway faces the Sports Media after being Drafted by the Baltimore Colts. Photo Credit:

Todd Blackledge, penn state

With Elway picked first, the Los Angeles Rams and the Seattle Seahawks selected running backs  Eric Dickerson and Curt Warner. 

The Broncos remained keen on Elway. However, they did not have the draft capital to trade up to take Elway from the Colts. With pick #4, the Broncos drafted Chris Hinton (who would subsequently be traded to the Colts in return for John Elway).

The Kansas City Chiefs at pick #7 were in the market for a QB and were rumoured to be very interested in Marino. However, there were audible gasps around the room as Commissioner Pete Rozelle announced the name of Todd Blackledge. It came as a huge surprise to many including Blackledge himself  that Penn State’s QB had been selected at #7. 


who the hell is Ken O'Brien?

Ken O'Brien, the first round draft pick of the New York Jets football team from the University of California-Davis, holds up the jersey he received upon his arrival at the New York Jets camp at Hoftra University, May 3, 1983. O'Brien will join the Jets present quarterback duo of Richard Todd and Pat Ryan. (AP Photo/G. Paul Burnett)

The next team with a real need at Quarterback were the Patriots at pick #15. New England had identified Elway as their future franchise quarterback but had been flatly rebuffed by their division rivals the Colts to any trade.

New England valued Jim Kelly out of Miami as their next QB, however were astonished to see Buffalo pick Kelly. This was mostly as it was well known that Kelly had no intention of playing in the cold. Scared off by the reputation  of the young Marino, the Patriots selected Illinois quarterback Tony Eason. 

Fortunately Marino was at home for the Draft and not in the room to witness his stock plummeting. Although the pressure was no less exacting on him. Particularly when his hometown team, the Steelers passed him by for Defensive Tackle, Gabriel Rivera. 

The final straw for Marino came as the Jets selected a Division 2 quarterback from UC Davis, called Ken O’Brien. This prompted many, but particularly Marino to ask “Who the hell is Ken O’Brien?”.

Fins Up

In Miami the Dolphins management sat up and took notice of this development. They had been high on Marino but did not have the draft picks to trade up to a spot where they thought he would still be available.

The Dolphins Director of Player Personnel, Chuck Connor recalls the moment when they thought Marino could become the face of Miami.

“When O’Brien went there (the Jets), we felt very comfortable that the other two teams weren’t going to take Marino”.

The Dolphins Head Coach, the legendary Don Shula recalls in an interview with ESPN’s 30 for 30 “Elway to Marino” his views on securing his number one QB target.

“For him to be passed up the way he was in that first round and knowing Dan and the pride that he had and the ability to throw the football? That had to be crushing to him and that motivated him to show everybody else what a mistake they had made”. – Don Shula for ESPN’s 30 for 30 “Elway to Marino”

Good Time Charlie

Photo credit:

Rumours prior to the draft had started circulating the Marino was involved with drugs while at Pitt. Where these rumours originated from remain the stuff of urban legend but they were persistent enough for Pitt to carry out a series of tests on Marino to confirm he was drug free. 

Marino’s agent Marvin Demoff feels the the rumours stemmed from Marino’s reputation for being a partier, but there was no evidence of this moving beyond enjoying a good time. However the rumours grew and the Pittsburg Steelers admitted latterly that they passed on their home town boy because of these rumours.

By the time Dan Marino was picked by the Miami Dolphins, John Elway, Todd Blackledge, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason and Ken O’Brien had all been selected as NFL quarterbacks. 


Hindsight is 20/20

Of course we now know that in 1984 the 27th pick would go on to have one of the best NFL seasons of all time, let alone as a rookie for the Miami Dolphins. Marino would go on to be considered one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.

But what of the others?

Tony Eason out of Illinois was drafted by the New England Patriots and would go on to play 8 seasons in the NFL, mostly as a Patriot, but latterly as a New York Jet.

Ken O’Brien of UC Davis, who’s pick can almost certainly be traced back to the first draft where Jets fan booed, will forever be known as the man who was picked ahead of Dan Marino. However O’Brien went on to complete 10 seasons in the NFL throwing for over 25,000 yards in his time with the Jets.

Penn State’s, Todd Blackledge went on to play for the Chiefs for 5 seasons before moving to Pittsburgh, to play with the Steeler’s for another 2 years. Nowadays Blackledge is a colour analyst on ESPN’s College Football coverage

Jim & John

Jim Kelly signed with the Houston Gamblers and played in the USFL for 2 years until the league’s demise in 1986. Ironically Kelly ended up signing for the Buffalo Bills.  He would take the Bills to four successive Superbowls. Kelly retired a Bill and was inducted into the NFL Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002.

John Elway was as we all know now, eventually traded to the Denver Broncos and won Superbowls XXXII and XXXIII. He was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004. Elway is currently the GM of the Denver Broncos.

Fun Fact : Post that 1983 draft, 11 of the next 16 Superbowl’s would feature a starting quarterback from that 1983 draft.

george somerville

College football writer