The birth of the NFL draft on ESPN … 44 years ago

The call came to my desk at The Sporting News in St. Louis several weeks before the 1980 NFL draft.

I had been with the publication for two years and had started writing a weekly NFL notebook (even in the offseason) the year before. That was a leap for the venerable Baseball Bible at the time, but I convinced then-managing editor Lowell Reidenbaugh that we should expand our coverage of the NFL.

But a bigger leap was what ESPN wanted to do.

The decision to televise the draft had been made in February of that year amid a certain level of skepticism. In fact, when ESPN president Chet Simmons first approached Pete Rozelle with the idea, the commissioner wondered, “Why would you want to do that? Who the heck would want to watch the NFL Draft?”

Eventually, the league’s vice president of broadcasting, Val Pinchbeck, convinced Rozelle it would be a good idea.

So it was that about six months after ESPN had launched in September, 1979, the call from a producer at the network came.

ESPN was quickly figuring out all the nuts and bolts of the broadcast, and the question to me from the producer was whether they could use our mock draft on the show.

I assured him that was fine, but then explained the pitfalls. Not only was the mock draft finalized 11 days before the Tuesday draft, but once it invariably blew up in the early part of the first round, it might not be very useful.

Having some experience on St. Louis radio, my bold suggestion was that we coordinate a phone hookup and they could bring me on at different times to discuss what had happened and what could be coming next.

Not a bad idea, I was told, and they said they’d get back to me. Which they did with the shocking (to me) question, “How would you like to come to Bristol, and be on the broadcast.”

We didn’t even have a production meeting before the telecast and I’m not sure I even knew who else would be on with me until my arrival in Connecticut. That turned out to be host Bob Ley, former Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Vince Papale and Upton Bell, a former Patriots general manager and son of former NFL commissioner Bert Bell.

As can be seen from the accompanying photo, the four of us were seated around a coffee table with papers strewn about and newspapers visible on the floor.

screen shot via The Athletic

We just talked when they came to us from New York where host George Grande was with former NFL general manager Joe Thomas.

Ley told The Athletic on the draft’s 40th anniversary, “When we got off the air I think everybody realized not only did we survive, but that was pretty damn good. While you’d never want to be a prisoner of your reviews, they were positive and I think even the most hardened and objective of us would say we hit a nerve and seemed to have done OK.”

Most significant was the decision to run it back in 1981.

Who knew that now, 44 years later, the draft would be must-see TV, telecast on three networks and would have cities bidding to host it every year.

As executive producer Bill Fitts told The Athletic, “There’s no possible way I could have imagined it would turn into this. I wasn’t even sure we would make Year Two.”

There certainly were seminal moments along the way as more highlights of players from their college career were available and talent was sent to different venues to report.

In 1981, Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated joined the show and famously said after quarterback Rich Campbell was selected sixth overall by the Packers, “They lied to me. I’ll never talk to them again.”

Dr. Z was accustomed to being told the truth during his pre-draft discussions with teams, but all bets were off with it now being televised.

The next year, I was “promoted” to New York and while sitting at our small table, I heard a distinctive voice with a New York accent, say, “Hey Paul, keep your eye on Jeff Bryant. He’s moving up on everybody’s list.”

That voice was the reclusive Joel Buchsbaum of Pro Football Weekly, who had been rarely seen in public. Late in the broadcast, with his scraggly hair and Notre Dame sweatshirt, he was interviewed on the broadcast. Had Joel been a tad more telegenic, there might never have been a Mel Kiper, who was on for the first time in 1984 from Bristol. Oh, by the way, the relatively unknown Bryant was selected sixth overall by the Seahawks.

My nine years on the broadcast included two years in Bristol, four in New York, one at 49ers headquarters when there was a power outage in the facility that kept us off the air for a while, one at NFL Films and one in Anaheim at Rams headquarters for what was my final appearance in 1988.

My final year (1986) in New York was memorable. I was at a large draft board that had player rankings with Chris Berman, but no one knew who had put the board together. One of Berman’s funny lines came when he commented on mine and Kiper’s hair!

Following the draft, I suggested to Fitts that if they planned to continue with the board, Kiper should be identified as the architect because that was the essence of his expertise.

Sure enough, he was moved from Bristol to New York the next year and Mel’s Big Board was born.

The actual board might not be as big now as it was then, but the draft itself only gets bigger and bigger over three days with two in prime time.

It’s humbling and gratifying to have been there at its birth.

This story also appeared as a guest column on barrettsports

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Story originally appeared on Cards Wire