Tales from the Draft: Michael Lombardi's Jerry Rice story

From now until (and actually after) draft day, current and former GMs and coaches do conference calls for the media, and we'll bring you some of the best stories as we get them. Yesterday, Michael Lombardi of the National Football Post, who spent over two decades in the personnel offices of the Raiders, Browns, 49ers, Eagles, and Broncos, did a media call and recounted one particular pre-draft process he witnessed with Bill Walsh in San Francisco.

In his hotel room the night before a 34-21 49ers win over the Houston Oilers in October of 1984, Walsh saw highlights of a Mississippi Valley State game on the news, and the performance of a guy by the name of Jerry Rice(notes) whomped him upside the head. Walsh's own director of scouting ranked Rice as a fifth-round talent (we're guessing that guy wasn't Walsh's director of scouting much longer), but when the '85 draft rolled around, Walsh was determined to get his man.

Lombardi on the process:

I was fortunate to be in the 49ers draft room when we selected him, and Coach Walsh called me in his office about three months before the draft actually back in November we were playing the Houston Oilers down in Houston, and he called me to his hotel suite on the Saturday night before the game, and I thought I was in trouble, which wouldn't be out of the norm. He called me in his room, and he said, 'Who's this kid on this team?' He said, 'I'm watching, this is incredible. Can you get me every tape on this guy?' And I said, 'Sure, Coach, that's Jerry Rice, I'll see what I can do.'

And as Gil (Brandt, the former Dallas Cowboys executive who was also on the call) knows, back at this time we were on 16 mm tape, which was expensive, hard to find, especially for the smaller schools. They held onto those tapes like gold. I went back to San Francisco after we won the game ... and got three tapes and gave them to Coach Walsh, and he watched them and I had to send them back out. And I said, 'Coach, I've got to send those tapes back out; would you mind if I get them off your desk?' and he said, 'Sure, go up and get them, you can send them out.' And so I went up there and he had a little note attached to them. And in his left handed handwriting, he had "John Jefferson... with speed," as he described Jerry Rice.

And then as he got into the draft, we had all plans to possibly select Eddie Brown. We thought Eddie Brown would be the guy that came to us. And Jerry Rice we moved up from 28th to 16. We traded our first, second and third round picks to the New England Patriots and we ended up getting their first and third round pick back for that trade. And when we got to 16, we thought, well, we'll get as least one of these receivers, and maybe we'll get Brown.

And then the Cincinnati Bengals, who we were on the phone with trying to trade with them, they decided to take Eddie Brown. Coach handed me the phone and said, 'Don't worry about it, we'll just pick Jerry Rice.' All we had to do was sweat out ... I think the Kansas City Chiefs were picking 15th, and they ended up picking Ethan Horton, the running back from North Carolina if my memory serves. And then we just picked Jerry Rice and went out to practice that following week for our first minicamp, and Dwight Clark came off the field and said, 'Smooth and rich.' That was his comment, and I think he's been proven correct.

The best part of this bit was Brandt's follow-up. "Let me add to that story. As you know, we thought that we were going to be able to draft Jerry Rice because we didn't think that you all knew as much about him or felt as strongly."

Sleepers aren't what they used to be, but it just goes to show -- you never know when you might run across a future Hall-of-Famer -- or the greatest ever at his position -- in the most unusual way.

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