Take away the cable TV hype and the Radio City Music Hall spectacle. No stack of scrolling bars with stats and the army of over-compensated blowhards on TV. No concert hall filled with screaming fans who have memorized mostly irrelevant combine stats.
Take every glimmer of glamour, polish, and stardust away, and all that is left is the podium and the moment. A moment that is both a culmination and a beginning, ending a process that includes the relay of a name, a furious backroom debate, and months and months of preparation for a team, and a lifetime of effort, sacrifices, and blessings for a player who is about to start his career.
The NFL Draft doesn’t need all the help it gets to be special. It didn’t need it when Andrew Luck was selected #1 last year, didn’t need it when Peyton Manning got the call in 1998, and it didn’t need it in 1983 when John Elway was selected #1 by the Baltimore Colts in a less than glamorous ball room in a New York hotel.
The difference between these three, though, is that while Elway was selected by the Colts, he never wanted to and never did take a snap for the team, and that’s just a small part of why the 1983 NFL Draft was special in its own right.
When all was said and done, seven players that were selected in the 1983 Draft went to the Hall of Fame. Three of those players were quarterbacks — John Elway, Jim Kelly, and Dan Marino — three of the six quarterbacks taken in the first round.
The ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Elway to Marino tells the story of that first round through the eyes of some of the participants, agent Marvin Demoff (whose diary provides the spine of the story), and the people who scrambled behind the scenes to cut deals and get their man.
During the film — which is directed by NFL Film vet Ken Rodgers — we hear about Elway’s power play with the Colts and how he almost wound up playing for the New York Yankees before Colt’s owner Robert Irsay Sr. traded him to the Broncos.
We all know how that deal worked out. The Broncos went to five Super Bowls under Elway’s leadership, winning two. For the Colts, they continued to search for greatness from the quarterback position, never really finding an answer until they drafted Manning.
The most interesting parts of this film, though, are the stories that we didn’t know — the teams that almost wound up with Elway. Can we even imagine an NFL where Joe Montana — not quite a legend in 1983 despite his 1981 Super Bowl MVP performance — went from the 49ers to the Colts? Would the team still sneak out of Baltimore? Would the 49ers still win two more rings under Walsh and another two under George Seifert? How about Steve Young? Would the 49ers still have gone after the former Tampa Bay Buc burn-out if they had Elway in the fold?
That’s just one possible destination for Elway, who was apparently almost sent to the Cowboys for Danny White (one assumes that if the Cowboys had Elway, they would have never taken Troy Aikman), the Raiders for Howie Long, and several other destinations.
For Marino, he had the exact opposite experience. Nobody wanted the man who would at one point rank as the most prolific passer of all time in terms of yardage and TD passes, and his journey is far more interesting than Elway’s.
The heartache that must still rage in Kansas City (who selected Todd Blackledge — a Penn State QB who wound up being a total bust — with the 7th pick ahead of both Marino and 14th pick Jim Kelly), the same as it does in New York and New Jersey, where Jets fans will forever curse the name Ken O’Brien (who was taken 2 picks prior to Marino), despite his solid career.
Some will say that Marino doesn’t break the records he broke without coach Don Shula and wide receivers like Mark Duper and Mark Clayton, but Al Toon, Wesley Walker, and Rob Moore were pretty damn good at catching a football too.
Marino as a Chief, though? Hard to imagine that he would have had the same success, but hey, the seemingly ageless Steve DeBerg threw for almost 3,500 yards for the Chiefs at 36 in 1990, Dave Krieg threw for 3,115 at 34 in 1992, and former almost Colt Joe Montana threw for 3,283 in 1994 at 38, so who knows, maybe there was some kind of magic at Arrowhead in the early 90s that Marino could have tapped into to get even more success. With that said, though, Marino to JJ Birden sounds like a sin wrapped around a travesty. Sorry JJ.
New England’s pick of Tony Eason is also notable. Eason was picked one selection after Kelly and his brief career was punctuated by a Super Bowl run in 1985, but by the end of the 1989 season, he was O’Brien’s backup with the Jets and by the end of the 1990 season, he was done.
Kelly didn’t want to play in the cold (like Elway, who wound up playing in Denver), though, and went to play in the USFL for Houston after the Bills spent a pick on him, so it’s not a guarantee that he would have taken a snap in New England had fortunes differed, but I’m sure that was little comfort to Pats fans who had to live through the Hugh Millen era during Kelly’s early 90s heyday.
What was wrong with Eason? According to former coach Ron Meyer, the 6’4” 210lb quarterback was just too small. It’s ironic, though, that one of the people who replaced Eason was the 5’10” Doug Flutie, who after almost a decade in the CFL would one day come to Buffalo and be the first QB worth a damn following Kelly;s retirement in 1996. Can’t blame Meyer for Flutie, though, he was the coach of the Colts, yes the Colts by then, though he never got the chance to coach 11th round pick Jim Bob Taylor, the only quarterback the Colts wound up drafting and signing in 1983. He threw 2 passes in the NFL.
Terry Bradshaw is another NFL legend who was affected by this story. His presence with the Steelers likely pushed Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll to pass on Marino, who was born in Pittsburgh and played for Pittsburgh University.
Sadly, Bradshaw only threw 6 more passes than good ol’ Jim Bob Taylor in 1983, Bradshaw’s final year. The Steelers #1 pick in 1983? Gabe Rivera, whose career came to an end after only 6 games due to a horrific car crash.
The Steelers would struggle at quarterback (going through Mark Malone, Bubby Brister, and even a brief experiment with Blackledge) before Neil O’Donnell came aboard in 1990. O’Donnell would later go to the Jets a few years after O’Brien had fallen out of favor and damn does this all seem cyclical.
Anyway, the 1983 draft is notable for those little stories, those big busts, and the massive talent of not just Elway and Marino, but also Kelly. Those players are all-time greats and Hall of Famers, but if they had wound up in different situations, who’s to say that their careers would have worked out the same?
Elway to Marino lets us ponder some of those alternate realities for the historic quarterbacks in the 1983 draft, but it also shows us the justifiable nervousness, pettiness, and the consequences that get tied to the NFL Draft every year.
Like I said before though, if you take away everything at the NFL Draft, all that’s left is the podium and the moment, but as Elway to Marino also proves, that moment can last a lifetime if teams choose wrong.