The MMQB presents NFL 95, a special project running through mid-July detailing 95 artifacts that tell the story of the NFL, as the league prepares to enter its 95th season. See the entire series here.
How did this happen? And why hasn’t it happened for baseball, ice hockey or basketball? Everyone watches the NFL draft. In television ratings, it blasts playoffs games in every other major North American sport out of the water. With the help of Kiper and hundreds of draft gurus spawned in his image, ESPN and the NFL turned a quiet hotel ballroom tradition begun in 1936 into the true kickoff of the season; the league even pushed back the draft a month to May this year to hype the hypiest NFL event other than Super Bowl even more.
Here's how this happened: A skinny, draft-obsessed kid from Baltimore began charting the NFL's annual talent parade at age 12 and wrote his first comprehensive draft preview in 1979 as a high school senior. He sent that guide to every team in the league, seeking feedback, and soon he had developed contacts throughout the NFL among personnel people who were impressed with the kid’s dedication, and his knowledge. Operating out of his parents' basement, Kiper (pictured above in 1992) created a market basically out of nothing, selling his draft guide to subscribers and working the phones—"I'd talk to anyone who called me, two minutes to two hours," he told SI in ’92—to build a network and a reputation. The outsider became an insider in 1983 when Colts GM Ernie Accorsi hired him as a personal assistant. Accorsi would leave the team after the John Elway episode that year, but Kiper had arrived. He made his first appearance on ESPN in 1984, and has been a fixture on the network's draft-day coverage ever since. He also produced his Blue Book every year, 35 editions, until this spring. That's right: As of 2014, the Blue Book is no more.
No matter. An army of draftniks with their own websites arrived in his wake, all mulling over the same information and issuing their own mock drafts and predictions. The draft has become a landmark on the spring sports calendar. Some say it's a non-event: No one knows whether a guy will be a Hall of Famer or a bust until he hits the field, and Kiper has had his share of misses over the years. But good on Mel for making his dream come true and helping create an entirely new industry. Not too many people can say that.