One ill-fated 1982 phone call jump-started the NFL's longest run of ineptitude. The bizarre and calamitous story of Booker Reese only got worse from there
BY DON BANKS
Bad calls, as Ken Herock well knew by that point in his personnel career, were just part of the process when it came to the annual crapshoot known as the NFL draft. But nothing in his long and mostly successful run as a club executive in the league would ever rival the chaos and slapstick execution that unfolded in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ war room during the first round of the team’s pivotal 1982 draft.
A team picking the wrong guy happens all the time in the draft. But a team picking the wrong guy? Saying one name into the phone to your club’s representative at draft headquarters in New York City, only to hear another name called from the podium seconds later on national television by NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle? When has an on-the-clock team ever blundered quite like that in the history of the league’s collegiate player pick-fest?
Never, before or since, as far as anyone can tell. The star-crossed Bucs of 1982 stand alone, having orchestrated the mother of all draft misses in the infamous Booker Reese saga.
“It was exciting, I know that,’’ says Herock, the former Tampa Bay director of player personnel, recalling the first-round pick the Bucs bungled 32 years ago last week, prompting them into an ill-fated second-round trade for Reese that yielded disastrous results and helped set off a domino effect of losing and record-breaking ineptitude for more than a decade in Tampa Bay. “I was like, ‘Holy s---, what just happened?’ I’d never done anything like that before. I had built a team that went to the playoffs in Tampa Bay, but through my whole career, that’s probably the toughest hit I’ve ever taken.’’
NFL fans have heard plenty about the expansion-era follies of the Bucs franchise, from the epic 0-26 losing streak of 1976-77, to the mind-numbingly short-sighted front office decisions to let starting quarterback Doug Williams get away in 1983 and to draft a baseball-loving Bo Jackson first overall in 1986. But one of the lesser-known tales of Bucs futility involved faulty speaker phones that played a crucial role in the outcome of their 1982 draft, and helped to pull the pin on the grenade of defeat and dysfunction that left Tampa Bay to endure a league-record 12 consecutive seasons of double-digit losses from 1983-94, and 15 years between playoff trips.
The Booker Reese draft, as it came to be known in Bucs history, has a singular place in the team’s crowded Hall of Shame. He was the draft bust that should never have been, but having missed out on him once due to a fluke of fate, Tampa Bay couldn’t leave well enough alone. The Bucs wound up getting their man, but at a cost that kept mounting in time. The bizarre tale of how Reese became a Buc, and what transpired after he did, reads like a story too farcical for fiction.
After two forgettable and unproductive seasons, Reese was dealt away to the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for a lowly 12th-round draft pick and by 1985 he had washed out of the league altogether in a haze of underachievement and drug use. But the specter of Reese and the trade that brought him to Tampa Bay lingered far longer, haunting the franchise for years to come.
Coming off their second NFC Central championship in three years in 1981, the John McKay-coached Bucs entered the 1982 draft with the certainty that they were building a program with a decent shot to be a perennial winner. With the 17th pick of the first round that year, the Bucs chose Penn State guard Sean Farrell, a highly regarded prospect and future Pro Bowl selection who would go on to play 11 years in the league for four different teams. They just didn’t mean to. At least not at No. 17.
Tampa Bay’s first-round decision came down to either Farrell—a linemate of fellow Penn State guard Mike Munchak, who went 8th overall to Houston in 1982—or Reese, a raw but promising 6-6, 260-pound defensive end from Bethune-Cookman College, a small, predominantly black school in Daytona Beach, Fla. Farrell was far more polished and pro-ready, but Reese had freakish athletic skills, especially as a pass rusher, and the Bucs defense for a couple of years had been seeking someone to successfully man left end, opposite future Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon at right end. Tampa Bay’s coaches and personnel men had worked Reese out and were fairly well smitten by his 4.68 in the 40-yard dash.
As the Bucs’ time on the clock in the first round approached, Herock says, he called veteran Tampa Bay equipment manager Pat Marcuccillo—who was given the plum and presumably easy job of representing the team at the draft in New York—and told him to write down two names, Farrell and Reese, and to stay tuned. Meanwhile back in Tampa, the debate continued in the Bucs’ draft room, and eventually the clock wound down to about a minute remaining in the team’s 15-minute first-round window.
That’s when the Bucs’ best-laid first-round plans were apparently foiled by a pair of speaker phones and some background noise from rowdy fans in the league’s draft headquarters at the New York City Sheraton Hotel, where the draft was conducted in those years.
“The communication we had then, today you would consider it archaic,’’ Herock says of the speaker phones that both he and Marcuccillo were using that day. “We were on the phone, but it was hard to hear. I’m hearing Pat say, ‘Quiet, quiet, quiet, I can’t hear what he’s saying.’ And I can hear a lot of noise on the other end, in the background in New York. We were close to our time, but we always let it ride until the last 30 seconds or so and then we’d turn the pick in.
“We thought we needed both of those players, but after we mulled it over and discussed it, the selection was to go with Booker Reese. So I told Pat, I said, ‘Listen, Pat, you’ve got two names there.’ I said ‘We’re not going with Sean Farrell, we’re going with Booker Reese. Turn it in.’ But he didn’t hear the Booker Reese part of it because of the noise. He took it that we were going with Sean Farrell and turned it in.’’
There was no noise, only stunned silence at first in the Bucs’ war room when Rozelle called out Farrell’s name on ESPN—in only its third year of televising the draft—and then a whole lot of angry shouting as the reality set in.
“After we turned in the pick, we’re watching a minute later on television and we find out we had selected Sean Farrell,’’ says Herock, laughing at the memory. “There was a lot of cussing, like, you know, ‘What the hell’s he doing? What’s going on here?’ That kind of stuff. But there was nothing you could do. That’s the name that was turned in, and they went with the name that was turned in. That’s the way the selection process went.’’
But actually, the Bucs didn’t just throw up their hands and accept their mistake as their fate. Unbelievably, Herock instructed Marcuccillo to get up and head for the podium to aggressively plead Tampa Bay’s case for reversal. That’s right, the Bucs tried to rescind the pick, likely establishing another first in NFL draft history.
“We told him, ‘Listen, Pat, you turned in the wrong name,’ ’’ Herock says. “Get up there and get the thing changed, okay?’ But the league said once the name is turned in, you’re done, that’s it.’’
Joe Browne, the veteran NFL public relations official and current Senior Advisor to the Commissioner, remembers someone at the Bucs’ table at draft headquarters informing members of the league’s personnel staff that the team had somehow selected the wrong player. Browne says that piece of startling news came long after the announcement of Tampa Bay’s pick, and maybe even as late as after a couple other picks by other teams had been made and announced.
As Browne wrote in an email to SI.com: “The decision was made by our executive team at that point that we could not put the genie back in the bottle, so the draft....and life....went on. I’m pretty sure [Bucs owner Hugh] Culverhouse then called Pete [Rozelle]. Mr. C pleaded his case, but Pete knew at that point there were no do-overs.’’
Former Bucs director of public relations Rick Odioso, then the team’s assistant PR director, blames some raucous Giants fans in New York for the botched communication in 1982’s first round. Odioso was in the Bucs’ war room and his first-hand account starts with the reminder that the Giants held the No. 18 pick that year, just after Tampa Bay’s, and that in great draft tradition, the New York partisans were screaming for their team to make a selection even as the Bucs’ time on the clock was winding down. New York wound up taking Michigan running back Butch Woolfolk at 18.
“I was sitting back just observing that day, but I may more than anybody else know exactly what went wrong,’’ says Odioso, who remained with the organization well into the ’90s. “Those speaker phones we used back in those days basically only worked one way at time, kind of like walkie-talkies. You couldn’t have people speaking at the same time back and forth, you had to grab control of the speaker’s phone signal when it was your turn to speak.’’
Odioso doesn’t recall hearing Herock give Marcuccillo the names of both Farrell and Reese to write down as the Bucs’ pick approached, when the background noise wasn’t yet a factor, only that of Farrell.
“So we’re on the clock, and we’re thinking about it, and thinking about it, and thinking about it, and as that was happening, people in New York start screaming for the Giants to make a pick,’’ Odioso says. “I believe the noise from the Giants fans grabbed control of the speaker phone signal and blocked out some of what Tampa was trying to say to Pat. So now it’s getting late and Kenny finally said, ‘Pat, Booker Reese, defensive end, Bethune-Cookman,’ and then he said ‘Turn it in.’ But I’m of the mind that the only thing that got through to Pat was ‘Turn it in,’ and the only card he had prepared was Sean Farrell’s.’’
By all accounts, Marcuccillo was shaken and horrified over his role in the mistaken pick, and made a desperate and impassioned case to the NFL officials to un-do it.
“Oh, he was almost crying because he was so upset that he did the wrong thing,’’ Herock says. “I eventually said, ‘Pat, don’t worry about it, man. That’s the way it goes. It happened. We got a good player in Farrell. Pat wasn’t the cause of what happened. The cause was the communications. If we had the kind of communications we have today, it would have never happened that way.’’
Though Herock said Culverhouse remained calm in the team’s draft room in the immediate aftermath of the Farrell pick, at least one media report in subsequent years claimed the Bucs aging owner angrily blurted out: “If this ever gets out of this room, you’re all fired!’’
Herock calls that quote “a bunch of baloney,’’ because “you knew something like that would leave the room.’’ Odioso recalls Culverhouse saying something to the effect of: “This can’t leave the room,’’ with or without a threat attached, but hastens to add that that ship had already sailed for the out-of-luck Bucs.
“You can imagine the reaction in the room, because it was not who we wanted,’’ Odioso says. “But in my opinion, whatever Mr. Culverhouse wanted to accomplish was pretty much defeated when they had Pat try to take the pick back. Once they did that, word quickly spread around New York of what had happened. It was out in New York among people who had no interest in keeping it quiet. I don’t know if it’s ever happened before or since where a team has turned in a pick and then tried to take it back. Is there a precedent for that?
“If they had said, ‘Okay, Pat, that’s our little secret and we’re going to go forward with Sean Farrell,’ then maybe it had a chance of staying a secret. But we had Pat go up and try to rescind the pick. So I was of the mind that it had already left the room when that happened. Mr. Culverhouse in essence was trying to lock the barn door after the horse was stolen.’’
Why the Bucs’ experienced a late, on-the-clock change of heart away from Farrell and in Reese’s direction within the team’s draft room has remained largely a mystery for more than three decades. But one previously reported rationale was debunked by everyone SI.com contacted for this story: That Tampa Bay assistant to the president and team negotiator Phil Krueger, a long-time member of the Bucs front office, was pushing for Reese, because he feared signability issues with Farrell being represented by high-profile agent Marvin Demoff. Reese was represented by little-known agent Ivery Black.
Contacted recently, Demoff said he had no pre-pick contact whatsoever with Tampa Bay regarding Farrell or his potential contract demands, and Herock said financial considerations held no sway in the decision to go with Reese.
“It had nothing to do with money,’’ Herock says. “And Krueger had no say in any of it. I was a good friend of Marvin Demoff’s and he had actually represented me in some of my negotiations. It had nothing to do with who the agents were. It was strictly a personnel decision. It wasn’t like these two players were something we were just grabbing at to grab at. They were very well scouted and very well touted and as it turned out, Sean Farrell was the better pick. And after the surprise wore off, I said, ‘Hey, let’s calm down. We got a good player. Let’s go on.’ ’’
Farrell was as stunned to learn that he had been taken 17th overall by the Bucs as were those members of the organization who lived through the shocking and bizarre turn of events in the team’s draft room. He had had only minimal contact with Tampa Bay officials in the pre-draft months and, once considered a potential top 10 pick, he didn’t think he’d still be on the board when the Bucs’ turn rolled around in the high teens.
Sealing the deal, or so he thought, Farrell had received a phone call from Bucs offensive line coach Bill (Tiger) Johnson earlier in the first round, and the gist of the conversation was that Tampa Bay would not be addressing its offensive line needs with its No. 1 pick.
“It was one of the first few years that they actually had the draft on TV as I recall, and I was sitting at home watching the thing, and then Tiger Johnson called me,’’ says Farrell, who still lives in the Tampa Bay area and is the director of a Merrill Lynch complex in Tampa. “We talked for a couple minutes and then he said, ‘Well, it looks like we’re going to go in a different direction. We’d love to have had you, but best of luck,’ and he was gone.
“Then I’m sitting there watching this like the rest of America, and now I’m thinking I have a pretty good chance of going home, to the Giants at No. 18, because I knew they needed offensive line help [Farrell grew up in Southampton, N.Y.]. And no sooner did I think that then all of a sudden they announce my name to Tampa Bay. I was absolutely dumbfounded.’’
And it didn’t take Farrell long to discover most of the unique back story to his selection, learning he was in reality the Bucs’ second choice for their first choice. Farrell was a very solid starter who gave Tampa Bay five quality seasons at guard, but the team’s losing ways and minor-league-type operations in the upper reaches of the team’s front office drove him crazy throughout his Bucs tenure. In retrospect, his draft-day experience was a harbinger of the dysfunction and bumbling to come.
“It speaks to all of what I experienced over those five years,’’ says Farrell, who also played for New England, Denver and Seattle. “Every bit of it. That’s exactly the way it went consistently for five years. And it had nothing to do with the coaching staff. I should have known that day. I mean, if you’ve been in a conversation with somebody and they wished you good luck, with pleasantries and calling it a day, you’d have to figure out what the heck happened when you ended up going there.’’
Farrell said he never learned the Bucs had tried gamely to take his selection back but got nowhere with the NFL. But when informed of that development, he didn’t sound the least bit surprised.
“When something goes that awry, it makes you wonder what’s going on?’’ Farrell says. “Even the fact that it was Pat, the team’s equipment manager, there at the draft, putting in the picks. That kind of puts it into perspective for you. Your equipment manager’s not really in the in crowd. But it was his job to get the names to the podium, and the only pick he knew was viable was me, so he put my name in. It was like that with the Bucs. The organization was just so upside down. Things like this were commonplace.’’
So commonplace that as he was nearing the end of his Tampa Bay tenure, Farrell famously appeared before an Orlando-based Bucs booster in December 1986 and unloaded on his own organization.
“I know what I want for Christmas,’’ Farrell began. “I want to get the hell out of Tampa Bay. I don’t care where I’m going. I just want out.’’
Farrell got out, via a trade to New England in 1987, where he started for three seasons at guard. Two more seasons in Denver and a final year in Seattle only served to show him just how far removed Tampa Bay was from the NFL norm in so many ways.
“There were things that just made you say, ‘Holy Cow, this place is different than any place I’ve ever seen in my life,’ ’’ Farrell says. “For starters, the team facility was like a solid high school facility. One Buc Place and Moeller High in Ohio were probably on par. Then there were all the little things, like players getting billed for winning game balls. They’d give you a game ball—and fortunately you didn’t get too many in Tampa Bay—but you’d get your check that week and you’d get dinged for 40 or 50 bucks for the ball.
“Every year about the end of October, we’d get a cold spell come through and you’d get sweat suits for walk-throughs or whatever. And they’d bill you for those, too. And if you recall they were all orange. They looked liked prison jumpsuits. You couldn’t wear them anywhere else but at One Buc. Even the Coke machine near the locker room, you had to have the 35 cents or whatever to buy a Coke. All true stories.’’
Farrell says that he loved the players he played with and the Bucs coaching staff, but the small-time feel of Tampa Bay made his days at a powerhouse program like Penn State seem like a cruel mirage.
“I went to the Patriots in 1987, and found out they had lunch catered in for their players,’’ Farrell says. “Not in Tampa. We would tape up for practice and get in half our gear, and you’d drive over to Wendy’s or someplace like that and go through the drive-thru to get lunch before you had to come back and practice. I literally remember driving in my car with my hands taped and I have on my football pants with the pads in the bottom of them, going to get a Wendy’s sandwich so I could eat before practice. It was ridiculous.’’
As omens go, the accidental drama of draft day 1982 was as clear-cut as they get, Farrell says.
“When you got to Tampa Bay, you kind of figured things out pretty quickly,’’ he says. “You saw the weight room that’s smaller than your high school weight room. You saw the practice field that was right next to the departure end of Tampa International [Airport], with all the jets doing their run-ups during practice. You kept wondering if you were really in the NFL.
“But the one thing you can say about the way the ’82 draft went, it was fitting. Because it just kind of matches the way everything went in the time period I was a Buccaneer, and for many years after.’’
Had the Bucs quit while they were actually ahead in the 1982 draft, taking Farrell and shaking off the Reese debacle, Tampa Bay’s franchise history might have been quite different indeed. No one in the organization had reason to feel great about how the team’s first-round pick went down on the clock, but the Bucs did get one of the two players they were most interested in, and there was no real calamity in that. Farrell was easily the higher rated of the two prospects, from a proven football factory in Penn State, and he played a position of need for Tampa Bay.
But at some point late in the first round, Herock looked up and realized that Reese, the team’s intended first pick, was still very much available as the second round neared. Perhaps inspired to have their cake and eat it too, the Bucs decided to get proactive and continue their pursuit of Reese. Unfortunately Tampa Bay didn’t own a second-round selection that year, having sent it to cross-state rival Miami in an August 1980 trade that netted the Bucs starting cornerback Norris Thomas and reserve running back Gary Davis, in exchange for fullback Jimmy DuBose and the draft pick. Thomas was a big-hit, no-cover defensive back who lacked “ball skills’’ in football parlance, but he wound up playing a significant role in the Reese saga. Thomas lasted five seasons with the Bucs, starting just 25 games and intercepting two passes.
With no second-rounder with which to land Reese on their own, the Bucs hit the phone (again), trying to pry a spot in the second round away from one of the other 27 NFL teams. NFC Central rival Chicago was the team that bit, sending the Bucs’ their second-round choice (32nd overall) in exchange for—wait for it—Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in 1983. A short while later, the Bucs exuberantly turned in the card for Reese early in the second round (Marcuccillo probably thought he was mercifully off the hook), and with that, all the pieces needed for this Tampa Bay football tragi-comedy were now in place.
“Booker Reese is still on the board, and obviously this is where it gets worse,’’ Odioso says. “You’ve drafted Sean Farrell and he’s going to be a good player in the National Football League. You’re still all right. But now Booker is still there, and we don’t have a second-round pick. If we had a second-round pick, we don’t trade the first-rounder in ’83.
“But Kenny said, ‘Oh, hey, the guy we were going to draft in the first round, he’s still there in the second.’ And rather than wonder why he was still there in the second round, he saw that as an opportunity to go after him. Even someone like me knew the ’82 draft was a very routine draft and the ’83 draft was filled with outstanding prospects.’’
Outstanding prospects might be a tad understated. The Class of ’83 featured the greatest quarterback class of football’s modern era, launching the Hall of Fame careers of John Elway (first overall pick), Jim Kelly (14th) and Dan Marino (27th). Three more Hall of Fame talents who went in that first round were running back Eric Dickerson (2nd), offensive lineman Bruce Matthews (9th) and Darrell Green (28th). And that’s the first round the Bucs bailed out of in April 1982, in their ill-considered quest for Reese.
And as fate would have it, come the 1983 season Tampa Bay was desperate for a starting quarterback after Culverhouse became locked into a bitter contract stalemate with Williams, the team’s 1978 first-round pick and unquestioned team leader, who had helped guide the expansion franchise to the playoffs in three of the past four seasons, including 1982’s strike-shortened campaign, in which the Bucs went 5-4.
While many correctly see the Bucs’ failure to re-sign Williams as the linchpin of the franchise’s long and painful descent to NFL laughingstock status, had the Bucs not traded their 1983 first-rounder to Chicago in exchange for the ineffective Reese, Tampa Bay would have had a safety net of sorts for the loss of Williams, and might have survived the blow. Who knows, perhaps it even would have been the No. 18 Bucs and not the No. 27 Dolphins who were savvy enough to step up and stop Marino’s slide down the first-round draft board in ’83, changing the balance of power between the NFL’s first two franchises for the next decade-plus.
Let that one soak in for just a minute: Booker Reese might have come at the cost of Dan Marino. A botched pick doesn’t get more painful than that.
“They had the Curse of Doug Williams for like 20 years there in Tampa,’’ says Herock, who drafted Williams 17th overall out of Grambling in 1978. Herock left the Bucs after McKay retired following the 1984 season, and later became the Atlanta Falcons’ top personnel executive for 10 years (1987-96), as well as serving three stints in Oakland’s personnel department and a career-capping three-year stay in Green Bay as a vice-president of personnel under general manager Ron Wolf. With the Falcons, it was Herock who was in charge when Atlanta traded second-year quarterback Brett Favre to Wolf in Green Bay in February 1992, at the urging of then-Falcons head coach Jerry Glanville.
“We screwed it up at quarterback in Tampa when we couldn’t sign Doug Williams, which was a travesty in itself,’’ Herock says. “But in the ’82 draft, once we realized we could still get Reese in the second round, we decided to give up our first the next year, because we thought we were going to be a real good team with a low pick that year. We had a great defense with that Bucs team, and that’s why we took Booker. We said if he turns into the player we think he can be, we can be great. Let’s take a chance on him. Let’s take a chance on something special. That was the thought any way.’’
In fairness to Herock, he was far from the only Tampa Bay decision-maker sold on Reese’s potential. Defensive line coach Abe Gibron and defensive coordinator Wayne Fontes were equally taken with Reese’s blend of size, speed and athleticism. As for McKay, the veteran Bucs head coach and former USC legend who was entering his seventh season leading expansion Tampa Bay, he routinely trusted the judgment of Herock, Gibron and Fontes when it came draft time.
Current Atlanta Falcons president and CEO Rich McKay, the former Bucs and Falcons general manager and son of John McKay, was in law school in the spring of 1982, and living back in Tampa. Though he did not attend the draft that year as was his custom, he knows and lived the flawed Booker Reese selection from the inside.
“Coach Gibron and the defensive staff, they bought into the player now,’‘ Rich McKay says. “They bought into his upside. I don’t think it’d be right to say this was a Kenny Herock transaction. It doesn’t mean we got it right, because it wasn’t right. But at that point he was seen as the heir to Lee Roy Selmon.’’
But Reese and Selmon wound up being Tampa Bay’s two polar opposites when it comes to draft choices. One was the franchise’s first Hall of Famer after having been its first ever draft pick in the expansion season of 1976, and one became synonymous for disappointment, failure and wasted resources.
“Coach McKay listened pretty closely to Kenny Herock and if he recommended a player, Coach McKay usually went along with it,’’ says Krueger, now 84 and living in retirement in Broward County, Fla. In 1982, Krueger assisted John McKay in McKay’s dual role as team president, largely dealing with player contract negotiations and keeping an ever-watchful (and some would say ridiculously frugal) eye on the team’s bottom line as the keeper of the Culverhouse purse strings.
“The scouts had pushed [Reese] pretty hard, and so that was a player we went after,’’ says Krueger, who would go on to briefly become the Bucs general manager in the early ’90s. “I kept out of that end of it, because those weren’t my duties. But myself, I was never a Booker Reese fan. I didn’t really think that was a draft choice that could help us at that time. I recall Booker Reese was a bust, and he wasn’t capable of playing in the league. I don’t know why anyone was that high on him. Farrell was ready to play, and we got our money’s worth out of him.’’
In the rush to find a trade partner as the second round loomed, the Bucs unbelievably had no one in their draft room who stood up and made the case for not dealing out of the talent-laden 1983 first round, which was already being viewed as the best draft class to come along in many years. Especially with Williams entering the final year of his contract, a word of caution should have been sounded on 1983’s behalf.
“I never heard that discussed,’’ Krueger says. “If it was, it wasn’t for long.’’
With the No. 18 pick in the 1983 draft pocketed from Tampa Bay, the Bears chose Tennessee receiver Willie Gault, the former track star who was a productive pass-catching and kick returning weapon on Chicago’s celebrated 1985 Super Bowl championship team, and split his 11-year NFL career almost evenly between the Bears and Raiders.
For the Bucs, the endless, fruitless chase for a quarterback had begun by the offseason of 1983. See if you can sense a pattern here: Fearing they couldn’t re-sign Williams, Tampa Bay in the spring of 1983 disastrously traded another No. 1 pick, this one in 1984, to Cincinnati for backup quarterback Jack Thompson, a former 1979 first-rounder who had failed to beat out incumbent Bengals starter Ken Anderson. Herock was very much against that deal, he says, as was Bucs quarterbacks coach Boyd Dowler, who had worked with Thompson in Cincinnati and was said to consider him not even worthy of a second-round pick. But, Herock says, McKay fully backed the trade, believing Thompson to be the guy to replace Williams.
From 1983-94, the Bucs had 12 consecutive double-digit losing seasons — an NFL record. It’s a stretch that can be directly tied to a decade of disastrous drafts, started by the Reese debacle in 1982.
Thompson lasted two miserable seasons in Tampa Bay (1983-84), winning just three of his 16 starts. He was briefly beaten out by Bucs backup QB Jerry Golsteyn for the No. 1 job in 1983, and lost the spot for good in ’84, when Tampa Bay traded for Denver backup Steve DeBerg, who had been supplanted by Elway. That same year, Herock drafted Steve Young in the NFL’s Supplemental Draft, which that year was comprised mostly of players who had signed with the fledgling USFL out of college. By 1985, Young was sharing time with DeBerg, but in the two-year Leeman Bennett coaching era, Tampa Bay went 4-28 with Young and DeBerg at quarterback, trading Young to San Francisco in 1987.
Tampa Bay drafted Vinny Testaverde No. 1 overall in 1987, but by the summer of 1990, frustrated with Testaverde’s lack of development and occasional injuries, fourth-year Bucs coach Ray Perkins shipped the team’s No. 1 pick in 1992 to Indianapolis in exchange for Colts quarterback Chris Chandler. The Colts wound up getting linebacker Quentin Coryatt at No. 2 overall with that selection, while the injury-prone Chandler (whose nickname was “Candle,’’ because one blow and he was out) went 0-6 as the Bucs starter in 1990-91, and was cut in midseason 1991.
“They just kept chasing the quarterback need,’’ Odioso says. “If the Doug Williams negotiations had been accomplished maybe things would have been different. But the Booker Reese trade and losing Doug, they were the two seminal events in what happened to the Bucs.’’
Farrell, who spent the 1982-86 seasons in Tampa Bay, on teams that went 2-14 in three of those years, says that the vacuum at quarterback was where the Bucs’ problems started, and the groundwork for that unsolvable dilemma began when the Bucs traded their 1983 first-rounder for Reese.
“Being in the first round of that quarterback-rich 1983 draft was probably the thing they missed out on the most,’’ Farrell says. “And frankly if Doug Williams had stayed with the team it would have been a completely different outcome. That trade wouldn’t have mattered if they if they’d been able to hold on to Doug.
“If you put the book together on the number of quarterbacks who went through Tampa, it’s amazing. It was just a comedy of errors. It was a very good team I joined in ’82 as a rookie, but after that, from that ’82 draft and then Doug’s departure, it all went downhill completely, and fast.’’
After Tampa Bay gave up so much to acquire Reese, his struggles upon reaching the NFL were legendary. He was often over-matched on the field, with shoddy technique and bad habits that had to be broken, but if anything he was even more ill-prepared for handling the pro football lifestyle with the necessary maturity and judgment needed at that level.
Rich McKay says that the Bucs knew about the problems Reese faced within six months of drafting him, because “all the issues he had were so apparent when he first showed up. He was ill-prepared fundamentally and maybe physically, and certainly mentally, to play in the league,’’ McKay says. “There are other guys who have come into our league in similar circumstances and found ways to survive. He just didn’t.
“He was not prepared to have money in his pocket and be an NFL player, and all those off-field issues that come with that. It was too big for him. All of it. On the field and off the field. He had a long ways to go and he was truly that classic raw rookie. But whenever you trade a No. 1 pick for a guy, those expectations are awfully high and it was going to be impossible for him in the short term to live up to them.’’
Everyone describes Reese the same way: Likable and good-natured, but naive to the point of being too gullible for his own good. His Bucs teammates liked having him around, but they also quickly saw he couldn’t deliver the goods his price tag implied, and began questioning how the team’s front office had been duped.
“Booker was a really good guy, polite and well-mannered,’’ Farrell says. “And the amazing thing about Booker was, when he suited up, he blocked out the sun he was so big. He had all the physical tools, but there were obviously a few pieces missing otherwise. From time to time he’d do something pretty special. He could flash. But he just would never have developed rapidly enough under the constraints of NFL football. You need to be ready to go by the time you get there.’’
Stories about Reese’s relative lack of sophistication by NFL standards were numerous, but the one that always gets told first involved him receiving the $150,000 bonus check from the Bucs upon signing his five-year contract as a rookie. Reese decided to immediately head for Superior Pontiac in Tampa and do a little car shopping. A Firebird for him, and a van for his mother were purchased.
“When I did finally sign him and give him his bonus, which was substantial, I’m sitting in my office and the phone rings,’’ Krueger recalls. “The guy on the phone from a car dealership says ‘We’ve got a problem here. Booker Reese is here and he’s bought two cars.’ ’’
As it turns out, when the car salesman closed the deal and asked Reese how he wanted to pay, Reese produced his bonus check, which was worth well over six figures more than the price of the cars. “Take this,’’ Reese said, “and just give me the change.’’
Veteran Bucs linebacker Richard Wood says that the car story is just one of many such examples of Reese’s lack of polish. “I asked him if he really did that and he said yes,’’ Wood says. “He said ‘I wanted to go get my mom and me a car.’ People made fun of it, but I always tried to feel what I would have felt being that person. He was a good kid, he really was. You know people can be cruel. Booker had a good heart but he just wasn’t ready for the NFL. He just wasn’t ready.’’
Wood says that Gibron, Tampa Bay’s defensive line coach, quickly grew disappointed with the lack of development by the player who had won the Washington Pigskin Club’s Black College Player of the Year award and been named a Sheridan All-American. But the harder Reese worked, the more confusing he seemed to find the NFL game. Even his transition to a three-point stance and a three-man defensive line in the pros was difficult. Most of the time in Tampa Bay he was a part-time player and special teams performer, starting just seven games in two years.
Herock had joined the Bucs personnel office in 1976 along with Wolf, and both had come from Oakland, where owner Al Davis historically loved to draft players who were especially athletically gifted, with height and speed making the Raiders swoon. Reese perfectly fit that profile.
“He was a small-college freakish athlete that you had to train, prepare and coach, and he was going to be a project type of player,’’ Herock says. “But we thought the results could be worth it if he developed. The mental part of the game was difficult for him, but in reality, what happened was he got hooked on drugs and it ruined him. That was the end of him as a football player. I kept hearing he’s not picking the system up as quickly as we wanted. But he was probably spaced out. He was probably high.
“After the first year, we were saying maybe another year might do it. But I was already questioning it, just hoping he could develop instead of knowing he’s going to develop. It just didn’t work out.’’
Reese did indeed have substance abuse problems, and in time it became known that a number of Bucs players in the early ’80s had issues with cocaine. Reese found the NFL overwhelming and succumbed to the temptation of alcohol and drugs in Tampa, trying the team’s patience with a drug-related 1984 arrest, and becoming less and less dependable on the field. His entire Tampa Bay tenure spanned 24 games, with just two sacks and two interceptions, and the Bucs finally gave up on him, sending him to the Rams in 1984 for a fraction of his original cost.
He went through drug rehab with the Rams, but was released by Los Angeles after testing positive for cocaine, having played in only 11 games with the team. A short stay in San Francisco in the offseason of 1985 ended when he tested positive a second time and was again released before the season began.
Once Reese was out of the NFL, his drug use and legal problems intensified, and he eventually did prison time in Florida, for a parole violation in connection with his 1999 conviction for cocaine possession. SI.com’s efforts to reach Reese were unsuccessful, and no one associated with the Bucs past or present seems to know his whereabouts today, with several sources for this story saying that they last heard he was homeless and on the streets back in his hometown of Jacksonville.
In a 2003 story in the Tampa Bay Times, while he was still in prison, Reese told the newspaper that he started smoking pot in college, graduated to cocaine by 1981, the year before he was drafted, and started to seriously abuse alcohol and cocaine by the time his Bucs career was failing.
“I should have known it was going to take time,’’ Reese told the Times. “If it didn’t come in five or 10 minutes, I’d get depressed, and I’d turn to alcohol or other things..... I thought I was having a good time.’’
When the Bucs made their doomed decision to trade for the rights to draft Reese, they thought the good times were going to continue for an expansion franchise that had achieved an unprecedented amount of early success in NFL history, with three playoff trips in its first seven seasons. But the Reese trade was instead the fateful first step in a chain of events that laid Tampa Bay low until head coach Tony Dungy arrived on the scene in 1996 and began the team’s long-awaited turnaround.
The Bucs’ comical failure to land Reese in 1982’s first round begat only more failure, with Tampa Bay compiling a league-worst .297 winning percentage in the 15 seasons spanning 1982-96. After the bumbling of the Bucs’ 0-26 start, somehow things were even worse in Tampa Bay throughout most of the ’80s and early ’90s.
“We thought we were building a team to last, a consistently championship contending team in the NFC Central,’’ says Wood, the standout linebacker who played in Tampa Bay from 1976-84. “We thought we were really starting to put something together. But as we all know, we bungled it up. We bungled the team and just faded away. And it started with that ’82 draft. It was amazing to all of us that it went down that way. It was a bad decision and it just didn’t make sense. A move like that makes you start questioning management. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen with perennially winning teams.’’