It's 6:30 a.m., Tuesday, April 29—the day of the 1986 NFL draft—and Irene (Mama Ram) Offerdahl is up and around in the ranch house on Lincoln Drive in Sun Prairie, Wis. She's wearing a flannel nightgown and her favorite slippers, the humongous gray ones that look like elephant feet. She's trying to make her way to the kitchen, but there's a rather large person sound asleep outside her bedroom door, four more mounds in the living room and a lumpy sleeping bag in the front hall.
Mrs. Offerdahl pops two huge roasting pans into the oven; the spareribs will be served later, after her son John, a senior at Western Michigan and one of the best inside linebackers in college football, is drafted by one or another NFL team.
In the den, six more bodies are buried side by side in bedspreads and blankets, stretching lengthwise from one end of the room to the other. "These are the sleepers in the draft," Mama Ram whispers, "and the snorers."
She looks at her watch. It's 6:55. "Good morning, all," she says. "It's Wednesday. You've slept through the draft."
May 11, 1986
Mama Ram, so called because of an outrageous hairdo she sported some years ago, and daughter Sue pounce on either side of John. He throws off his covers and begins rolling over his college and high school buddies, who have come to Sun Prairie to be with Offerdahl on his big day.
"Steamroller!" his mother yells. She has seen this game many times, beginning when John was a kid—a much smaller kid. He's now 21 years old and 6'3", 232 pounds. "I'll time you as you roll back over them."
It's 7 a.m. "Should I turn on the TV?" Mama Ram asks, while doing just that.
"How long does the draft last?" wonders Juli Pepich, one of John's college friends.
"Forty-six hours," jokes Larry Winston, a former defensive back at Western Michigan. "Or, forever—whichever comes first."
Each year, several thousand college football players are considered for the NFL draft but only 330 or so are chosen. And fewer than a quarter of the draftees actually make the teams that select them.
Pro football has not been a lifelong dream of John Offerdahl's. He has a 3.0 grade point average in bio-medicine and has aspirations for medical school and a career in research. He is an accomplished French horn player.
But Offerdahl also is a talented athlete. He set a Mid-American Conference career record of 694 tackles and made a couple of All-America second teams. He was the most valuable defensive player for the North team in the '86 Senior Bowl.
The Offerdahl draft odyssey began in the spring of his junior year, when he was timed in the 40-yard dash by a scouting combine. He ran a 4.85, unimpressive by NFL scouting standards, but the scouts returned to Kalamazoo last fall to take another look. "I remember pulling John to the sidelines to introduce him to a Denver Broncos scout," says Western Michigan coach Jack Harbaugh. "And John replied, 'What's he doing here?' I said, 'He came to watch you play.' And John said, 'All the way from Denver?' "
Scouts weren't the only ones interested last fall. Agents called. And continued calling. One of Offerdahl's roommates, Pat Iuni, says, "We played a game called 'Who talked to the most famous person today?' Archie Manning called six times, trying to get John interested in his agent." Bart Starr called for the same purpose, and Deacon Jones also phoned, seeking to represent Offerdahl.
In January, at the East-West Shrine Game in Palo Alto, the New York Giants gave him a 480-question personality test. Sample question: If you were stuck in traffic, where would you like to be? a) in the front of the pack; b) in the middle, or c) at the back.
"It was easy to guess which answer was the football player answer—to be in front and be a leader," Offerdahl says. "I didn't answer the questions that way; I answered them the way I really felt. I'd rather be in the back. I was taught in driver's ed to maintain a five-second distance from the car ahead of me."
When he was at the East-West game, Offerdahl wasn't sure he was good enough to be drafted. "I had never seen so many big players on one field," he says. "I was intimidated."
The Senior Bowl a week later was equally frightening. "So many scouts and coaches were there, I was afraid to make a wrong move," he says. "I felt like a piece of meat. One day we had to weigh in and get measured, with all the scouts watching. We'd walk past them up one line, get our weight and call it off, walk to the other station and call off our height. Then we had to walk back down the aisle, past the scouts. It was like being in a beauty contest."
In the game, Offerdahl stopped Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson twice on crucial short-yardage plays, made open-field tackles, stuffed a quarterback sneak, slapped down passes and had an interception. He had been projected as a seventh-round draft choice, but no longer.
Offerdahl's next stop was New Orleans on Jan. 31 for a two-day jamboree run by the scouting combines at which hundreds of college players are put through their paces by NFL general managers, coaches and scouts. His strength, flexibility, balance and jumping ability were measured. He ran 40s and 30-and 60-yard quickness drills. He took a complete physical.
Every NFL type seemed to know Offerdahl, but the only people he recognized were the Cowboys' Tom Landry and the Lions' Darryl Rogers.
"I was introduced to Paul Brown [the legendary Cincinnati owner] on the elevator," Offerdahl says. "I was talking to him. When he got off, I said, 'Bye, Paul.' An agent who had been riding on the elevator said, 'Do you know who that was?' And I said, 'Yeah. Paul Brown.' He said, 'The Paul Brown. He practically invented football.' From now on, I'll call him Mr. Brown."
From February until mid-April, Offerdahl's life in Kalamazoo was unpredictable. "I'd go by the field house every day at 12:45 to see who wanted to test me," he says. "I could never make plans with my friends. I knew I'd only leave them waiting."
Most NFL teams visited twice. Dallas made four trips. "The Cowboys were out of control," Offerdahl says. "One time, their scout pulled out a torque box to test my hip strength. Well, he couldn't get it to work. So he came all the way back to Kalamazoo two days later. Then the test only took two minutes."
During one two-week span, Offerdahl was examined by two teams each day. The question most often asked: "How committed are you to medical school?" The strangest question: A Washington Redskins scout asked Offerdahl if he liked girls.
And when the teams weren't around, they made sure the NFL was on his mind. "Dallas sent me so much junk—all with form letters," he says. "I only kept the pen, because it worked. Why do teams send that stuff? It's not like they're recruiting us. We have no choice of teams."
The scouts pestered Offerdahl about his 40-yard-dash time. His agent called the NFL office in New York, asking that the teams be informed that John would rerun 40s on two days in early April. Then Offerdahl took aerobics classes and sprinted on a track. Ten teams showed up, and he ran a very commendable 4.7, making him even more attractive to the scouts.
Meanwhile, the questions about medical school persisted. "They [scouts] were concerned that if things got tough in football, I'd bail out and go to school," he says. "They didn't want me to have high aspirations for anything except football."
In a way, the pre-draft stress wasn't much different from football life during the season.
"A lot of the fun things I did in college I did to keep sane," Offerdahl says. "There was a time [last fall] when I went into the film room at the stadium, took my helmet off and cried. I took a shower and left. The pressure of football and school was too much. Winning and losing isn't the important thing. Doing well and having fun is."
On April 25, the Friday before the draft, Harbaugh and his wife, Jackie, hosted a small farewell dinner for Offerdahl. John had to ask for directions; it was only the second time in four years that he had been to his coach's house.
Offerdahl asked Harbaugh a question: "Coach, I've always wondered, do you know how much pressure you put on me the last four years, using me as an example, telling the other guys to be just like me? Did you know that I really never became friends with the guys I came in with as a freshman, because I started right away and they didn't?"
Harbaugh was silent for a moment. "Compared to you, they felt like mere mortals," he said. "It was wrong to expect them to be like you."
Harbaugh raised a glass of champagne. "We're going to miss you," the coach said. "Four great years. This is only the beginning."
"Gee, Coach," Offerdahl said, softly, "that's the shortest speech you've ever given."
The next day, Offerdahl sat in the field house as his friends from the Class of '86 passed by in caps and gowns.
"I'm so proud of them," said Offerdahl, who is 14 credits short of his degree. "I feel like I should be there. Graduating in four years is the right thing to do. I will come back and finish.
"It has always been a constant struggle between academics and football. In the beginning, I wasn't mature enough to realize life has to be organized—school has to be organized—to play football. Football was always the present; every week, it's on the line."
On Sunday and Monday, the days before the draft, Offerdahl decided to stop on his way to Sun Prairie in Fort Atkinson, Wis. (pop. 9,785), his old hometown, 40 minutes away. No sooner had he pulled into Norb and Joann Yaeggi's driveway than a steady stream of station wagons began driving by, horns honking. Neighborhood kids came hunting for autographs. John Tipton, who drove the bus to Offerdahl's high school games, ran over to give him a laminated newspaper clipping about the Senior Bowl.
He went by his old house on Orchard Lane and popped in on Mrs. Barbara Schafer, who lives next door.
"Do you remember when you were a little critter and stood on our back porch and said you were quitting football to go out for the volleyball team?" she asked.
"John is so worried about the draft changing his relationship with his friends," said Brent Yaeggi, a high school football teammate. "He thinks the people he grew up with won't act the same toward him, that money will change the way we feel. He told me, I don't want to lose you guys.'
"To me, he'll always be the guy I went to the Janesville Gyro with on Sunday nights. We'd sit around for hours, trying to get up the nerve to ask girls to dance. Three hours later it was time to go home, and we hadn't left our seats. We'd been too busy concocting rejection speeches. John's favorite was, 'Oh, now that I've seen you in the light, I don't want to dance with you anyway.' His batting average had to be .128."
On Monday night, Mama Ram welcomed John home by cooking up some German potato salad and sauerkraut. Offerdahl's father, Arnie, an accountant, fired up the bratwurst on the grill. Dinner for 30, nothing much out of the ordinary for Mrs. Offerdahl, who had whipped everyone in a chugging contest at a pizza and beer bash she threw in Kalamazoo after John's final college game.
After dessert Monday night there were the Offerdahl Games—three hours of charades. Two minutes to get three words. John guessed the first word in the contest—uvula, a part of the palate—and then later, he acted out the word viscosity. He pretended to be pouring something—slowly. Molasses and syrup were the guesses. Then he made a V with his arms, and the engineers in the crowd caught on.
Finally, about 3 a.m., after winning four of six hands in poker—and $9.55—Offerdahl had to give in and go to sleep. On the floor.
On Tuesday morning, wrapped in blankets, munching on chocolate chip cookies and catching naps during the first round, the assembled throng began tracking the draft on ESPN. John barely said a word, except when it was the Bills' or the Vikings' turn to draft. "I'd rather be picked in the fourth round," he moaned. He perked up midway through the second round, where he had figured he would be picked. "I'm betting the Eagles," he said. The phone didn't ring. He started to get worried. "I'll die if I go in the third round," he said. "I'll feel like I've let everybody down."
Finally, at 12:47—more than five hours and several false alarms later—a call came. He sprang to the kitchen. It seemed like good news. Tension drained from his face immediately. He turned toward the crowd waiting in the den and smiled. "This is the funnest part of the whole weekend," he said. "I'm in control for the first time, and now I'm going to make you suffer. I'm not going to say anything."
"Oh, please, John," his mother begged.
"This isn't fair," his father said.
"Nope," he said, beaming. "Take the phone off the hook, and we'll watch the announcement together."
"Want to act it out—like charades?" Mama Ram suggested, scooting around the room, doing imitations of cowboys, giants, redskins—and, yes, even rams. But in the next 17 minutes, his name wasn't called. Something had to be up. "Maybe we should put the phone back on the hook," he said.
Seven minutes later, it rang again. "You bet," he said to the caller. "I love it." He hung up. "Now I'm confused," he said. "I don't know what's going on now. They just said to keep watching ESPN."
At 1:18 p.m. there was the official announcement: Miami had selected John Offerdahl near the end of the second round, the Dolphins' first pick of the draft, the 52nd pick overall. Fists shot into the air. Bodies crashed down on top of John. Mama Ram jumped on his back and began to cry. His father hugged him. Sisters Sue and Sarah smothered him with kisses. His pals shook his hand.
Later Offerdahl explained the mix-up. "San Francisco called first and said they were drafting me," Offerdahl said. "But when I heard that the 49ers had traded their pick to Washington, I figured we should put the phone back on the hook. [Taking it off] was a dumb move. I could've wound up a free agent."
A short time later, after the four-car caravan of friends pulled out, bound for Michigan, Chicago and other points, Offerdahl and his mother were alone in the living room. "A present?" he said. He opened the bag and found two brass ram's-head bookends. On the back was inscribed. KEEP YOUR HEAD ON YOUR SHOULDERS AND YOUR FEET ON THE GROUND. KEEP YOUR HEAD AND YOUR HEART. AND BE GENTLE. LOVE, MOM RAM, '86.
The questions are endless. "How good is the level of competition going to be? How personal are the coaches? Will Don Shula care about me?"
Offerdahl's mind is racing. Out of the plane window, Miami comes into view. Golf courses. Palm trees. Offerdahl is flying in for his Dolphin debut at rookie camp, two days after the draft. During the next week, he would be further indoctrinated at a veterans' minicamp.
"I'm totally clueless," he says. "I don't know what to expect. And I don't know what they expect from me. If they give me a playbook, I want to memorize it before I go back home."
It's sunny out, and it looks hot. "I'm going to move here in June, a month before training camp, to get used to the heat," he says. "I'll have to buy a car.... I've never owned one.... I've got to apply for charge cards.... I'll probably have to invest in a condo to keep from getting killed at tax time.... Maybe my family can spend Christmas here.... Does Shula yell a lot at his players?...What are the other teams in Miami's division?...Will my body hold up?...Gosh, I'm more nervous now than I was on draft day."