The heavy blue curtain covers the length of the stage off to one side of the Rushville (Neb.) High basketball court. The curtain is ripped in five places, which isn't really a lot, considering that it has taken over 20.000 tight whistling spirals delivered by Kelly Stouffer, the greatest athlete in the school's history. "It's torn down the seams," says Mel Reeves, the Rushville High custodian. "What would you call those passes of Kelly's, seam patterns? I told him the other day, 'If you think you're going to rip any more, tell me, and I'll wait before I fix them.' "
The St. Louis (now Phoenix) Cardinals selected Stouffer in the first round of the 1987 NFL draft. The sixth player taken overall, he is a 6'3", 212-pound quarterback with 4.9 speed, terrific athletic ability and a blistering fastball. The pick was a surprise, but it confirmed people's suspicions that Neil Lomax, the Cards' incumbent quarterback, was in the doghouse. Stouffer showed up at the Cardinals' May rookie minicamp, unsigned. He was still unsigned when he moved to St. Louis for six weeks in June and July, presumably to learn the Cardinals' offense. "I never sat down with a coach, never saw a film," he says.
Training camp started. Stouffer went up to Cass Lake in Minnesota with his girlfriend, Barbara Thies, a nursing student, and her parents, for a brief vacation. Then he went home to Rushville, a town of 1,250 people in the northwest corner of Nebraska, 25 miles south of the South Dakota line. He waited.
The Cardinals had played lowball with their original offer—$1.3 million over four years. Stouffer's agents, Mike Blatt and Frank Bauer of Stockton, Calif., had played highball with their original demand—some $3.2 million. The Cards came up to $1.6 million and then $1.8 million, which was roughly the going rate for a player who was the sixth overall pick in the draft. Yeah, but the guy's a quarterback, Blatt said, and quarterbacks command a premium. That's where the negotiations stalled.
The season started. On Sept. 23, Blatt, who was now asking for a Jim Everett-sized contract—$2.5 million over four years—wrote Bill Bidwill, the Cards' owner, and said Stouffer was prepared to sit out the year and wait for the 1988 draft: he would go back in the hopper and become fair game for anyone. Blatt said it would make sense for the Cardinals to trade him. Bidwill said he still thought things could be worked out, and he had no intention of making a trade.
"I never really felt they wanted me to win a starting job," says Stouffer, who holds the career passing yardage record (7,142) at Colorado State and was the offensive MVP in the East-West Shrine game in January 1987. "I read a lot about when Dan Marino was drafted by Miami, and [Dolphins assistant coach] David Shula would look at film with him every day and teach him the offense. That's what I was hoping for in June, a chance to know the offense so I wouldn't come to camp cold.
"I felt I was being used. They were using me to pressure Lomax. At the time they could have signed me for $2.2 million, but everything's hardened now. It's been put in cement."
Last year Lomax had a Pro Bowl season, and Stouffer remains unsigned. He has been in Rushville for eight months, heaving passes into the blue curtain, running, lifting weights, taking long walks on the open prairie, thinking about a season slipping away and suffering from an acute case of cabin fever. Rushville has no movie houses, no stoplights, no parking meters. It's not a bad place to visit—you can get a room at the Antlers Motel for $15 a night—but when you're 23 years old, with NFL quarterback written all over you, it's not the place you want to be.
"I didn't move back into my old room," Stouffer says. "I keep my suitcases there—packed. I didn't want to get locked into my old routine. I wanted to feel things were temporary, so I moved into my younger sister's room. It's been temporary now for eight months."
His days are devoted to staying in shape—two hours of weightlifting every morning at the high school, followed by sprints and interval running. Then he throws 100 footballs a night into the curtain. "I have to vary my times and go there when the gym's not in use," he says. "They gave me a key, and I do my throwing after the volleyball or basketball practices and games. Sometimes I don't start until 9:30 or 10. I'm warming up when they're sweeping up.
"I bring four balls and practice my drops and setups and, well, throw into the curtain. Then I retrieve them and do it all over again. It's better now, because Kurt Finkey, my old backup quarterback at Rushville High, is back in town and we play catch. Sometimes, to break up the monotony, we play a little full-court one-on-one basketball."
The bad time is in the afternoon. That's the dead spot. He does some work on a correspondence course in children's literature he's taking at Chadron State (after this course he will be six credit hours from a degree in biology; the literature is required), watches Days of Our Lives on TV and thinks about the NFL. "I've been miserable to live with...but my family understands," says Stouffer.
Right now several things could happen to Stouffer's career. The Cardinals could sign him, which their attorney and chief negotiator, Bob Wallace, says they will try to do right up to draft day, April 24. They could work out a trade, which Stouffer prefers, or the Cards could let him go, which means that they will have lost a No. 1 draft choice and that Stouffer will run the risk of getting drafted lower and commanding less money than he did with the Cardinals. Stouffer also could follow through on a suit he filed against the league, asking that he be exempt from the draft and be granted free-agent status.
Blatt says he has received no trade offers but has heard reports that other teams have "expressed interest." The Packers, Chargers, Raiders and Seahawks all have been mentioned as teams that might want to trade for him. Wallace insists that the Cards will not let Stouffer go without a fight.
"At first some of the people around here thought he was foolish to hold out," says Rushville's former mayor, Fritz Wefso, who owns a drugstore, which features a back wall with Stouffer's picture prominently displayed on it. "They thought, My gosh, that's a lot of money. But those of us who know Kelly and know what an honest person he is can understand what he's doing. He's very high-principled, and if he feels that something isn't right, then we're behind him. In the NFL the quarterbacks are the Fred Astaires, the stars. You get a guy like Kelly Stouffer once in a generation—maybe not even that often."
The question is: Who will get him?