It's late afternoon on Jan. 16. more than 350 NFL folks—owners, general managers, head coaches, assistant coaches, personnel directors, scouts—are crammed into a banquet room at Stouffer Riverview Plaza in Mobile, Ala. They have tape recorders and notebooks and are eagerly awaiting the most revealing part of the college football draft process—a ritual dubbed the Meat Market. In a few minutes, 75 of the nation's best players, who are in town for the Senior Bowl all-star game, will parade around in their underwear.
"It's a livestock show, and it's dehumanizing, but it's necessary," says George Young, general manager of the New York Giants. "If we're going to pay a kid a lot of money to play football, we have a right to find out as much as we can. If we're going to buy 'em, we ought to see what we're buying."
A line forms on the left side of the room, directly opposite a video camera. Each player is instructed to strip to his shorts. Derek Hill, a wide receiver from Arizona, is visibly uncomfortable. Had he known he was going to be caught with his pants down, he might not have worn those wild leopard-skin bikinis.
Like contestants in a beauty pageant, the players prance past Harry Buffington, the 70-year-old director of National Football Scouting, one of the league's two scouting organizations. He introduces each one by name, school and agent. After his name is called, the player faces the audience and poses for a few moments before a scout measures his height. The player then goes to a physician's scale and weighs in.
Some scouts furiously scribble these statistics in their notebooks. Observations about musculature and bone structure are made in the margins. Acne is noted, because it can signal steroid use.
"You look at size potential," says Young. "Can the player add weight? Is he fragile? You worry if an offensive lineman has thin hips, because he won't be able to explode well through his legs. A defensive lineman with skinny arms will have to prove he can muscle somebody. And how many running backs with small calves run fast?"
Wake Forest quarterback Mike Elkins stalks to the measuring station, his stomach puffing out over the waist of his white B.V.D.'s. Since the end of last season, Elkins has gained seven pounds, thanks to his mother's cooking and a fondness for beer. His steely blue eyes stare through the audience. "Six-oh-three," a scout calls out. "Two-twenty-three."
"I felt like a prize bull at the county fair," says Elkins later. "I have a big ass and a big belly. I suck in my gut. but it never does any good. It just makes a big crease in my belly."
Senior Bowl week signifies a passing into manhood for young players. It is the beginning of the NFL draft odyssey, giving a collegian his first significant paycheck ($75 per day) and his first exposure to pro coaching.
From Jan. 16 until he was drafted on April 23, Elkins was under a powerful microscope. Projected at the end of last season to be a first-round pick and the second quarterback taken, after UCLA's Troy Aikman, he was poked, prodded, interrogated and graded by a number of NFL teams. His strong arm, quick release, intelligence and durability impressed the scouts. Yet the consensus view of him that emerged was of a raw talent from a small school, an enthusiastic kid who toiled in two different offensive schemes—pro-style, followed by the option—during the four seasons he played at Wake.
What's more, Elkins had to deal with the expectations of family and friends. He worried that his father would be disappointed if he wasn't selected in the first round. Not knowing where he would be living next fall sent his relationship with his longtime girlfriend. Kay Draper, into limbo. At times, the distractions became so great that graduation began to seem impossible.
The first questions that scouts always asked Elkins had to do with his family and his football background. Raised in Greensboro, N.C., Elkins is the youngest of six children—five boys and one girl. His father, Jack, was a catcher in the Brooklyn Dodger organization for 10 years, making it as far as Triple A. "I detested losing," says Jack. "I got a reputation for being a hothead. That kept me from the big leagues."
Jack subjected the kids to his obsession with winning. He signed them up for the community swim team when they were very young and forced them to ride their bikes to 7 a.m. practices. "I hated him for it," says Mike. "Once I hid in the bleachers under a towel so I wouldn't have to get in the pool."
Mike had difficulty keeping up with his brothers, particularly Rod, who at age 11 appeared in SI's FACES IN THE CROWD for having been named city MVP in football and basketball, and all-city in baseball. Mike, on the other hand, was an average Little League catcher, a bench warmer in basketball and a peewee football dropout. "In junior high, my teachers tried to place me in the gifted classes," says Elkins, "but I chose to take myself out. I didn't like being with the eggheads. I wanted to be a regular guy. I've never had a positive self-image, because I grew up in Rod's shadow. I was a short, fat kid. More than anybody in the world, I wanted to be like Rod."
As a sophomore at Grimsley High, Mike tried football again. He went out for quarterback, the same position Rod was playing at North Carolina. In Mike's junior year, Rod, who had led the Tar Heels to three straight bowl games, suffered a career-ending knee injury. Mike was devastated, and to this day, the mention of the injury brings tears to his eyes. "I was raking leaves, listening to the game on the radio," says Mike. "When it happened. I felt sick. I wanted to puke. I love him so much."
Only Wake Forest recruited Mike, and he was redshirted as a freshman. The next year Elkins was forced into action late in the season when the two quarterbacks ahead of him went down with injuries. From that day he was the starter. "He was a remarkable 'space learner,' " recalls Al Groh, the Demon Deacons' coach at the time. "He saw the game in pictures, not words. He also had fire in him. He expected a lot from himself. He expected a lot from every pass."
Elkins developed into one of the best quarterbacks in the Atlantic Coast Conference. But before Elkins's junior season, Groh left to become special-teams coach of the Atlanta Falcons, and Bill Dooley, a conservative, run-oriented coach, replaced him. "I was apprehensive," says Elkins. "I knew my stats would drop in half. Kay was the first to see the silver lining. She said if I could adapt, I'd show versatility and that if I didn't complain. I'd show I was a class act. She convinced me that would pay dividends with the pros."
The first year under Dooley was a statistical nightmare. Elkins threw 19 interceptions and only seven touchdown passes. "It killed me." he says. Last season, however, he rebounded, completing 59% of his passes for 2,205 yards and 14 TDs with 10 interceptions. His comeback caught the attention of professional scouts. He finished as Wake Forest's career passing leader and the third-ranked passer in ACC history.
There's one chapter of his football background that Elkins never volunteered to NFL inquisitors. It begins after his final collegiate game, a 34-34 tie with Appalachian State. A victory would have put the 6-4 Deacons, who had not been to a bowl in nine years, in contention for an Independence Bowl bid, but Elkins was intercepted on the Mountaineer 29-yard line with 14 seconds left. "I fell into a funk," he says. "I slept all the time, ate a lot and went on three-day drunks. Didn't shave and never showered. Hid my dirty hair under a cap. I didn't want to walk around campus, because I felt like everybody was blaming me for not going to a bowl. I felt people were saying, 'You cost us.' "
How could he reveal to NFL scouts that after that interception, he told Kay he never wanted to play football again?
Monday, Jan. 16 MOBILE
Elkins arrives at the Senior Bowl from Palo Alto, Calif., where he played in the East-West Shrine Game the day before. In that game his second pass was intercepted, and he bobbled four snaps. He is greeted at the airport by the Azalea Trail Maids, the town's designated hostesses. The 20 perky teenagers are dressed in peach, turquoise and lime-green hoopskirts with matching parasols. They beg Elkins to pose for a photograph. "I'm allergic to taffeta." he cracks, and then obliges.
At the hotel, Elkins changes into a T-shirt and denim shorts. With his day-old beard and sunglasses, he's a dead ringer for Don Johnson. He heads downstairs for the Meat Market.
Later, about 5 p.m., playbooks are issued to the offense by Denver Bronco coach Dan Reeves, who, along with his Bronco staff, will coach Elkins and the North team. "You have a good opportunity to increase your chances of being drafted," says Reeves. "Remember, no player will be downgraded because of his performance this week."
Reeves moves to the blackboard and quickly discusses the 84 offensive plays in the three-ring notebooks: plays like Split Right Trap Left Weak, Brown Right Draw Left Fullback Slant, Fire Pass Trap Left 2 Route Halfback Shoot & Go Split Right. Elkins's brain is on overload. "The plays are named in an unsystematic way," he says. "You can't figure them out in a rational manner; you just have to memorize them. But this is the way Dan Reeves learned football, and he expects you to handle it."
Tuesday, Jan. 17
The North's morning practice begins at Davidson High shortly before 10 a.m. There are rickety bleachers on one side of the track. Rusty goalposts teeter in the end zones. Inside the equipment shed, the Lady Warriors Volleyball Booster Club hawks refreshments.
Familiar figures patrol the field—coaches Jim Mora of the New Orleans Saints, Gene Stallings of the Phoenix Cardinals. Ron Meyer of the Indianapolis Colts and Mike Shanahan of the Los Angeles Raiders. After each play Reeves tutors Elkins on his footwork and on taking the snap. Elkins appears tentative, a bit awed. Duke quarterback Anthony Dilweg looks much more aggressive.
Elkins rallies during the afternoon workout. This session is a full-fledged scrimmage, and for that reason, it is jammed with nearly 500 NFL representatives—twice as many as attended the morning practice—plus a dozen or so Canadian Football League scouts and even a couple of NBA bird dogs. The talent hunters at these shindigs abide by two steadfast rules: Never let the other guys know what you're thinking, and guard your notes with your life. Miami Dolphin coach Don Shula is asked his opinion of Elkins, who is working out right in front of him. "I haven't seen him," says Shula, turning to the fellow next to him. "Ask Bobby Beathard."
Beathard, the Washington Redskins general manager, begs off, too. "I haven't seen Elkins this year," he says, turning to the fellow next to him. "Ask Ron Wolf."
Wolf, the Raiders' player-personnel chief, is perturbed at being put on the spot. "Bobby, you just told me he threw sidearmed," says Wolf, shaking his head. "I sure don't know anything about the kid."
At 5:15, Elkins is summoned to the Dallas Cowboys' suite for an interview with scout John Wooten, who repeatedly refers to him as "Mike Elkin." Among the questions Wooten asks him are "What was the highlight of your career?" "Which people had the biggest influence in your life?" "Who is Mike Elkin?" NFL teams spend more than $1 million a year each on scouting to ask probing questions like these.
Gil Brandt, Dallas's vice-president for personnel development, sashays into the room, bragging he will soon be jetting to Washington, D.C., for George Bush's inauguration. He tries to wow Elkins with his knowledge of some trivial information about Elkins, Groh and Mary Parsons, the football secretary at Wake Forest. "I can't believe it," says Elkins later. "I'm in the Cowboys' suite, and Gil Brandt is b.s.'ing me. I know Gil isn't that tight with Coach Groh. He has never ever talked to me about Gil. But I don't have to let him know that."
Saturday, Jan. 21
The South defeats the North 13-12. Elkins has an unsatisfactory day, completing six of 15 passes for 62 yards and throwing two interceptions. "He hasn't set the world on fire." says one scout after the game. "People have more questions about him now. He didn't make that much progress. With a week of pro coaching, I hoped he would develop."
Outside the locker room Elkins slips his white jersey on eight-year-old Jack Christopher Elkins. He is the son of Mike's oldest brother. Stormy, who lives outside Orlando. "It's funny how life goes in circles." says Mike. "My mother's brother Rod Hanson played in the 1958 Senior Bowl. He played defensive end for Illinois. In one of our family albums, there's a picture of Stormy wearing Uncle Rod's college all-star game jersey. Stormy was about five. I was always intrigued by the picture, so I couldn't help but duplicate it."
Thursday, Feb. 2 WINSTON-SALEM
Elkins has worked out only three times since the Senior Bowl. He is frantically trying to catch up with classwork he missed while at the two all-star games. He has aced scuba diving and jazz ensemble, and switched a speech communications course, but he must make up a Spanish literature test. He needs those four Spanish credits to graduate this spring, with a degree in speech communications. Above all, the freedom of the Sugar Creek apartments off campus takes some getting used to. For the first time in five years, he isn't required to live in the athletes' dorm.
By 10:30 p.m., Elkins's joint is jumping with 10 of his former teammates. Tomorrow he leaves for the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. His friends pester him about the trip, but they also reassure him that he's definitely a No. 1 pick. No sweat.
Toward the end of the evening, Elkins admits to his best friend, senior Jay Deaver, that he's feeling pressure from the gang. Nevertheless, Deaver proposes a toast. "Good luck, Mike." says Deaver. "Relax. We don't care if you're first round or 13th. We'll still love you—as long as you get us tickets."
Friday, Feb. 3 INDIANAPOLIS
The National Invitation Camp, known to all as the scouting combine, is one of the critical set pieces of the draft process. Each team chips in more than $20,000 to ship the best 350 prospects to Indy for two days of medical, IQ and personality tests as well as for football drills. Everybody who's anybody in the league attends.
"I'm in the balance of being scared, versus, well, I can't do anything about it. so let's just play," says Elkins as his plane touches down at Indy. "In the end, what's important is that you do well for yourself. You don't ever want to look back with regrets."
Saturday, Feb. 4
At 10:30 a.m., Elkins goes to the Convention Center to undergo a thorough physical. First he is required to urinate in the presence of a doctor; the sample will be analyzed for banned drugs. Next comes an eye test. Scurrying from examining table to examining table with his medical chart. Elkins rattles off his history of injuries to team physicians, orthopedic surgeons and trainers. "I was sorry I'd told them about my pinky, which I broke when I was 10." says Elkins. "They X-rayed it yesterday, and today they asked me about it over and over. Who cares?"
Roll the head and neck. Touch the toes. Let us see your shoulders. Elbows. Wrists. Hands. Fingers. How about your hips, knees, ankles and toes? "One time, I was on my back, with doctors working on each leg and arm," says Elkins. "Limbs were flying in all directions. I felt like a turtle that couldn't get turned over."
Sunday, Feb. 5
Today Elkins is simply QB4. The Hoosier Dome looks like the site of a track meet. On one side of the field, running backs are doing the standing long jump; on the other, they're racing around orange pylons in a shuttle drill. In the middle, wide receivers are running routes.
Elkins stows his gear in the locker room and then is photographed from the front, back and side. His body fat, arm length and hand size are recorded. Loosening up for the 40-yard dash, he feels the magnitude of what is about to take place. He peers into the stands and notices Mike Ditka, Bill Walsh and Al Davis. "The guys who run the league," says Elkins. "My adrenaline started pumping."
All the passing drills are videotaped. His throws are on target, but the ball flutters and lacks velocity. "I've never had trouble throwing spirals," he says. "The footballs were old and worn. The leather loosens; they get bigger. They felt like rugby balls."
On the deep routes, Elkins can hardly get the ball to spiral at all. "I thought. What am I doing wrong? What can I do to correct this?" he recalls. "The madder I got, the worse I threw. If I had more time, I'd just throw through it."
Elkins felt hundreds of eyes on him as he finished. "I had this sinking feeling in my stomach," he says. "I walked over to the end zone and lay on my back. I told myself. Man. you blew it. This was for all the marbles, and you choked."
Says one scout, "He was awful. The ball came off his hand like a wounded duck. I don't know if anyone has ever done as poorly."
Other scouts say this disaster—coupled with two mediocre all-star game performances—turned Elkins from a possible first-rounder into a probable fifth-round pick. The difference in salary is as much as $350,000 a year.
Wednesday, Feb. 8 WINSTON-SALEM
Last fall Gary Draper. Kay's father, who has a construction consulting business in Atlanta, volunteered to help Elkins screen 75 potential agents. They composed 15 questions for the 18 agents on Elkins's final list. He mails them, along with a cover letter, on spiffy Mike Elkins letterhead paper. Among other things, Elkins asks for a rèsumè, recent photo and detailed analysis of every one of the agent's contracts over the past four years. He also requests that they reply within two weeks.
Wednesday, March 1
The responses have taken three weeks to trickle in. Steve Zucker, who represents Chicago quarterback Jim McMahon, got off on the wrong foot by misspelling the word negotiate in his rèsumè. Negotiate. Bruce Allen, who represents Cincinnati Bengal running back Ickey Woods, boasted about his "complete organization" at GBA Sportsworld in Phoenix and about the strength and conditioning coach he has on his staff. "Can you imagine?" says Elkins, rolling his eyes. ProServ, the Washington, D.C.-based management firm, sent a glitzy publicity booklet featuring Cincinnati quarterback Boomer Esiason: "With brilliant blond locks adorning classic all-American features...he might pass as a matinee idol a la Robert Redford." Elkins is repelled.
Leigh Steinberg's presentation was highlighted by a videotape of Steinberg's greatest TV appearances, including a segment from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Amid the lavishness were pitches about the charity work of such clients as quarterbacks Warren Moon of the Houston Oilers and Steve Young of the San Francisco 49ers. "Leigh's answers sound vanilla," says Elkins. "He's so p.r. oriented, I don't know whether the charity stuff is sincere."
Elkins quickly rules out somebody named Rick Schaeffer. "He's the only guy who has ripped other agents." says Elkins. "I know he's straight, but he acts as if he's in love with me. He wants me to bare my soul. He keeps saying he has searched for years for a client like me, that ours is such a special relationship, one in a million. That sounds like emotional blackmail."
Friday, March 17 to Tuesday, April 4
San Diego Charger coach Dan Henning arrives to put Elkins through a workout. He introduces Elkins to a new drill. Henning has him stand behind the back of the end zone and throw the ball over the goalpost crossbar to a receiver on the five-yard line. This is supposed to simulate the trajectory required to throw a ball over the head and arms of a defender. "You can't think of the bar," says Elkins. "You just throw it."
On Tuesday, March 28, Tampa Bay Buccaneer coach Ray Perkins drops by. "We go outside," says Elkins, "and he picks up a handful of rocks from a drainage ditch. He says that he noticed I've been inconsistent, and suggests that by throwing rocks, I could get my form back. Pretty weird."
Cincinnati coach Sam Wyche offers a helpful hint on Wednesday. "He told me to visualize myself releasing the ball high and way out in front of my body," says Elkins. By the time Joe Pendry, Kansas City's offensive coordinator, comes to town the next day, Elkins is throwing effortlessly. "I'm killing it," he says. "I have a lot of velocity, and I'm right on the money."
Later in his apartment, Elkins admits that until today, he hasn't been motivated to play football. He points to the Appalachian State fallout. "I thought about getting professional help," he says.
On April 4, Rod Dowhower, the Falcon offensive coordinator, helps Elkins with his footwork. He is impressed with Elkins's improvement since Indianapolis and writes a favorable report. "I have a feeling Mike may emerge as a pretty good NFL player," writes Dowhower. He predicts Elkins will go in the third or fourth round.
Wednesday, April 12
Richard Woods of Mobile wins the agent lottery. "Out of the hundreds of phone calls," says Elkins, "his was the first Southern accent. He made me feel comfortable. He's quiet and understated. He reflects my personality. I feel so good right now. I was driving in my car today, thinking, Man, I have an agent. As a kid, that was something movie stars and athletes had—famous people. How far have I come?"
Friday, April 14
Elkins sends thank-you notes to those who have worked him out, an unusual courtesy by a draft prospect, and forwards a seven-minute highlight video to 11 teams that have shown interest. The tapes cost $300 to make and mail.
He grows increasingly introspective, and he wonders why more teams haven't worked him out. "The NFL has forgotten about me," Elkins says. "Indy was a big weekend. If I had shown my ability, they wouldn't have questions about me. But I'd never been through it. I had no idea of the magnitude of the whirlwind that would happen to me. I'm worried I won't graduate. I have to make some moves on some teachers.
"For months I've had no control over my own destiny. I can't give Kay a commitment. I'm just part of manipulative games teams play with each other. I have a good feeling about the Giants, Colts, Vikings, Chiefs, Steelers and Chargers. My gut feeling all along has been that I'm a third-round pick."
Saturday, April 15
"I feel as though I'm the family's last hope in professional sports," says Elkins. "Dad couldn't do it, and Rod never got a shot. It will be a crushing disappointment to them if I don't make it. Truthfully, I'm relieved that I'm not a No. 1 pick. It seems like the more expectations people have, the easier it is to let them down. Come in with less, you'll do better. And you won't alienate anyone."
Sunday, April 23 GREENSBORO
The Elkinses' rambling brick two-story on Northampton Drive is overflowing with people, anticipation and food. Two of Mike's brothers and his sister have arrived with their spouses and kids to watch the draft on TV. The guest of honor arrived with Kay late last night. "He's going to be a Number 1 pick," says Muriel, racing around the kitchen, getting lunch ready. "Mom needs a Valium," says Mike jokingly. Muriel loads up platters with sourdough bread, cold cuts and raw vegetables.
About halfway through the first round, Elkins escapes to the backyard to throw a Frisbee with his brothers. As the second round begins, just before 3:30 p.m., he and Kay sneak off to the front porch. A little before four o'clock, the phone rings. It's the Chiefs, who select Elkins with the fourth pick of the round. That makes him the 32nd player, and second quarterback, chosen overall.
"I love it!" says Elkins, shooting his fists in the air. He's in tears, as is everybody else. After hugs and champagne toasts, the clan breaks into song: "Kansas City, here we come...."
"I'm surprised," Elkins says of being picked so high. "I felt I was good enough to be the second quarterback taken. If it hadn't happened, I would have been crushed. That would have shown me the scouting process looks for negatives. But that's not what happened. They saw all my positives."
Three high school pals drop by with a newly purchased Chiefs hat. In a quiet moment, Elkins pulls Kay into his arms. "I'm so excited," he whispers in her ear. "I'm ready to play football again."