After a National Championship confrontation at the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2, 1989, in which Notre Dame prevailed over West Virginia 34-21, they were college football's best-known players, among the early favorites to win the Heisman Trophy the following season. They were all-this and all-that, and by the time their careers were over a year later, they had quarterbacked their teams to a combined record of 53-13-1.
That wasn't nearly good enough for the NFL.
In a stunning turn of events, their sparkling Saturday afternoon performances counted for next to nothing when the NFL conducted its draft on April 22 and 23. One of them, Tony Rice, who started every game in Notre Dame's 23-game winning streak during 1988 and '89, the longest ever for the Irish, was not chosen at all. Rice was the Football News's 1989 College Player of the Year, and he was the first Notre Dame player to lead the Irish in passing and rushing in the same season—he did it in 1988 and '89—since Paul Hornung did so in his Heisman year of 1956. But Rice was not judged to be one of America's 331 best players from among those eligible for the draft. Said Rice last Thursday in South Bend, "Maybe the pros don't want to win."
The other, Major Harris of West Virginia, the first Division I-A player to rush for more than 2,000 yards (2,161) and pass for more than 5,000 (5,137) in a career, was drafted in the 12th and final round by the Los Angeles Raiders. He was the 317th pick. Harris, who in three seasons with the Mountaineers passed for 41 touchdowns and ran for 18 more, whom University of Cincinnati coach Tim Murphy once called "the premiere athlete in the country," and who was named first-team All-America last season by the American Football Coaches Association, was the 19th of 20 quarterbacks selected in the draft. Said Harris last Friday in Pittsburgh, his hometown, "They just didn't like me."
May 13, 1990
No, it was worse than that. Says Dick Steinberg, general manager of the New York Jets, "What you had was 28 scouts who all saw the same thing—that these are two quarterbacks who do not have NFL passing ability or the skills to develop into NFL quarterbacks."
Former Notre Dame and Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann says, "Both of them really need work. Their not being drafted purely deals with their ability to throw the football."
One of pro football's keenest evaluators of talent, who is in charge of the draft for his team but insists on anonymity, "because I have to deal with these schools again," offers some specifics.
On Rice: "He is erratic in his accuracy and touch. He's got a lot of learning to do as far as mental preparation, setting up to pass, throwing into a zone."
On Harris: "He does not throw that well. His accuracy is not consistent, he winds up and throws like a third baseman, and he lacks precision, a quick release and a strong arm."
The harshest appraisal of all comes from Dave Thomas, who is editor of The Poor Man's Guide to the NFL Draft. "If I had 1,000 quarterbacks to rank," he says, "I'd rank Rice 1,001. He's a product of the publicity department at Notre Dame. He has limited, if any, skills as a quarterback. When the pro scouts saw him, they were walking around with clothespins on their noses. Harris panics under pressure. He consistently was rolling out of the pocket and causing the receivers to break their patterns. It looked like the Keystone Kops. A total lack of coolness. And he's also immature, always blaming everyone else for problems."
Even other quarterbacks who were drafted—names the average fan never mentions in the same breath with Rice and Harris—understand why those two stars did not shine in the draft. Kirk Baumgartner of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, whom the Green Bay Packers took in the ninth round, says, "It doesn't surprise me. In the ratings I saw they were rated lower than most quarterbacks." Says Stephen F. Austin's Todd Hammel, taken in the 12th round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, "Teams didn't think they were pro quarterbacks, I guess." And Vanderbilt's John Gromos, a 12th-round selection of the Seattle Seahawks, "Those guys had great supporting casts. Maybe they didn't look as appealing on their own."
Obviously not. Yet here were two guys, both now swearing they are neither sad nor mad at the NFL for snubbing them, who lit up the college scene with their verve and ability to lead a team to victory. Rice is from the sticks of Woodruff, S.C., where he once fed cotton fibers onto conveyer belts in a textile mill for $5.25 an hour. Harris is from a Pittsburgh housing project, where gunfire and drug deals are facts of daily life. Both are talented young men who emerged from society's underbelly to become famous, and soon, it appeared, rich. Rice figured he would get $200,000 a year for five seasons, plus a signing bonus of around $300,000—a $1.3 million package. Harris simply counted on a lot.
Given the lack of depth at quarterback in the NFL, it's remarkable that Rice and Harris, whatever their shortcomings, were given such short shrift by the pros. They disappeared from the NFL scope not long after neither won the Heisman. Rice, who finished fourth in the balloting, and Harris, who was third, lost out to Houston quarterback Andre Ware, who became the seventh player chosen in the draft. More than likely, Rice and Harris will both end up playing in Canada. What happened? Rice pulled his white 1990 Honda Prelude up to a security gate last Thursday at Notre Dame to cajole the attendant out of a campus parking permit, to which Rice was not entitled. The man happily obliged, rolling up Permit No. 4878 and pretending to throw it to Rice like a football. Said an onlooker, "He can't catch it. He can only throw." To which Rice responded, "And some people say I can't throw."
Rice almost admits as much himself when he says, "My arm gets the job done. I can't say it's fantastic. But it carries on for me. It might not look pretty, but I get it there. Pretty passes are not always completed."
Yes, but last season Rice's passes weren't just ugly; many of them didn't get there either. He completed only 50% of his throws, passed for just two touchdowns and had nine interceptions. Over his 36-game career, he had 13 TD passes and 22 interceptions. However, Dan Rambo, the player personnel manager of the Saskatchewan Rough-riders, the Canadian Football League team that has the draft rights to Rice, says, "Tony has shown us more than enough."
What blinded many to Rice's flaws was the glitter of Notre Dame. He was made to look good by a superb collection of teammates and an option offense that was well suited to his quickness and his sure-handed execution. Rice's lawyer, Marvin Demoff, says that he had thought his client would be a fourth-to sixth-round selection. But then came an awful workout in late January at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
Never mind that Rice had a vertical jump of 37 inches, best among the 20 quarterbacks there, and never mind that he was first in the broad jump and second in the 20-yard run. In the 40-yard dash—the measure—he ran a 4.79 and 4.88. The scouts had expected far better, around 4.5. Demoff says that because of his slow times, Rice immediately dropped to a late-round prospect.
And his slowness in the 40—"It wasn't my day," says Rice. "My mind was somewhere else"—seemed to heighten other concerns the scouts had about him. His six-foot height and 197-pound weight suddenly looked far worse to a business that likes its quarterbacks to be 6'4", 225. Ditto his inconsistent arm, a concern that was not mollified by stats such as nine completions in the first three games of 1988.
Only one NFL team, the Cincinnati Bengals, showed even minimal interest in Rice before the draft. Still, he says, he expected to be chosen in the first six rounds. So on Sunday, April 22, he stretched out on the sofa in his off-campus apartment to watch the first five rounds of the draft on ESPN. Every time the phone rang, he figured that a team was calling to say it was about to choose him. Instead, it was friends inquiring. "I'm just lying here waiting to be picked," he told them.
He was still waiting the next morning, when the draft resumed with Round 6. The silence was deafening. Adding to the humiliation was the fact that nine of his teammates were drafted, the most for Notre Dame since 1979. By Monday night, when the NFL dream had died, what did Rice do? "I cried," he says.
But life goes on. He is taking a ballet class and he participates without smirking. "I'm proud to tell people I take ballet," says Rice, a former Prop 48 student who will graduate with a degree in psychology on May 20. "What's wrong with it?"
Back at his apartment, Rice stares out into the rain and the gloom and says, "In life you don't always get what you want. When things went wrong when I was growing up, my mom always said, 'Try harder.' So what I'm doing now is trying harder. There just has to be a place for somebody like me who can do one thing: win games. Maybe it's the NFL missing out instead of me. Maybe it doesn't know what I have to offer."
Rice plans to visit Saskatchewan this weekend. But he still hasn't gotten used to the idea of playing north of the border, or to the notion that the pro football played up there is the real thing. A fan comes up in a restaurant and asks, "So, are you going pro?"
"No, I'm going to Canada."
Last Friday, at his parents' home in Pittsburgh's Hill District housing project, Harris's father, Joseph, was saying, "I think the pros were too busy looking at Major's faults instead of at his talent." Major was happy to agree with that observation, although he laughed and said, "Ahhh, maybe I wasn't good enough." But he doesn't believe that. In fact, he thought he might be the first pick in the draft or, at worst, a first rounder. Says Harris, "Maybe this year they saved the best for the last."
Asked about his strength as a player, Harris says, "Getting the ball into the end zone." And his weakness? "What the NFL saw in me."
What the NFL saw in him was about the same thing it saw in Rice, which is to say not much. Harris ran a painfully slow 4.98 and 5.02 in the 40 at the April scouting combine for juniors who had forfeited their remaining college eligibility to enter the draft. Like Rice, Harris says he was pleased with his throwing at the combine, but nobody said a word to him. And nobody called Harris's agent, Ed Abram, afterward. Abram concedes his client has not been a pro-style quarterback but says, "Come on, it's not like developing a nuclear equation to learn how to drop back. He can be taught."
Joe Kapp, the former Minnesota Vikings quarterback who is now general manager of football operations for the British Columbia Lions, the team that acquired the CFL draft rights to Harris, is not worried. "The NFL doesn't want to know about bowlegged, bad-breath guys even if all they do is win," says Kapp. "It wants blond-haired, blue-eyed, straight-legged guys. Major is a Magic Johnson type. He'll be our point guard."
Harris denies Thomas's accusation that he panics. One stat offers a strong defense for Harris on that score: During his three years at West Virginia he was responsible for converting 197 of 226 third-down situations. As for his scrambling, Harris says that he usually had no choice because in many instances he had only two receivers out, and when they were covered, he tried to make something happen by running. Finally, Harris maintains that he didn't cast stones at his teammates. "When we lost, I was a big cog in the losing," he says.
The NFL didn't like his six-foot height any more than it liked Rice's. Another blemish on Harris's rèsumè is a 19-9 loss to Penn State last season, in which he fumbled three times. Pro scouts couldn't forget that debacle. Says Harris, "Every player has a bad game." Few scouts seem to remember that he completed 17 of 20 throws against South Carolina earlier in the fall.
As tough as Thomas is on Harris, he gives him a chance to make it in the NFL. Thomas figures that the Raiders are not comfortable with starter Steve Beuerlein, that backup Jay Schroeder should return to baseball and that Jeff Francis belongs in real estate. So there could be a window of opportunity for a player the Raiders might have to pay only about $75,000 for a year. "It will help," says Thomas, "if Major gets rid of that feeling that he has to do everything himself on every play."
Harris attended the Raiders' minicamp for rookies this week, knowing that if he didn't stick in L.A., he had a deal waiting for him with B.C. Yet he admitted last week that he has not lifted weights since "probably sometime in October," that he had not thrown a football in 10 days or so and that he has never run for fitness, "but I probably could run a mile if I had to." He hardly seemed to be in optimum condition for what could be the most important days of his life. "It's just a game," said Harris. "I'll be fine." Then, as Harris stood in a soft rain and looked down at his old high school field, the South Stadium, he said, "I don't dwell on what has happened. All I know is, if a team wants to win, they know where I am."