There are a lot of good college football players in the land, yet the ordinary fan cannot hope to scratch below the game's lush surface—the Michigans, the Miamis, the Notre Dames—to sample the gems hidden in the college substratum. NFL scouts, of course, aren't ordinary fans. They routinely seek out the strong and the swift in the depths of the lower divisions, the hidden recesses of the hyphenated schools, the canyons of the NAIA. The reward can be a Dave Meggett of Towson State or a Jerry Rice of Mississippi Valley State, players who fall through the college recruiting cracks only to emerge in the Pro Bowl. Who are the finds of 1990? Call the players on the following pages sleepers; the pro scouts call them cinches.
IVORY LEE BROWN
ARKANSAS-PINE BLUFF TAILBACK
Seventeen seconds into the seven-minute Ivory Lee Brown highlight video, you have seen everything you need to see. That's when Brown, a tailback at Arkansas-Pine Bluff, rushes off right tackle against Henderson State. He turns upfield, breaking one tackle like a man pushing through a turnstile, and enters the secondary. A cornerback from the far side of the field, number 29, has drawn a bead on Brown and accelerates toward him, anticipating a juicy, blindsided hit.
That's when Brown makes The Cut, a kind of instinctive side-hop, a near-instantaneous 45-degree change of direction that good backs, even very good backs, don't make. Brown makes it. As number 29 goes somersaulting past, with tube-sock fibers under his fingernails, Brown outruns five more defenders to the end zone. The rest of the video is more of the same: Brown hitting the line like a young Earl Campbell; Brown slashing and high-kicking, once he is past the linebackers, like Walter Payton. So far, 16 NFL scouts have made their way to see him at Arkansas-Pine Bluff, an NAIA school with an enrollment of 2,800.
September 2, 1990
Texans who remember his senior high school season in the town of Palestine must wonder, What ever happened to Ivory Lee Brown? In 1986, Brown rushed for more than 1,800 yards in 10 games. The only Texas schoolboy more highly ranked by recruiters that year was Darren Lewis, at Carter High in Dallas. Lewis ended up at Texas A&M, where his name will be mentioned often this season in connection with the Heisman Trophy. Brown ached to become an Aggie, too—"Even my wardrobe was maroon and white," he says ruefully—but he had problems with his SAT and enrolled instead at Tyler (Texas) Junior College. A&M expected Brown to go to College Station after his semesters at Tyler. Nebraska also thought it had a shot at Brown. Both schools failed to reckon with the Gunslinger.
Upon first seeing film of Brown, Archie (Gunslinger) Cooley, the coach at Pine Bluff, began lamenting the predicament of an NAIA school. "I couldn't believe what I saw," says Cooley of the film. "My first question was, What can I do to get this boy? We don't have any facilities. Our stadium looks like a junior high stadium. How can I get him?" Go through the mother, a small voice told him. From the time Ivory Lee was three years old, his mother, Doris, had held down a steady job and raised eight children by herself. Brown does very little without consulting his "Mama." Cooley arranged for an audience with Mama.
"I told her the truth—that all we could offer was an education," recalls Cooley. "She said, 'You're the only coach who's come in here and talked about education. I want my son to graduate from college. Ivory Lee, I want you to go with Coach Cooley.' That's how we got Ivory."
Cooley has become a father figure to Brown, a role that Cooley unhesitatingly exploits. "Let me tell you what I do when we got to have it," Cooley says. "I slide up to him and say, 'Hey, boy, your daddy got to have this first down.' He'll put his arm around my shoulders and say, 'You got it.' And he gets it."
Cooley walks a fine line between legitimate motivation and shameless exploitation of Brown's emotions. But then, Cooley has never been one to shy away from walking a fine line. That would help explain why 96 allegations of wrongdoing—ranging from falsifying eligibility certificates to sending players out on the field under the names and numbers of other players—were lodged by the NAIA against Cooley's program this past spring. Cooley denies all the charges and claims they represent an attempt by unnamed conspirators to destroy his program.
Meanwhile, Brown has no regrets about his circuitous path through college football. "I don't look back," says Brown, who is on schedule to graduate this spring or summer. "It doesn't do me any good to wonder what I could have done at A&M. Darren will probably end up in the pros, and maybe I will too. There's no telling what I'll be able to do if I get there." But 17 seconds of his highlight video leave one with a pretty good idea.
CAL STATE-NORTHRIDGE TAILBACK
On the eve of college football's national signing day for high school seniors in 1987, Bob Burt got a phone call at home. Burt is the coach at Cal State-Northridge, 30 miles north of Los Angeles. The caller was Steve Landress, the coach at nearby Cleveland High. Landress had a recruiting tip.
"Give Albert Fann a call," said Landress. "He's interested in your program."
"Yeah, right," said Burt.
The skepticism was understandable. Northridge is a Division II commuter school, and Fann was a schoolboy All-America, a blue-chip tailback who had amassed 2,200 yards in offense during his senior season at Cleveland. The heavyweights lining up to enter the Fann sweepstakes included USC, UCLA and Colorado. Burt hadn't even tried to talk to him. "I thought it would have been a waste of time," he says. Then, around February, the big guys all backed off. "I got an incomplete in a geometry class I needed to graduate," says Fann. "I guess that scared them away." So, at Landress's suggestion, Burt drove to Fann's house. They got acquainted. Burt returned the next morning and left with a signed letter of intent.
Seldom has a football program owed more to a branch of mathematics. In his eighth game as a Matador, Fann returned a kickoff 85 yards in a driving rain to score Northridge's touchdown in a 7-6 victory over Santa Clara. In his three seasons with Northridge, he has rushed for 3,257 yards, caught passes for another 589 and scored 37 touchdowns.
Fann's father, Al Sr., was a prizefighter and semipro baseball player from Cleveland who saw his own sports career end after he took a wild pitch in the neck in the mid-'50s. Still itching to perform, the elder Fann joined Carimou House—"Carimou, that's a Swahili word for meeting place," he says—a Cleveland theater group. A decade later, he moved to Harlem, and in addition to earning his living as an actor—appearing in everything from soap operas to commercials to Broadway's The Wiz—he opened an acting school. In 1977 Fann Sr. settled his family in Northridge and moved his school to Hollywood shortly after.
It was no coincidence that as a basketball star at Cleveland High, Al Jr. could take a charge as well as anyone: His 12 years of acting lessons had included instructions from his father on how to time his grunt, fling himself backward and windmill his arms, and the importance of not overdoing it. Does a Thespian background come in handy on the gridiron? Fann thinks not. "Football is reality," he says, "and your emotions are coming from the inside out. You can't pretend to break a tackle."
After a basketball practice during his sophomore season at Cleveland. Fann missed the last bus home, so Landress offered him a lift. "I got on the freeway to take him to the inner city," recalls Landress, sheepishly. Asked Fann, "Coach, where are you going? I live two miles away." The Fanns' house was the one with the Rolls-Royce in the driveway. It was during that drive that Landress talked Fann into trying out for football. Fann's mother, Barbara, had always frowned on the idea: She was afraid her boy would be hurt. She was right. After rushing for 600 yards in his first three games, he suffered a broken ankle during practice.
"What I have always liked most about Al is the way he punishes tacklers," says Landress. "And I like his discipline. He loves to work out." Indeed, nothing about Fann's 6'2", 210-pound physique suggests Division II: His upper body might as well be on loan from Mount Olympus. Fann says he doesn't know what his 40 time is—Burt doesn't bother timing his players, saying, "I'm afraid I'll just be disappointed." Adds Fann, "Besides, there's a difference between 40 speed and football speed. I have gears, and when I need to, I can usually find a higher one."
"He has a knack for giving it that little burst at the right time," says Burt. "Once he's beyond the first wave, it's a footrace, an angles game." In other words, a kind of geometry at which Fann, for a change, excels.
WYOMING DEFENSIVE END
The Scourge of Western Athletic Conference quarterbacks shows up at a restaurant for breakfast in shorts, sandals and a loose-fitting, short-sleeved T-shirt with jagged, horizontal stripes of indigo and hot pink. "My fiancèe picked it out for me," says University of Wyoming defensive end Mitch Donahue. This prompts a visitor to think, Mitch, you're a native of Billings, Mont., attending college of your own volition in Laramie. Wyo. Your hobbies are hunting and fishing. I didn't think you picked the shirt out for yourself.
While in most respects Donahue is as rough-hewn as the surrounding Rocky Mountain landscape, it soon becomes apparent that he has a more sensitive side. He proposed to his fiancèe, Melissa Wolff, in April by arranging to have MELISSA...WILL YOU BE MRS. DONAHUE? appear on the electronic scoreboard during Wyoming's spring football game. Later, Wolff said yes. "I guess I'm kind of a romantic," says Donahue.
"He's a real nice kid, but you can't even talk to him on game day," says Wyoming defensive coordinator Del Wight. "He's wired pretty tight." Indeed, Donahue, who has gotten 27 sacks in three seasons, becomes so excited after a Cowboy victory that he has been known to do backflips on the field. Against Air Force in 1988 he landed a flurry of left hooks to the ribs of Falcon halfback Anthony Roberson well after the whistle.
Wyoming coach Paul Roach says that Donahue's success is a matter of ABC: "A) Speed. He goes 6'3", about 260 and runs a 4.7. B) He doesn't stay blocked for very long. C) He's full throttle, every play, every game. He's an eggbeater-type."
Donahue will certainly wind up in the NFL, although he could be moved to middle linebacker. "We have him rated very highly. I don't know that I'd call him a sleeper," says New York Giants director of player personnel Tom Boisture. Of course, matriculation at Wyoming confers automatic sleeper status.
How does a Donahue-type talent find himself in Laramie? "We stole him," says assistant coach Tom Everson. "He's still the best high school player I've ever seen. Teams couldn't run at him, and they couldn't run away from him."
By the time Donahue made his official visit to Wyoming in 1985, the students had left for Christmas break. So his host took him bowling "and to the Dairy Queen—stuff like that," Donahue recalls. "But I'd been praying a lot about the decision, and when I got here, I knew this was the place."
Was it fitting then for Donahue, a devout Christian, to rain left hooks on his opponent after play had stopped? "You mean the game against Air Force two years ago?" he says. "Let me give you the whole story." It seems that he was throwing with his left because the Falcon halfback had Donahue's right hand in his mouth—and wouldn't let go. "He about bit through my finger," says Donahue, holding the scarred digit up for inspection.
Donahue was cited for unsportsmanlike conduct, though he tried to explain to officials what had happened—the teeth marks on his ring finger being exhibit A. Wyoming scored 28 points in the fourth quarter to tie the Falcons 45-45. On Air Force's final possession, Donahue stripped quarterback Dee Dowis of the ball. Wyoming recovered and kicked the game-winning field goal with one second left. Recalls Donahue, laughing, "The reason the ref wouldn't listen to me when I was trying to show him my finger was because he thought I was flipping him off!"
Donahue's recounting of the story has attracted attention from patrons at other tables. There is a square-dance festival in Laramie this weekend: On this morning, the restaurant is awash in square dancers. "My parents do some square dancing, but I don't," says Donahue. "I'd really like to learn the country swing. It's a little like the Charleston." Right there in his chair, Donahue makes a clumsy attempt at the Charleston. Behind Donahue's back, a couple of waitresses are giggling at him—giggling at the scourge of the WAC! Of course, with Donahue dressed in pink and dancing in his chair, who could know that?
It was pro day at Grambling University this spring, and Jake Reed found himself suddenly and immensely popular. A gaggle of NFL scouts were on the Louisiana campus to appraise 19 seniors-to-be. When it came time to run 40-yard dashes, Reed stepped to the line. "I came out of my stance a little wobbly," he recalls. When he finished, the scouts were staring hard at their stopwatches. "I thought I'd blown it," says Reed. Hardly. He had run a 4.38 and was politely asked to run again. So he ran a 4.39.
Now, your average scout is a jaded, stoic sort. Few things get him excited. But a sub-4.4-second 40 is definitely one of them.
"Before I ran, they didn't have much to say to me," says Reed, the latest and—at 6'4", 215 pounds—largest, in a 28-year succession of outstanding Grambling wingbacks. "Then they all wanted to talk to me." The word on Reed from the bird dogs is unanimous: His senior season should be a springboard to a long, fruitful NFL career. Here are some of the people he won't be dedicating it to.
•The teacher at Newton County (Ga.) High, who told Reed's mother, Patricia, "If Jake goes to college, he'll be back after one semester."
•The college recruiters who shied away from Reed when they saw his SAT scores and suggested that he try a junior college.
•His basketball coach at Newton, who reportedly told one of Reed's football coaches that the kid's grades would keep him out of college, and felt that Reed's work ethic was ordinary at best.
In fact, Reed did not meet the NCAA's academic standards under Prop 48, but rather than lose a year of eligibility, he took out a bank loan and paid for his first year at Grambling himself. And he expects to receive his degree in criminal justice by next summer. "They don't have a test that measures how badly a kid wants to make it in his heart," says Harold Johnson, an assistant football coach at Newton. "If Jake had listened to some of those people, right now he'd be bagging groceries."
At wingback, Reed is primarily a receiving threat, and his speed makes him a terror on reverses. But Reed makes himself useful even without the ball. "Jake played on the line in high school, and he is one of the best blockers we have," says Eddie Robinson Jr., the offensive backfield coach and the son of Grambling's coach and legend-in-residence. "On sweeps around his end, he gets after linebackers like an offensive tackle."
Last year Reed also played tailback, which some scouts feel is his most natural position. Says Robinson Jr., "Then they see the film of his game against Mississippi Valley [in which he played wingback and caught four passes for 116 yards and a TD], and they say, 'I could see where you'd keep him at receiver, too.' "
The film that left scouts slack-jawed was Grambling's Division I-AA first-round playoff game last November against Stephen F. Austin State. The Lumberjacks first tried to cover Reed with a linebacker. He quickly scored on a 25-yard touchdown pass, and three minutes later he scored on a 19-yard run. So Austin covered Reed with a safety, also to no avail: He scored on a 12-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter. By then, Lumberjack defenders were trying to take Reed out at the line of scrimmage. The strategy worked and Grambling lost, 59-56, a tough afternoon for defensive backs all around.
After watching Reed blaze through his back-to-back, sub-4.4's on Pro Day, the scouts took turns buttonholing him. "One guy with red hair—he was from one of the combines—told me to start acting like a pro now and to stay out of trouble," says Reed. "He said he couldn't see any reason why I shouldn't be making two or three hundred thousand dollars next year."
Reed tries not to think about the money, but it's hard. "I know you can't put all your hope in the NFL," he says. "You never know what will happen." Even as he talks so sensibly, Reed struggles to keep the excitement out of his voice. And fails. For a guy who was told he didn't belong in college, told he shouldn't even waste his time trying, just getting this far is a big deal.
JACKSON STATE WIDE RECEIVER
Before kickoffs at Jackson (MISS.) State Home games, two buses transport the team across town to Mississippi Memorial Stadium. Intersections are cleared, a police escort is provided. Citizens holler encouragement. "For a poor kid, that's a heck of an experience," says coach W.C. Gorden. "I get chill bumps just thinking about it." Along the route, the players belt out impromptu chants and verses, boasting of the humiliations they expect to inflict on their foes. And, says Gorden, the brashest and boldest of his Saturday morning rapmasters is a senior wide receiver named Tim Barnett.
"Tim's got so much natural talent," says Gorden. "He could have been a ballet dancer, a poet or a blues singer. Instead, he's out there giving people the blues."
Those "people" are the opposing defensive backs. Pro scouts say that the sturdy, speedy Barnett will be one of the first wide receivers selected in next spring's NFL draft. Last season, Barnett caught 36 passes—a modest number—but averaged a decidedly immodest 23.8 yards per catch. Of course, if attitude were paramount in the NFL's annual auction, the 6'2", 205-pound Barnett might be the first player taken. Give a listen to the musings of this incorrigible football nerd.
Barnett on his off-season conditioning: "I like to run the steps at Memorial Stadium. I run them eight or nine times in the middle of the afternoon, when the sun is hottest." On two-a-days: "I enjoy them. You just have to remind yourself you're out there because you want to be. I try to turn my work into fun." On practicing in the rain: "It's actually kind of enjoyable."
Barnett could have wound up enjoying his workouts at any number of big-time schools, but he had been wooed by Jackson State offensive coordinator Cardell Jones as far back as the 11th grade in Gunnison, Miss. Barnett first caught Jones's eye while running dashes at a high school track meet. "He was just a junior," recalls Jones, "but I thought, There's one kid I need to keep an eye on. The two became friends. Other schools came calling to Gunnison, including Ole Miss and Mississippi State, but Barnett rewarded his most persistent suitor.
At first, Barnett struggled at Jackson. Some of the older players thought he was cocky, and he was a poor student. Redshirted as a freshman, he broke his collarbone three games into his sophomore season, then proved disappointing as a junior, dropping balls and making up pass routes as he went along.
"He was still learning the position," says Jones.
"I was still distracted by my injury," says Barnett.
Gorden has yet another explanation. "He was having, how should I say this, female-woman problems," says the coach.
Gorden, who has been coaching the Tigers for 13 years, loves music. So he was pleasantly surprised last season, on a team bus ride, to hear B.B. King emanating from someone's boom box. Asked the delighted coach, "Who is playing those blues?"
The bluesman was Barnett. "I should have known it would be Tim," says Gorden. "He comes from the cradle of Mississippi rhythm and blues." Barnett was raised by his aunt and uncle Eunice and Eddie McCloud. They managed a quail ranch in Gunnison, off Highway 61. Blues devotees regard 61, which connects Memphis and New Orleans, as a kind of sacred vine; the towns it skirts and bisects have produced, among other legends, King (Itta Bena), Muddy Waters (Rolling Fork) and John Lee Hooker (Clarksdale). Player and coach have been exchanging tapes ever since that bus ride.
Barnett now has his act together, on and off the field. He and his wife, Tiffney, have a seven-week-old daughter, his grade-point average is, he says, "right around 3.0," and not only does he know his assignment on every play, but he can also tell you the tight end's. The scouts are believers. Recalls Gorden, "They said, 'Possession receivers are a dime a dozen. We're looking for somebody who can run by people' "—that is, somebody who can fix a defensive back with a bad case of the blues.
EASTERN ILLINOIS DEFENSIVE BACK
Awide, flat plane of Cartilage runs down Tim Lance's nose, like a playground slide. Lance, a nickel-back at Eastern Illinois, has broken his nose six times, four on the gridiron. "I'll make a tackle, and the face mask gets pushed back or the top part comes down," he explains. "My chin straps just won't stay snapped. I don't know what it is."
Of course he knows. Lance's misshapen schnozz is the price he pays for teeing off on his opponents with such wanton, gleeful abandon. He pays it gladly. Reviewing a video of the Panthers' 1989 game against Indiana State, Lance fast-forwards past one of his seven interceptions that season to show a visitor "a pretty good hit I had." A Sycamore wideout leaps for a high pass; Lance streaks into the picture and takes him out at the knees. Lance plays it back in slow motion. "He hangs on to the ball," says Lance. "Outstanding."
"He's smart—he directs our secondary—and he can run," says Brock Spack, an assistant coach at Eastern. "But mostly, Tim Lance can flat out hit your butt."
"This kid is a throwback," says a scout for an NFC Central team. "He can go out on a wideout or play heads-up on a tight end. When they played Liberty University, he jacked Eric Green around a few times." Green, it should be noted, is a 6'5", 274-pound tight end who was the Pittsburgh Steelers' first-round draft choice in April. The scout anticipates that Lance will be used in the NFL as both a linebacker and a strong safety.
Lance traces his zest for contact to his early years as an AAU and Silver Gloves boxer. "I lost a lot of fights when I was seven," he says. "Once I got knocked silly. It taught me a lesson. If you don't want to get your butt kicked when you step into the ring, you've got to have an attitude." Lance was the Silver Gloves national champion for his age group in 1980.
The Lances hail from tiny Cuba, Ill. (pop. 1,648), 40 miles southwest of Peoria. "We lived on a farm," says Lance. "We had a lake stocked with trout, a couple creeks running through the place. Did a lot of fishing and trapping."
What an idyllic setting in which to spend one's youth, a visitor muses.
"Yeah, right, whatever you say," says Lance. "We had a big backyard, 70 or 80 yards long, and my brother, Steve, and I used to play football on it. The barbed-wire fence was out of bounds. One time I got an angle on him and took him out in the barbed wire. He needed stitches." Explaining the incident to his parents, Tim said, "What was I supposed to do, let him score?"
Not to worry—Steve got in his licks. "He used to hit me in the head all the time," says Lance. "He hit me with a baseball bat, or he'd throw a wrench at me. He'd say, 'Here, catch!' and I'd turn around and take a ratchet to the head. He got pretty handy cutting butterfly bandages out of tape and slapping them on me."
Steve, who played tight end, was two years ahead of Tim at Cuba High and had several scholarship offers but turned them down to attend a junior college. As Tim's senior season progressed, he was doing well, but not getting much attention from colleges. In a game against Lewistown (Ill.) High, he had seven sacks and an interception, and four carries for more than 100 yards. He also punted four times for a 50-yard average, including a 73-yarder Cuba downed on the one. "I don't know how many tackles I had," he recalls. "Knocked a couple helmets off."
After the game a stranger from Lewistown approached Lance and said, "You beat us by yourself!"
Lance thanked him and got on the bus. As it turned out, the anonymous admirer was Scott Noble, soon to be a graduate assistant at Eastern Illinois. Three months later Lance got his only scholarship offer. On his visit to Eastern's campus in Charleston, coach Bob Spoo sat Lance down and told him he would have to choose between offense and defense. Lance's answer could double as his philosophy of life. "Coach," he said, "I'd rather hit than be hit."