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SMALL HAS MADE IT BIG IN THE NFL : Seven Quarterbacks Who Once Played for Small Colleges Have Shown Talent to Lead Pro Teams

December 04, 1985|BOB OATES | Times Staff Writer

On a November night a decade ago, Phil Simms became possibly the first high school football player ever recruited during a television interview.

A quarterback, later drafted No. 1 by the New York Giants, Simms had been unimpressive as a young athlete. In all his high school days, he never met a college recruiter. Never even saw one.

But his team made the Kentucky state football final his senior season at Louisville's Southern High. And on the night before the championship game, Simms was interviewed for the first time on a local TV news program.

"It was one of those forgettable two-minute TV interviews where nobody says anything," Simms recalled the other day. "The only unforgettable thing about it was that an assistant coach from Morehead State (Ky.) was passing through town and had turned on the news at his hotel. He thought I looked pretty cool for a high school kid.

"He called to say I handled myself well in the interview, and he invited me to join their team. That was the only college team that contacted me in high school."

Thus, remarkably, did Simms launch a career that has carried him from a Division II environment at Morehead State to the National Football League.

He didn't make the long trip alone, however. Of the NFL's starting quarterbacks this year, no fewer than seven are from small-college teams. That's 25%, which is unusually high when measured against public notions and perceptions.

It is popularly supposed that college football's top teams pick off the best of the prep quarterbacks each year and that, subsequently, only the best of the best move on to the pros. From Joe Namath to John Elway and Dan Marino, there have been enough such examples to sustain the illusion.

But it is just an illusion. Two of the game's greatest, John Unitas and Terry Bradshaw, played for unfamiliar if not obscure college teams--at Louisville and Louisiana Tech, respectively--and, today, small-college quarterbacks are all over the league.

Two are in New York, Simms and Ken O'Brien of the Jets, and another, Ron Jaworski is at Philadelphia. Two are on the West Coast, Dieter Brock of the Rams and Dave Krieg of Seattle. Two are in the Midwest, Neil Lomax of St. Louis and Bill Kenney of Kansas City.

Several more have started at least one pro game this year, among them Jeff Kemp of the Rams, meaning that more than 25% of the NFL's top quarterbacks represent small colleges.

That isn't true at other positions--where only 7% of the NFL's 1,200 players are from Divisions II and III or NAIA teams.

Why are there so many small-college quarterbacks?

Veteran football coaches and scouts say this:

--Young passers are uniquely difficult to analyze. The Dallas Cowboys say their computers are almost worthless in evaluating quarterbacks.

--What puzzles scouts and computers alike is, first, that it takes more than talent to play this position well, and, second, that the required intangibles are hard to quantify.

Of these intangibles, NFL coaches say that self-confidence is as important to quarterbacks as their talent. They say that toughness--mental and physical--is at least as important as either talent or confidence. And they say that opportunity is the other critical factor--the opportunity to start and continue to play.

The consensus is that each of those factors--talent, confidence, toughness, and opportunity--is about 25% of what it takes to become an NFL quarterback.

Or as former quarterback Pat Haden said: "Hundreds of people walking the streets today have NFL arms. You see them throwing beautiful passes at the beach, at playgrounds, at office picnics. But only a tiny handful of them have the mental toughness and the other things it takes to be a quarterback."


Snow was falling in Kansas City on the winter day in 1979 when Bill Kenney reported for a tryout. He had already been cut by two NFL clubs, Miami and Washington. The Chiefs represented his last chance.

But how could he demonstrate his skills as a passer in a snowstorm?

The Chiefs' offensive coach, Kay Dalton, who had faced such problems before in Kansas City, led him to the only possible place for an audition that day, the team's weight room.

There, on a 20-yard straightaway, Dalton gave Kenney a football and told him to throw it.

Dropping back seven steps, Kenney turned and threw, hitting Dalton in his extended left hand. Then he dropped back and hit him in the right hand.

"You'll do," Dalton said.

"The Chiefs won't regret it," the young quarterback said.

By 1983, Kenney was in the Pro Bowl. In '84 he experienced another big season. And this year the Chiefs completed a 3-1 first month when Kenney led them over the Raiders, 36-20, before he was injured.

The Chiefs fell apart soon afterward with more injuries, player dissension, and a drug scandal involving a starting defensive lineman. And eventually, conceding the season lost, the coaches began experimenting with young Todd Blackledge at quarterback.

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