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Turning the page

NFL teams passed on Munoz, but he has a Plan B

Posted: Wednesday April 27, 2005 5:39PM; Updated: Thursday April 28, 2005 8:54AM
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Michael Munoz
Michael Munoz: From All-America to out of football in one year -- and it was a voluntary decision.
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

The most surprising news in the wake of the NFL Draft wasn't about Matt Jones. Or Aaron Rodgers. Or Maurice Clarett.

It's from a guy who wasn't drafted at all.

No, not Jason White. Michael Munoz.

He's the son of former USC and Bengals' tackle Anthony Munoz, a Hall of Famer who is on the short list of the greatest offensive linemen in history. Michael, a 6-foot-6, 315-pound offensive lineman, played at Tennessee for four years, was twice the Volunteers' co-captain and last year, in the fall of 2004, a consensus All-America. But that's just the superficial stuff. Sit back and read for a minute.

Five years ago Sports Illustrated assigned me to write a feature on the Munoz family. Not only was Anthony an NFL great, but Michael was a blue-chip recruit signed by Tennessee and his sister, Michelle, one year younger, was a star high school basketball player who would join him at Tennessee and play for Pat Summit. (She had decorated her bedroom in Orange and White and after being named the Ohio Player of the Year as junior, made the easy decision to play for the Lady Vols).

Mom and dad bought a small condo in Knoxville, Tenn., just to make the travel a little easier. I spent three days in and around Cincinnati reporting the piece and found the Munozes to be one of the most remarkable families I have ever met.

The children, both top-level athletes, were bright, mature and self-effacing. They carried none of the ego-baggage common to talented young athletes. They were both exceptional students. I spent a week reporting the story and after coming back to my office, I couldn't find anybody who would utter a negative word about the kids ... or the family.

Typical was a comment from Michelle's AAU basketball coach: "I've never had the privilege of being around a better family.''

And this, from Anthony's NFL teammate, Boomer Esiason: "It's an honor to say you know people like them.''

Time passed. I never covered a single game of Michael Munoz's college career. Nor did I see Michelle play, although it was widely publicized when she transferred from Knoxville to Ohio State after playing little during her freshman season.

Michael was a freshman All-American in 2000 and by last season, a consensus All-America. He graduated in three and a half years with a 3.67 GPA and won the prestigious postgraduate Draddy Scholarship. He also endured serious knee and shoulder injuries (the latter just last season) but started every one of the 46 games he dressed for. He spent the winter back in Ohio training with his father and several other NFL hopefuls.

"I can't imagine anyone working harder,'' Anthony Munoz told me this week. "And it was a blast for me. Just working with good players every day. I can tell you, Michael was ready.''

Against this backdrop, Anthony and Michael sat on facing, oversized couches (all the furniture in the house is oversized) to watch the NFL Draft on Saturday and Sunday. They watched together, first talking, laughing, and then ultimately in silence, as round after round went by and Michael's name wasn't called.

On mid-afternoon Sunday, Anthony rose and did a couple laps around the house to clear his head. He had called friends in the league and none of them indicated that Michael might not be selected.

"Shocked is the only word I can use,'' said Anthony. "And I have no guess as to why it happened. It has to be something physical.''

But Michael was poked and prodded at the NFL Combine. One doctor told him if not for the surgical scar on his shoulder, he wouldn't have known that Michael had surgery. "One guy literally grabbed my arm and hung from it,'' Michael told his father in March.

The phone started ringing not long after the finish of the draft, teams looking to sign Munoz to a free-agent contract. "Including one team right in his backyard that his father played on for many years and went to the Hall of Fame from,'' said Anthony.

At this point Michael did a remarkable thing: He decided not to play football anymore. He decided, with his wife, Emily, to start his life away from the field. This is what he told his father: "Dad, Emily and I have been praying that God would show us a sign. Now it's clear. It's time to go some other route, away from football.'' He told his father that he had never limited his identity to football, but as a person who happened to play football. This would be a momentary setback.

"He told me 'One door was closed, but four or five others just opened,''' said Anthony. "I can't believe the class and dignity he showed. It was just unbelievable. And all the time, I was having a hard time accepting what happened.''

On Tuesday morning, Michael and Emily drove home to Knoxville. Michael returned my phone call late that afternoon, but I was by then on an airplane en route to another assignment. He left a message that said, "I hope you're having a great day.''

Michael sounded like the same grownup he had been as a 17-year-old. He sounded like he had already moved on.

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