At the furthest extension of their obsession, they become draftniks. They don the jersey of their favorite team, make the pilgrimage to the draft room at the Marriott Marquis on draft day and weep tears of deliverance when their team selects a pass-rushing defensive end. Kiper did them all one better: He turned pro. He's a professional draftnik. He's on ESPN, offering his opinions during college football weekends, during the Senior Bowl and on draft day. In April he sells around 8,000 copies of his 172-page Draft Report at $21.95 a pop. His October draft preview and his three updates throughout the year sell nearly as well. He has a syndicated radio show on 140 stations. He's a paid guest on three other weekly radio shows, in Houston, Dallas and Providence. He writes columns for the hard-core jock press—the team fanzines, the football tabloids. For god's sake, the man has his own 900 number, and last April he received 7,500 calls at 95 cents a minute.
Yes, Kiper has learned how to make money off the draft, but he has also learned how to help others make money, and when you see him at the Senior Bowl, he's preaching not to the Rotisserie League crowd but rather to an assortment of, shall we say, interested parties who hope to actually profit from his opinions. See, it's a matter of who listens to whom. Kiper listens to the coaches and the scouts, and then everybody else listens to Kiper. The players listen to him, the parents listen to him, and the agents sometimes even pay Kiper for the privilege of listening to him. 'There's not a new idea in the entire NFL," says one agent, "and because Mel talks to everybody, he becomes an excellent and very useful synopsis of what everybody else is thinking." Useful is the operative word. Mel Kiper Jr. is useful, and the interested parties who pursue him across the lobby of the Riverview Hotel try to use him as best they can.
"Who is this guy?"
That's what some Baltimore Colt executives used to think when they saw him hanging around their training camp back in the late '70s. Who is this skinny kid telling us who to draft, stuffing his picks in our pockets? The executives didn't know, of course, that Mel Kiper Jr. had been charting the draft since he was 12, and by the age of 16 he couldn't conceive of making a living any other way.
Accorsi knew, though, that the kid was "something special," he would say later, with a purity of purpose granted only to the truly obsessive. Accorsi was the assistant general manager of the Colts at the time, and when he talked football with young Mel, he remembered the days when he himself was young and innocent and didn't have to negotiate contracts. In 1979, when Kiper graduated from high school, he wrote his first comprehensive draft preview and asked every team in the NFL to grade his efforts. The first man to write him back—and congratulate him for his prescience—was Accorsi. One who did not write him back was Chuck Noll, the coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who thought that Mel had bugged the Colts' offices.
The pattern was thus established: Kiper made friends in the NFL, and he consequently made adversaries of those who thought he relied too heavily on his friends.
In 1980 Kiper wrote another report and again circulated it around the league; the following year he decided to offer the report, for sale, to fellow fanatics. He found 130 subscribers at $20 for 96 pages. The next year he had 860 paying customers, and by that time he was spending virtually all of his time in the basement of his parents' Baltimore row house, watching films, calling his contacts, talking to subscribers—"I would talk to anyone who called me, two minutes or two hours," remembers Kiper—and getting on every radio show that would have him. He did nothing else; he was a full-time draftnik from the very start. Sure, he went to college at nearby Essex and studied broadcasting, but his father supported him, and he never had to go out and get a job, at least not a real one. Indeed, until he died in 1988, Mel Kiper Sr., who had a vending machine route, sold some real estate and coached high school and college baseball, worked alongside his son in the basement, keeping the books, doing the advertising and stroking the subscribers. In the early '80s he owned the only row house in Baltimore with a satellite dish on the roof.
In 1983 Accorsi, by then the Colts' general manager, approached Kiper about joining the Colts as his personal assistant. The young man had arrived. He had done exactly what he, with his father's blessing, had set out to do—he had built his credibility with his draft report, and now he was ready to work for the NFL. But the Colts drafted John Elway out of Stanford that year and traded him away without even informing Accorsi. Accorsi wound up leaving the team shortly after that, and Kiper was without a job. But in 1984 an agent mentioned his name to a producer at ESPN. A few weeks later Kiper appeared for the first time on ESPN's draft-day broadcast ("Who is this guy?"), applauding the teams that confirmed his choices and criticizing those that didn't. A year later Accorsi, by then-with the Browns, sounded him out about another job. Kiper turned him down, fearing that once he went with one NFL team, the other 27 would never trust him again with their secrets and he could never go back to the business of independent punditry.
Kiper would live off the proceeds of the secrets he divined. He was national now, and as his name and his business grew bigger, his job became easier and easier. People called him. Teams called him, wanting to know what everybody else was thinking: players called him, wanting to know where they stood: parents called him, wanting to know what their sons had to do to improve their standing; and agents called, wanting to know which players were worth pursuing. A player ran a 4.3 40? Call Kiper, because you know he'll spread the word. The kid did 25 reps? Call Kiper. The team with the fifth pick took the kid out to dinner? Call Kiper.
Cousins, brothers, uncles, family friends, pastors—if they're involved with a player, they call Kiper. He still has a satellite dish, as well as three VCRs set up to tape games. But if he misses anything, agents send him highlights. He doesn't just follow the draft anymore, doesn't just offer comment; he's in it now, a player, a conduit of information in a world where information is the only hard currency.