The clock was ticking. It was 1:50 p.m. last Thursday, and Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard stood by a pay phone at the tiny airport in Steamboat Springs, Colo., ready to pull the trigger on the most eye-popping NFL trade of the 1990s. Beathard was on the verge of giving the Cardinals San Diego's first-round draft picks in 1998 and '99, a second-round choice this year, one of the game's most dangerous return men ( Eric Metcalf) and a reserve linebacker (Patrick Sapp) to move up one place, from No. 3 to Arizona's No. 2 spot, in the NFL draft on April 18. In so doing, Beathard would guarantee that the Chargers could select one of two marquee quarterbacks, Ryan Leaf or Peyton Manning.
If the Cardinals backed out, Beathard had a two o'clock deadline from the Jets to make a trade for defensive end Hugh Douglas. The Chargers would give up their second-and sixth-round picks this year for Douglas. Then San Diego would almost certainly use the third pick in the draft on Andre Wadsworth, Florida State's terrific pass-rushing defensive end.
Beathard, who had just arrived in Steamboat Springs for a family vacation, called Arizona. He told Cardinals owner Bill Bid-will and vice president of player personnel Bob Ferguson that he was ready to do the deal, which the two teams had been negotiating for five weeks. But the Arizona executives asked for more time to give the trade some final thought. "I can't," Beathard said. "I have a deadline with another team on another deal."
"When's the deadline?" Ferguson asked.
Beathard looked at his watch. "Three minutes," he said.
"Wait a minute," Ferguson said, putting Beathard on hold. Moments later Bidwill got back on the line and said, "We have a deal."
Nothing says more about what pro football has become than this trade. First, there's the desperate-for-a-quarterback factor. When Packers general manager Ron Wolf heard about the swap, he said, "I've got to call Bobby and congratulate him. You pay whatever you have to for a franchise player." The Chargers had to pay a king's ransom to Arizona, which was fielding several tempting offers for the rights to whichever of the two quarterbacks the Colts, picking first in the draft, don't take. (The Bengals dangled two first-round picks plus running back Ki-Jana Carter; the Saints offered a first-rounder plus five more picks in 1998; the Bears were willing to part with their first-rounder plus 1,000-yard rusher Raymont Harris and defensive end Alonzo Spellman.)
Then there's the sacrifice-tomorrow-for-today factor. San Diego doesn't have a pick in rounds 2 through 4 this year and in round 1 in '99, but at least it will have a quarterback who it can build around.
Finally, there's the mania factor: having to respond to impatient fans and having to be competitive in a league that recently negotiated $17.6 billion in TV contracts. "There's more pressure today," Beathard says. "There's more of the there's-no-tomorrow feeling."