The real draft actually began for Oliver on Saturday morning, April 22, in Manhattan. ESPN officials gathered in a closed-door meeting to discuss the network's coverage of Sunday's draft. Oliver's name came up, and not just because ESPN would have correspondent Andrea Kremer stationed at the home of his agent, Steve Zucker, in Winnetka, Ill., where Oliver would spend draft day. Rumors about Oliver's use of an undisclosed drug and of his refusing to take a drug test were discussed for 20 minutes. According to ESPN's director of communications, Rosa Gatti, the information came from a confidential source "in the league." The gist of the discussion, says Gatti, was to watch for a possible first-round slide by Oliver.
The next day Oliver and his mother settled into Zucker's upstairs TV room. The atmosphere was festive. Florida State cornerback "Neon" Deion Sanders, another Zucker client, was downstairs in layers of gold jewelry. The press, including ESPN's camera crew, was invited.
The first eight picks yielded no surprises. Oliver had his eyes on No. 9, which belonged to the Dolphins. Speculation was that Miami coach Don Shula, who needed help in the secondary, would grab Oliver. But the Dolphins, who also needed help at running back, went for Florida State tailback Sammie Smith. On TV, ESPN analyst Joe Theismann said, "Louis Oliver should have been their pick."
Oliver took a deep breath. "I was like. Wow, O.K., if Miami doesn't want me, Denver will take me," he recalls. But the Broncos, who had the 13th selection and needed defensive help, traded their pick to Cleveland for the Browns' first, second, fifth and ninth choices. That meant Denver would pick 20th in the first round. Cleveland selected Texas running back Eric Metcalf. Oliver felt more tension, but he told himself, O.K., so I might have to wait until the 20th pick, but somebody will surely take me before then.
After that, team after team passed on Oliver. He stared grimly at the TV screen as ESPN commentators noted his surprising nosedive. Finally, after the New Orleans Saints made defensive end Wayne Martin of Arkansas the 19th pick, Kremer went on live: "We are downstairs. Louis Oliver is upstairs. He does not want to talk to anybody, does not want to see anybody.... Some are saying his stock is falling. Nobody seems to know why."
Then came the crusher—Denver took Arkansas safety Steve Atwater, whose ratings had not been nearly as good as Oliver's. The NFL scouting combine had ranked him third among safeties. "I thought, Steve Atwater, he can't touch me!" says Oliver now. "What's Denver doing?" Moments later, the crisis became full-blown. Kremer told Oliver and Zucker's public relations director, Nancy Mitchell, about the rumors and asked to interview Oliver about them on the air.
"You could see the hurt in his face," says Gene Burrough, the players agent who is representing Oliver for Zucker. "He didn't break into tears. It was something more horrible than tears. It was like fright. I went to his side and said. 'Hold on, partner." He was devastated, and he panicked. He just said, 'I'll go on TV, I'll go on TV "
"The next thing I know, Louis is right beside me," says Kremer. She briefed Oliver on how she would pose the drug question, then they went on the air. Oliver looked shaken. His voice was quiet as he said, "I don't smoke. I don't drink. I've taken every test that was given to me. I don't know why someone would want to say I'm on drugs. I think that's the reason nobody has picked me yet."
But two teams wanted to do just that. The Dolphins and the San Francisco 49ers suddenly found themselves scrambling for a player they never imagined would still be available. The Niners phoned Oliver, assuring him that they would take him with the 28th and last pick of the first round.
"But as soon as I hung up, Coach Shula called," says Oliver. "I thought. I'd love to play for San Francisco, but what if I slip to the second round? So I said, 'Yes, I'd love to play for Miami.' " The Dolphins were trying to make a deal to get another shot at Oliver in the first round. They ultimately swapped their second-and third-round picks for the 25th selection, which belonged to the Chicago Bears.