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THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS
Richard Hoffer
February 12, 1990
Alabama linebacker Keith McCants heads a group of some 40 college juniors who may challenge the NFL's policy by giving up their eligibility to enter this year's pro draft
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February 12, 1990

The Young And The Restless

Alabama linebacker Keith McCants heads a group of some 40 college juniors who may challenge the NFL's policy by giving up their eligibility to enter this year's pro draft

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First Round Without Juniors

1.

BLAIR THOMAS

Running Back

Penn State

2.

JAMES FRANCIS

Linebacker

Baylor

3.

CORTEZ KENNEDY

Defensive Tackle

Miami

4.

RENALDO TURNBULL

LB-Defensive End

West Virginia

5.

PERCY SNOW

Linebacker

Michigan State

6.

REGGIE REMBERT

Wide Receiver

West Virginia

7.

CHRIS SINGLETON

Linebacker

Arizona

8.

ANTHONY THOMPSON

Running Back

Indiana

9.

RICHMOND WEBB

Tackle

Texas A&M

10.

JEFFALM

Defensive End

Notre Dame

11.

VINCE BUCK

Cornerback

Central State (Ohio)

12.

HAROLD GREEN

Running Back

South Carolina

13.

DARRELL THOMPSON

Running Back

Minnesota

14.

RAY AGNEW

Defensive End

North Carolina State

15.

PAT TERRELL

Safety

Notre Dame

16.

LEROY BUTLER

Safety

Florida State

17.

ANTHONY JOHNSON

Running Back

Notre Dame

18.

ALEXANDER WRIGHT

Wide Receiver

Auburn

19.

BERN BROSTEK

Center

Washington

20.

GREG MCMURTRY

Wide Receiver

Michigan

21.

MOHAMMED ELEWONIBI

Guard

BYU

22.

DEXTER CARTER

Running Back

Florida State

23.

JAMES WILLIAMS

Cornerback

Fresno State

24.

JOHN FRIESZ

Quarterback

Idaho

25.

JESSE ANDERSON

Tight End

Mississippi Slate

Keith McCants is not new to the work force. As a kid, he picked up the trash in front of a neighborhood greengrocer in exchange for fruit. When he was eight years old, he began delivering The Mobile (Ala.) Press Register, rising at four in the morning to get the Sunday paper out. He did that until his sophomore year at Murphy High. He also worked in a car wash, bused tables and laid carpet. At night he would spring up in bed wide awake with a money-making scheme and scribble down the idea before going back to sleep. In those days, when he was just another poor kid growing up in the Orange Grove projects in Mobile, nobody seemed to mind all his industry. Nobody seemed to mind Keith McCants's making a buck.

But now that he stands to make more than one million of them, the average signing bonus for a first-round NFL pick last year, some folks seem to mind. The way they see it, the 21-year-old McCants intends to earn all this money without staying for his senior season—uh, year—at Alabama. By entering April's NFL draft, they say, he is making the biggest mistake of his life. He's going to leave school without his degree!

McCants's decision places him foremost among a crowd of as many as 40 juniors who intend to challenge the NFL's policy of not drafting athletes who have yet to graduate or have collegiate eligibility remaining (chart, page 38). The league has allowed a number of fourth-year juniors to enter the draft for various reasons—e.g., their class had graduated, their team was on probation, or they had been thrown out of school. Last year Oklahoma State tailback Barry Sanders became the first third-year player to turn pro without having earned his degree. (Miami quarterback Bernie Kosar obtained his degree in three years and was taken in a supplemetal draft by the Cleveland Browns in 1985.) But the league conveniently assigned Sanders a qualifying exemption as a Heisman Trophy winner whose school was about to go on probation. With the exception of Houston quarterback Andre Ware, a Heisman winner whose school is already on probation, none of this year's juniors who either are pondering entering the draft or have already announced their intention to do so would qualify for special consideration from the NFL.

McCants, a consensus All-America and the runner-up to Michigan State's Percy Snow for the Butkus Award as the nation's best linebacker, plans to turn pro for the following simple reason: He wants to. The NFL can find no loophole for McCants to fit through (he's 6'5", 256 pounds and fits through very little) but is understandably reluctant to test its draft policy in a court of law. Thus McCants ushers in a time when the NFL's gentleman's agreement with college football—the league will take no line before its time—is likely to expire, as other pro-college arrangements have in baseball, hockey and basketball.

The consternation McCants's decision is causing is considerable, and McCants is bewildered by it all. "I don't get it," says McCants, shrugging several acres of shoulders. "Don't you go to college so you can get a good job?"

And isn't a job with a nearly $700,000 starting salary (last season's average for first-round picks) by definition a good job—especially if it's something you've always dreamed of doing? "God didn't give me the hands to be a surgeon, or the intellect to be a lawyer," says McCants. "He gave me the skills and the personality to be a football player."

In a somewhat belated concession to the 20th century, the NCAA and the NFL are struggling to formulate a policy that will accommodate precocious talents like McCants. NCAA executive director Dick Schultz would like college athletes to have a fair idea of their value from NFL coaches and scouts before they plunge into the draft, at which time their college eligibility ends forever. For its part, the NFL, eager to keep peace with professional sports' cheapest and most obliging farm system, is unlikely to stage an all-out raid on underclassmen.

Caught somewhere in the middle are college coaches, who are careful not to arouse cynicism by claiming that this exodus is bad for the game. Bill Curry, McCants's coach at Alabama, did not stand in his player's way. But how could he have? As soon as the Crimson Tide's season ended, Curry was soon off to greener pastures (bluegrass, actually) at Kentucky. Penn State's Joe Paterno has said, "If our game depends on young men's sacrificing better opportunities, it deserves to go down the drain." Coach Larry Smith of Southern California, where linebacker Junior Seau and free safety Mark Carrier, both juniors, are considering entering this year's draft, also sees the bigger picture: "Even if they leave, USC will still be here, and Larry Smith will still be here."

Try telling that to McCants. After Curry left, McCants asked Gene Stallings, Alabama's new coach, to write him a letter petitioning the NFL. Stallings refused, asking him to stay for the sake of the team. "What happens?" says McCants. "Before Stallings came to Alabama, he'd been fired from the Phoenix Cardinals—and they criticize me for looking at the bottom line."

Still, there are those who sympathize with the plight of the college coach. "You sort of wish they could stay in school for the sake of those coaches," says Jack Faulkner, an executive with the Los Angeles Rams. "The coaches work like hell, all the problems they go through with freshmen, sophomores and juniors. You'd like to have them there for a fourth year, a kind of payoff."

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