For those who want it both ways—accomplished athletes who graduate and are capable of going on to high-powered jobs on Wall Street after their pro careers—agent Leigh Steinberg argues it was never thus. "That idea assumes 100 percent of the seniors get college degrees," says Steinberg. "In fact, my figures say just 41 percent of them do."
But Charlie McClendon, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, worries that "these players [underclassmen] are taking a poke in the dark. Some of them are going to get shocked. Oh, some can make it, we agree to that. But through simple greed, some are going to fall fiat on their faces and be in real trouble. There's a question in my mind whether they're mature enough to step up to this next, higher level."
Illinois coach John Mackovic, who coached the Kansas City Chiefs from 1983 through '86, says, "When you go to the pros, when you are drafted that high, there are a lot of expectations. Take [quarterback] Todd Blackledge, who came out a year early in 1983 [he had graduated but had another year of eligibility remaining]. He was quite mature for his age, but that extra year might have made a difference in the kind of start he got. He just came out too early." Blackledge has never been anything more than a mediocre pro.
We're bound to hear some sad stories coming out of training camps this summer. Even without juniors clogging the draft, only about half of the roughly 330 players selected each year survive the final cut. Many of the underclassmen who are turning pro are frightened by rumors of an impending NFL salary scale, which would place automatic limits on rookie wages. These players may be rushing into short-term money and long-term failure.
And what group is doing its best to keep these rumors alive? Agents. "Football has more irresponsible agents than any other sport, [and they're] giving these kids a false idea of how good they are," says Bob Woolf, an agent himself. If the agent promises millions and convinces a player that he is a certain first-or second-round selection, who is the loser if the money does not materialize? Not the agent; he can find other clients. "So they figure, Why not encourage a kid to leave school?" says Woolf.
McCants says he has not been influenced by an agent—he has yet to sign with one—and that his credentials alone are sufficient to assure him that he will be a high first-round choice. He also says he enjoyed his three years at Alabama, where he was a C+ student in criminal justice and broadcast communications; he wants to return for his degree after his first pro season. Nevertheless, he is astounded by the number and variety of agents who have been willing to counsel him. "One day these guys, like hitchhikers or something, just showed up at my door," says McCants.
He claims to have made every decision regarding his football career on his own. That is the way it has always been in his life. His father, who died two years ago, was rarely a presence in his home. "We talked this many times," says McCants, holding up both hands. Mostly, McCants is a carefree soul, preoccupied with girls, cars and football with a disarming intensity. But his smile fades when the subject is his family.
He is the fourth of five children, yet his father insisted that Keith alone was not his child. "He said I wasn't his, even when it was proven I was," says McCants. "I will talk no more about it."
For the moment, as a huge celebrity in Mobile. McCants is enjoying life immensely. The South holds its football stars in high regard, and he cannot finish a meal in a restaurant without signing a dozen autographs. Tooling about town in a 1986 black Nissan 300ZX—provided by an uncle, he says, who promised it to him if he did well in school—McCants does not seek a low profile. In fact, he rather enjoys the attention, especially when it's provided by young ladies.
One rings him on his car phone on his way to dinner. He cups his hand over the phone and says, "I thought I gave her a wrong number. I meant to." Back on the phone he engages in some sweet talk and finally announces, "Well, I have reached my final destination," and excuses himself.