Fortunately for everyone's sanity, the human element is important in BLESTO-V's operation. A good, pungent descriptive phrase about a player can say more than any grading system. The master of this in BLESTO-V is Jess Thompson, who has been in football 43 years and is now the scout for Zone Six, which is the Southwest. "He's as fat as a town dog," he'll say to a coach; or "he runs like a chicken with frozen feet"; or "he couldn't break a dish with a ball peen hammer in both hands"—and the coach no longer has to derive a mental image from a set of numbers. "Thanks, Jess," he says. "I get the message." You ask a scout if he's ever walked out on the sidelines of a small campus football field, just moseying over from his car with his legs stiff from the long ride to get there, to suddenly look out and see a kid scrimmaging and ripping things apart with such skills that the pencil drops from his fingers and he says, "Mah God! Mah God!"
Most scouts won't admit to this simple pleasure. Will Walls, though, is somewhat less blasé than the other BLESTO-V people. He says that he almost went to his knees this past fall scouting Cedric Hardman. "He's got greatness," Walls says. "I could scarcely believe what I was seeing. Against Memphis State, oh my what a night he had! He's another Deacon Jones. He's as big as Gino Marchetti and quicker and faster." He shook his head and clucked in sympathy. "I mean, I don't know what quarterbacks are going to do with that man reaching for them."
The players can always tell when the scouts turn up at practice. By the clipboards. The heavy coach's shoes they wear. The players almost fall down trying to look nonchalant—a strange, loose-kneed walk as if they were carrying something on their heads. But they run the practice with hustle. The scouts are saying that the head coach at Nebraska a few years back had a succession of people come out and stand on the sideline with clipboards to trick the players into high-spirited practices. But then one of the dining hall cooks was recognized behind a clipboard....
Detroit makes its pick. Steve Owens, the Heisman Trophy winner. Hardman had long gone—to San Francisco. Joe Schmidt is ecstatic. "A ruby!" he shouts. He lights a cigar. So does everyone in the little office. The hyperbole begins. Russ Thomas, the general manager, gets on the phone and begins reading Jerry Neri's scouting report to someone back in Detroit: " 'He's by far the best running back I've seen this fall. A complete football player who is tough, strong and durable and does everything well.' " Schmidt leans against the desk. "A ruby!" he says again.
Dick Haley, a former defensive back for three NFL teams, is the BLESTO-V scout for the Southeast. Five players from his area are picked in the first round, three from relatively small colleges: John Small from The Citadel, Douglas Wilkerson from North Carolina Central and Richard McGeorge from Elon.
Scouting the smaller colleges is tricky. The word "project" is often used—as in "Can I project this guy high enough so our people should consider him a high draft possibility?"
It is established BLESTO-V procedure to have the scouts attend the professional training camps each year for a couple of weeks. The scout is able to establish in his mind the professional norm against which he must rate the college athlete and he can see how his choices of the previous year are measuring up. "It's a time of reckoning," Haley says. "You see a rookie you've picked for the draft getting banged around and you say to yourself, 'Man, how did I ever send that up here?' But on the other hand, you see one of your kids slamming other people around and the noise going up from the spectators standing along the sidelines and the coaches looking at each other—well, when you see that, your chest swells up like a toad's."
"You can tell a lot from film," Charley Mackey, who supervises the Far West, is saying. "We always ask for as much as we can see. I remember this film man at Weber State was getting so exasperated feeding film into the projector that he stuck in a home movie—a 200-foot reel of a Pop Warner little league game. I was sitting there in the darkness with my pad, and I was looking for what I always do: I was spotting the tight end break from the huddle, because that's the key to where everyone is going to position himself. Well, I see this tiny little guy break from the huddle and it brings me right up out of my chair. 'Holy cow!' I yell out. 'Look at the size of that tight end!' I'm telling you, they haven't forgotten me at Weber State."
The tools of scouting are a stopwatch, a measuring tape and access to an accurate scale. Steve Owens says that at the East-West game eight different scouts weighed him. "They just won't take each other's word for it," he says. "So you step on the same scale you've just stepped down from two seconds before, and the new scout looks over your shoulder and he says, 'hmmm,' like it's all big news."
Scouts don't trust the measuring rods for height that come with most scales, either. They use their measuring tapes to mark off a height against a wall and they have the athletes stand up against that.