That kid was Owens, a raw talent from Division I-AA Tennessee- Chattanooga who also was the sixth man on the Mocs' basketball team. In the late Joel Buchsbaum's 1996 draft preview for Pro Football Weekly, the draft guru reported that Owens "has the size and ability to play on the next level provided he works on his pass routes and refines his skills." For what it's worth, no attitude issues were mentioned.
Mayes and his fellow major college receivers quickly befriended Owens and welcomed him to their unofficial fraternity. The connections between some of the wideouts in the group dated to high school. Johnson and Moulds were on the same recruiting trip to Mississippi State, where Moulds ultimately signed. Mayes and Toomer took visits together to Notre Dame and Michigan; Mayes eventually signed with the Irish and Toomer with the Wolverines. "On the Michigan trip," Mayes recalls, "we ended up at this party on campus--the Fab Five were there and so was Desmond Howard, who was about to win the Heisman. Amani turned to me and said, 'This is it, man--I'm having the time of my life.'"
One reason for the success of the '96 draftees, Johnson believes, is that virtually all of them chose not to leave school early. "Most of us were fourth- or fifth-year guys, so we were polished when we came into the league," he says. "We were football players. Now guys are too anxious to grab the money and get to the NFL, and they're mostly into catching the football and trying to get on the highlight shows."
Johnson, of course, can't complain about the power of hype. Were it not for his oversized personality, he might not have joined Irving Fryar ( Patriots, 1984) as the only wideouts picked No. 1 in the past 40 years. "Keyshawn was the top-graded player on our board," recalls Pat Kirwan, then the Jets' director of player administration. "But we also didn't have a star player, and he had the personality and charisma to fill that role. No one looked at him and thought, He won't be able to handle playing in New York."
At the press conference following Johnson's final college game, a Rose Bowl MVP performance (12 catches for a record 216 yards) in USC's 41--32 victory over Northwestern, the wideout flashed his engaging smile and announced, "O.K., I'm ready to go play for the New York Jets." For the next four months Johnson was the presumptive No. 1 pick, yet when he woke up on draft day he was unsure whether New York would take him.
Johnson had balked when the Jets insisted that he agree to contract terms before the draft, telling his agent, Jerome Stanley, "I'd rather go to Jacksonville [which had the No. 2 pick] and get what I'm supposed to get than go to New York and get screwed." The Jets considered taking Illinois linebacker Kevin Hardy and contemplated trading down for Glenn, but found no takers. In the wee hours of the morning of the draft Kirwan visited Stanley and Johnson at their hotel suite in midtown Manhattan and scribbled the team's contract offer on a napkin. Johnson, standing on a footstool while being measured for a suit, reiterated that he would not agree to those terms. "It was like that scene in Jerry Maguire, with all that night-before-the-draft drama," Stanley says. Not until he received a call from Jets owner Leon Hess less than an hour before the draft was Johnson sure he'd be the top pick. (Hardy went second.)
Back then conventional wisdom held that it was imprudent to pick a wideout so high because productive receivers could often be found in later rounds, whereas the supply of prolific quarterbacks, tackles, defensive linemen and cornerbacks dried up quickly. "I think that notion has changed since then," says former San Diego Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard, "and part of it was because the guys in that draft had such an impact."
One of the few remaining defensive backs from the '96 draft, Bills safety Lawyer Milloy, says he saw it coming. "I take a lot of pride in being part of that group," he says. "It started in college--we all kind of had that highly competitive, borderline cocky attitude. It was about coming out and taking over the league, and no one would settle for anything less. If you look at those receivers, the common denominator is that they all go up and attack every single ball like it's theirs to catch."
Not every receiver drafted high in '96 proved to be a standout. After selecting Johnson, the Jets used the first pick of the second round on Nevada's Alex Van Dyke, who as a senior had set an NCAA record with 1,854 receiving yards. Van Dyke caught a mere 26 passes in six NFL seasons with three teams. Ten picks later Beathard traded up to get Virginia Tech's Bryan Still, who had 83 receptions in five years with San Diego and Atlanta. "In terms of attitude," Beathard says of the selection, "Still was probably a slightly better version of Ryan Leaf."
Then again, Owens and Horn far exceeded predraft projections, and fifth-rounder Patrick Jeffers had a big 2000 season (63 catches, 1,082 yards, 12 touchdowns) for the Panthers before a knee injury short-circuited his career. Another '96 prospect, David Patten, went undrafted and spent a year in the Arena League before signing with the Giants as a free agent the following season; he later played in two Super Bowls for the Patriots and this year had 22 receptions for the Washington Redskins before having season-ending knee surgery.