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The Road Not Taken
ALEXANDER WOLFF
December 27, 2004
Lombardi's invincible Eagles? Gordie Howe of the Rangers? Jack Nicklaus, filler of prescriptions? These things almost came to pass, as we found in exploring sports' most intriguing might have beens
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December 27, 2004

The Road Not Taken

Lombardi's invincible Eagles? Gordie Howe of the Rangers? Jack Nicklaus, filler of prescriptions? These things almost came to pass, as we found in exploring sports' most intriguing might have beens

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Pittsburgh Steeler

ROAD NOT TAKEN The Steelers used their ninth-round pick in the 1955 draft to choose Unitas, the hometown boy who, as a kid, had helped his coal-dealer dad make deliveries around town. Though he played effectively during intrasquad scrimmages at the team's training camp in Olean, N.Y., throwing well and getting away for one 25yard scramble, coach Walt Kiesling cut him without letting Unitas take so much as a snap in five preseason games.

ROAD TAKEN Unitas hitchhiked home to Pittsburgh, played semipro ball in sandlots for $6 a game and worked a pile driver on a construction site. Acting on a tip from a fan, the Baltimore Colts invited him to camp the following summer. He became a starter several games into his rookie season, and by the end of 1959 he had led Baltimore to two titles and been named the NFL's MVP. Over the same stretch the Steelers went 28-30-2 with the quarterbacks Unitas hadn't been able to beat out, Jim Finks and Ted Marchibroda.

NOW IT CAN BE TOLD Because Unitas had struggled with entrance exams at Pitt and Louisville, where he eventually enrolled, "the coaches thought he ... just wasn't bright enough for pro ball," recounted Ed Kiely, the Steelers' public relations director at the time, to Unitas biographer Ed Fitzgerald.

LOST IN THE MIST Kiesling showed lousy judgment in this case despite the judicial precedent of having once coached former Steelers running back and future Supreme Court justice Byron (Whizzer) White.

ROGER CLEMENS

New York Met

ROAD NOT TAKEN In the spring of 1981 Mets scout Jim Terrell became enchanted with Clemens, then an 18-year-old pitcher for San Jacinto ( Texas) J.C., and urged the Mets to sign him during the window before the June draft, when teams were free to sign any player. The New York front office authorized Terrell to offer Clemens $7,500, but Terrell knew that sum wouldn't get the job done, so he told the Mets he would put up $7,500 of his own money to double the offer. That got the attention of Joe McIlvaine, New York's scouting director, who decided the club would come up with the $15,000. The Mets still couldn't close the deal, though, but chose Clemens that June in the 12th round and offered him $20,000. According to Terrell, Clemens wanted $25,000--his father had just died, and his mother wouldn't continue to collect $450 a month in Social Security if her son were no longer an enrolled student. Terrell came up with this idea: New York would pay $25,000 if Clemens would agree to defer half until his second year as a pro. But the Mets wouldn't budge, in part because another of their scouts, Harry Minor, had watched Clemens in a summer league game and didn't think he was worth even half that. And so they lost a chance to slot him into their rotation with Dwight Gooden.

ROAD TAKEN Clemens enrolled at Texas, for which he struck out the final six Alabama batters in the decisive game of the 1983 College World Series. Drafted 19th overall that June, he signed with Boston, and less than a year later pulled on a Red Sox uniform--the same uniform he wore when he took the mound as the American League's starter against Gooden in the 1986 All-Star Game.

NOW IT CAN BE TOLD McIlvaine flew to Houston twice to inspect the prospect himself. Both trips turned out to be bootless: Each time, an entire weekend of Clemens's summer-league games was rained out.

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