With this issue, staff writer Austin Murphy begins his second season on the college football beat, an assignment that frequently puts him in the company of coaches whose teams are in the Top 20. "As nice as these coaches are," says Murphy, "as knowledgeable as they are and as proficient as they are at hitting that little Styrofoam cup with tobacco juice, they occasionally miss when it comes to judging talent."
Which is why Murphy set out this summer in turboprop airplanes and on poorly paved roads in search of the nation's sleepers (page 103), players who are likely to earn a living in the NFL someday but now labor in obscurity at such schools as Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Eastern Illinois. His quest began with phone calls to small-conference coaches and officials who were, as Murphy puts it, "congenitally unable to say no" when asked if any member schools had any future pro stars. "That's why I have two legal pads filled with defensive ends who weigh 185 pounds and running backs who run five-flat 40s," says Murphy. "I was looking for sleepers and getting the comatose."
Murphy finally seized on six underrated players after conferring with insiders like Miami Dolphin scout Joe Bushofsky. (Bushofsky may have been motivated by guilt to be forthcoming; as player personnel director of the Detroit Lions, he is the person who bore the bad news to Murphy's brother Mark when he was cut as a defensive end by the Lions last summer.) Murphy's sources, reluctant to reveal exact identities, nonetheless steered Murphy to certain hinterland areas where he might find his men.
After landing in Cheyenne, Wyo., on his way to see Wyoming defensive end Mitch Donahue, Murphy was given a four-wheel-drive vehicle at the car-rental counter—a reminder that sleepers are found somewhere off the beaten track. On the 90-mile drive Murphy passed a sign that read simply: POINT OF INTEREST, 1 MILE. What he eventually found was a tree growing out of a rock. "I thought, What a wonderful metaphor for the sleeper-verdure blooming from a barren source," says Murphy. "And then I thought, Who the hell am I kidding?"
Mercifully, Murphy filed his sleepers' story without having to force any metaphors, and he returned safely home to Brooklyn before embarking on one more trying journey—the New York City Triathlon. As you can tell from the picture above, Murphy's spells on the couch are infrequent, and even then tend to be work related. "The next time I'm sitting there watching the halftime scoreboard," says Murphy, "and Jim Nantz is speed-reading the small-school scores, I'll realize some terrific football is being played out there, in front of hundreds of fans instead of thousands."