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Douglas S. Looney
May 14, 1990
What befell Tony Rice and Major Harris on draft day?
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May 14, 1990

Sacked By The Pros

What befell Tony Rice and Major Harris on draft day?

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Even other quarterbacks who were drafted—names the average fan never mentions in the same breath with Rice and Harris—understand why those two stars did not shine in the draft. Kirk Baumgartner of Wisconsin- Stevens Point, whom the Green Bay Packers took in the ninth round, says, "It doesn't surprise me. In the ratings I saw they were rated lower than most quarterbacks." Says Stephen F. Austin's Todd Hammel, taken in the 12th round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, "Teams didn't think they were pro quarterbacks, I guess." And Vanderbilt's John Gromos, a 12th-round selection of the Seattle Seahawks, "Those guys had great supporting casts. Maybe they didn't look as appealing on their own."

Obviously not. Yet here were two guys, both now swearing they are neither sad nor mad at the NFL for snubbing them, who lit up the college scene with their verve and ability to lead a team to victory. Rice is from the sticks of Woodruff, S.C., where he once fed cotton fibers onto conveyer belts in a textile mill for $5.25 an hour. Harris is from a Pittsburgh housing project, where gunfire and drug deals are facts of daily life. Both are talented young men who emerged from society's underbelly to become famous, and soon, it appeared, rich. Rice figured he would get $200,000 a year for five seasons, plus a signing bonus of around $300,000—a $1.3 million package. Harris simply counted on a lot.

Given the lack of depth at quarterback in the NFL, it's remarkable that Rice and Harris, whatever their shortcomings, were given such short shrift by the pros. They disappeared from the NFL scope not long after neither won the Heisman. Rice, who finished fourth in the balloting, and Harris, who was third, lost out to Houston quarterback Andre Ware, who became the seventh player chosen in the draft. More than likely, Rice and Harris will both end up playing in Canada. What happened? Rice pulled his white 1990 Honda Prelude up to a security gate last Thursday at Notre Dame to cajole the attendant out of a campus parking permit, to which Rice was not entitled. The man happily obliged, rolling up Permit No. 4878 and pretending to throw it to Rice like a football. Said an onlooker, "He can't catch it. He can only throw." To which Rice responded, "And some people say I can't throw."

Rice almost admits as much himself when he says, "My arm gets the job done. I can't say it's fantastic. But it carries on for me. It might not look pretty, but I get it there. Pretty passes are not always completed."

Yes, but last season Rice's passes weren't just ugly; many of them didn't get there either. He completed only 50% of his throws, passed for just two touchdowns and had nine interceptions. Over his 36-game career, he had 13 TD passes and 22 interceptions. However, Dan Rambo, the player personnel manager of the Saskatchewan Rough-riders, the Canadian Football League team that has the draft rights to Rice, says, "Tony has shown us more than enough."

What blinded many to Rice's flaws was the glitter of Notre Dame. He was made to look good by a superb collection of teammates and an option offense that was well suited to his quickness and his sure-handed execution. Rice's lawyer, Marvin Demoff, says that he had thought his client would be a fourth-to sixth-round selection. But then came an awful workout in late January at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

Never mind that Rice had a vertical jump of 37 inches, best among the 20 quarterbacks there, and never mind that he was first in the broad jump and second in the 20-yard run. In the 40-yard dash—the measure—he ran a 4.79 and 4.88. The scouts had expected far better, around 4.5. Demoff says that because of his slow times, Rice immediately dropped to a late-round prospect.

And his slowness in the 40—"It wasn't my day," says Rice. "My mind was somewhere else"—seemed to heighten other concerns the scouts had about him. His six-foot height and 197-pound weight suddenly looked far worse to a business that likes its quarterbacks to be 6'4", 225. Ditto his inconsistent arm, a concern that was not mollified by stats such as nine completions in the first three games of 1988.

Only one NFL team, the Cincinnati Bengals, showed even minimal interest in Rice before the draft. Still, he says, he expected to be chosen in the first six rounds. So on Sunday, April 22, he stretched out on the sofa in his off-campus apartment to watch the first five rounds of the draft on ESPN. Every time the phone rang, he figured that a team was calling to say it was about to choose him. Instead, it was friends inquiring. "I'm just lying here waiting to be picked," he told them.

He was still waiting the next morning, when the draft resumed with Round 6. The silence was deafening. Adding to the humiliation was the fact that nine of his teammates were drafted, the most for Notre Dame since 1979. By Monday night, when the NFL dream had died, what did Rice do? "I cried," he says.

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