After a National Championship confrontation at the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2, 1989, in which Notre Dame prevailed over West Virginia 34-21, they were college football's best-known players, among the early favorites to win the Heisman Trophy the following season. They were all-this and all-that, and by the time their careers were over a year later, they had quarterbacked their teams to a combined record of 53-13-1.
That wasn't nearly good enough for the NFL.
In a stunning turn of events, their sparkling Saturday afternoon performances counted for next to nothing when the NFL conducted its draft on April 22 and 23. One of them, Tony Rice, who started every game in Notre Dame's 23-game winning streak during 1988 and '89, the longest ever for the Irish, was not chosen at all. Rice was the Football News's 1989 College Player of the Year, and he was the first Notre Dame player to lead the Irish in passing and rushing in the same season—he did it in 1988 and '89—since Paul Hornung did so in his Heisman year of 1956. But Rice was not judged to be one of America's 331 best players from among those eligible for the draft. Said Rice last Thursday in South Bend, "Maybe the pros don't want to win."
The other, Major Harris of West Virginia, the first Division I-A player to rush for more than 2,000 yards (2,161) and pass for more than 5,000 (5,137) in a career, was drafted in the 12th and final round by the Los Angeles Raiders. He was the 317th pick. Harris, who in three seasons with the Mountaineers passed for 41 touchdowns and ran for 18 more, whom University of Cincinnati coach Tim Murphy once called "the premiere athlete in the country," and who was named first-team All-America last season by the American Football Coaches Association, was the 19th of 20 quarterbacks selected in the draft. Said Harris last Friday in Pittsburgh, his hometown, "They just didn't like me."
No, it was worse than that. Says Dick Steinberg, general manager of the New York Jets, "What you had was 28 scouts who all saw the same thing—that these are two quarterbacks who do not have NFL passing ability or the skills to develop into NFL quarterbacks."
Former Notre Dame and Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann says, "Both of them really need work. Their not being drafted purely deals with their ability to throw the football."
One of pro football's keenest evaluators of talent, who is in charge of the draft for his team but insists on anonymity, "because I have to deal with these schools again," offers some specifics.
On Rice: "He is erratic in his accuracy and touch. He's got a lot of learning to do as far as mental preparation, setting up to pass, throwing into a zone."
On Harris: "He does not throw that well. His accuracy is not consistent, he winds up and throws like a third baseman, and he lacks precision, a quick release and a strong arm."
The harshest appraisal of all comes from Dave Thomas, who is editor of The Poor Man's Guide to the NFL Draft. "If I had 1,000 quarterbacks to rank," he says, "I'd rank Rice 1,001. He's a product of the publicity department at Notre Dame. He has limited, if any, skills as a quarterback. When the pro scouts saw him, they were walking around with clothespins on their noses. Harris panics under pressure. He consistently was rolling out of the pocket and causing the receivers to break their patterns. It looked like the Keystone Kops. A total lack of coolness. And he's also immature, always blaming everyone else for problems."