I am a guy on the rise. This is just the beginning," an ebullient Jeff George was saying last week, warming to what had erupted unexpectedly as the NFL's most controversial topic. "The best is yet to come. I expect to be a great one."
The erstwhile Purdue and Illinois quarterback laughed and turned his palms upward. It's how he feels, so what is he supposed to say? Should he feign humility and say that he's frightened to death of those blitzing linebackers and that, on balance, he would rather be taking up quilting? "I am confident," he said, "but not cocky."
Self-confidence comes naturally to George. Since the age of five, when he began playing sports back home in Indianapolis, his mom, Judy, would call out to him on field and court, "The big C. The big C." That was shorthand, he says, for "Show confidence in yourself."
That's precisely what his hometown Colts did last Thursday when they negotiated a trade with the Atlanta Falcons (page 56) to obtain the first pick in Sunday's draft, which Indianapolis used on George, a junior at Illinois. Two days before the NFL's March 22 deadline for juniors to declare their availability, George, 22, decided to abandon higher education a year early. His decision appears to have paid off. The six-year, $15 million contract he signed last Friday with the Colts is the richest ever for a rookie, and it makes him the third-highest-paid player in the league, behind quarterbacks Jim Kelly of the Buffalo Bills and Randall Cunningham of the Philadelphia Eagles.
At first the Falcons wanted George badly, not least because they are still smarting from their 1986 first-round pick of nosetackle Tony Casillas, who has had an uneven career, instead of quarterback Jim Everett, who led the NFL last season with 29 touchdown passes for the Los Angeles Rams. Atlanta didn't want to goof again. But George wanted to play in Indianapolis—for less money if need be—so his agent, Leigh Steinberg, kept the Falcons at bay.
What defies belief is that George arrived at the head of the NFL list. Dave Thomas, editor of the Poor Man's Guide to the NFL Draft, is apoplectic. "I can't stress enough what a major mistake Indianapolis has made," says Thomas. "George emerged because he was like the new girl on the block. Everybody fell in love, but they didn't check with the old neighbors to see what a bad girl she was. The Colts better make sure they have a big stock of Excedrin, because they're going to need it."
Thomas ranked George fifth among available quarterbacks, behind Houston's Andre Ware (page 60), Idaho's John Friesz, Washington's Cary Conklin and Utah's Scott Mitchell, and barely ahead of Maine's Mike Buck. George, Thomas predicts, will eventually become known as a "super blunder," joining such first-round quarterback flops as Kelly Stouffer (drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1987) and Todd Blackledge (by the Kansas City Chiefs in '83). Chiefs president and general manager Carl Peterson is more tactful than Thomas, but his message is the same. "There are some holes in George," says Peterson, "so to me the jury is still out."
On the other hand, Houston Oiler scout Glenn Cumbee says George has the quick release of Dan Marino, the accuracy of Joe Montana and the strength of Boomer Esiason. Wow. Mouse Davis, the Detroit Lions' quarterbacks and receivers coach, says, "If you're not impressed when you see George, you've been facing the other way looking at the wall."
What accounts for the sudden emergence of George as the No. 1 pick in the 1990 draft? First, he had been largely overlooked because he was a junior and his college performance up to this past season had been unspectacular. After graduating in 1986 from Indianapolis's Warren Central High—where he was regarded as the best schoolboy prospect in the nation, having led Warren to two state titles—he enrolled at Purdue. The Boilermakers were awful, and George took his share of the lumps, throwing a whopping 15 interceptions in seven games, getting sacked 21 times, missing four games with a back injury and passing for only four touchdowns.
After coach Leon Burtnett resigned under fire and was replaced by run-oriented Fred Akers, George announced that he was transferring to Miami. However, after six months of promising to show up in Coral Gables, he changed his mind, deciding at the last minute to go to Illinois so that he could stay close to home and play for pass-happy coach Mike White. There was also the matter of having to compete with Steve Walsh and Craig Erickson for the Hurricanes' starting job. Says White, "I saw greatness written all over him."