Tick, tick, tick.... Sunday, 2:41 p.m. CDT, Dallas Cowboys draft room: It is tense in here. Seven men entrusted with the future of a proud franchise sit around a 10- by 10-foot table. Four minutes remain before coach Jimmy Johnson must yell Dallas's choice for the 20th overall pick in the NFL draft into a speakerphone that connects him with the league's draft headquarters in New York. The Cowboys desperately want to trade the pick. They already have drafted two players in the first round, and the next player they want to take is Michigan State linebacker Dixon Edwards, but the 20th choice is way too high for Edwards to go.
The pressure is building; this is why somebody invented speed-dialing. Cowboy director of player personnel Bob Ackles is speed-dialing other teams, trying to get somebody to make a deal for this 20th pick. No takers. Johnson is getting agitated. "We've got to get something done," he says to no one.
2:42 p.m.: Atlanta Falcon general manager Ken Herock calls Johnson, and they dicker. Ackles gets San Diego Charger general manager Bobby Beathard on the line. The Chargers have two picks in the second round, and Ackles wants one of them, plus some lower-round choices. San Diego makes a lukewarm offer.
2:43 p.m.: Herock offers Johnson three picks—one each in the second, fourth and seventh rounds—for that 20th pick. "Is this a firm deal? The two, four and the seven for our one, right now?" Johnson asks. Herock says yes. Johnson pauses to think. He is happy. In five seconds, he will agree to the deal. In three seconds, another phone will ring. But now, the voice of Robert Blackwell, the Cowboys' representative at NFL draft headquarters, comes over the speakerphone with a reminder that time is short: "One minute."
2:44 p.m.: With Ackles and Johnson on phones, Dallas vice-president Mike McCoy picks up the one that's ringing. It's Detroit Lion director of pro personnel Kevin Colbert. The Lions want that 20th pick. "Hold it, Jimmy!" McCoy says. Johnson puts Herock on hold. Colbert offers second-, third- and fourth-round picks. Johnson and Cowboy owner Jerry Jones look at each other and nod. "Let's do it," Johnson says, and then he gets back on the line with Herock: "Got a better deal, Kenny. Sorry."
Thirty seconds. It's getting risky now, because if the Cowboys don't announce a choice before their allotted 15 minutes have expired, or if the team that Dallas trades with doesn't make its choice in time, the next team in the draft order, the Kansas City Chiefs, jumps ahead of them. Dallas and Detroit won't get the language of the deal worked out in time, so Johnson tells McCoy to find out which player the Lions want, and the Cowboys will take him for Detroit, swapping him for the promised three picks a few minutes later. The Lions want Ole Miss defensive lineman Kelvin Pritchett. "P-R-I-T-C-H-E-T-T!" Johnson says with urgency into the speakerphone.
2:45 p.m.: "Time!" Blackwell says in New York as the index card with Pritchett's name written on it is being turned in. "Done deal," Jones says with emotion. The Dallas draft room erupts. Coupled with two earlier deals, the Cowboys have turned one of their first-round picks—originally the 14th overall—into five choices between the second and fifth rounds. Fists pump in the air. Grown men shout. "Whoa, boy!" Johnson whoops. "Now we can pick our guys!"
2:46 p.m.: McCoy walks out of the room. "Oxygen!" he calls. "I'm about to have a heart attack."
When you have the opportunity to control the draft, as the Cowboys did during the first round, and when you're in a hurry to improve, as the Cowboys are, this is what life is like on draft day. Aside from Raghib (Rocket) Ismail's decision to play in Canada (box, below) and the Los Angeles Raiders' decision to take troubled USC quarterback Todd Marinovich with the 24th pick, there were three angles to this draft, and they all involved America's (Retooling) Team.
1) Dallas, with three picks, ruled the first round. The Cowboys were the go-to guys for the rest of the league. Holding the 11th, 12th and 14th picks three days before the draft, Dallas listened to offers and feelers from 21 of the 27 other teams either before or during the first round.