Let’s say the Green Bay Packers want to draft Matt Elam, the hard-hitting safety from Florida, in the first round of tonight’s draft. Maybe he’s the guy they think will come in and give them the physical, instinctive presence in the secondary they haven’t had since Nick Collins was forced to retire. I’d go along with that.
And maybe, just maybe, as they’re anxiously watching the clock tick down on the Minnesota Vikings — a team not expected to take a first-round safety — Roger Goodell steps up to the mic and reads “With the 25th pick in the first round, the Minnesota Vikings select University of Florida satety, Matt Elam.”
Arrrggghhh! In a move few expect, the Vikings move to pair Elam with last year’s first-round safety, Harrison Smith.
So, Green Bay goes in a different direction. They trade down, pick up an extra selection, and tab Florida State offensive tackle Menelik Watson instead. Certainly not a bad pick. But they really wanted Elam.
Should that scenario actually play out, I can guarantee they’ll never tell you. If there’s one certainty in the NFL Draft, it’s that the player a team picks is always the player they targeted. Or so the teams will say. At most, you’ll get a general manager to offer up that they had several players (who they’d prefer not to name) ranked “in the area” or “around where they selected,” but they’ll never come to the podium and say, “Man, we really, really wanted that other guy, but ended up with this guy. Hopefully it works out.”
It’s more gamesmanship than straight-up lie. And really, it does no one — the fans, the player or the team — any good to say anything different. But if you knew they got the rug pulled out from under them, it might still take you by surprise to hear them say they had zero interest in drafting said player.
It did with me.
Working as an intern with the Packers’ public relations staff back in 1995, my job that day was far from glamorous. Holed up in a copy room with a copy machine, phone and a printed-out biography of every draft-eligible player, I waited for a call from one of the PR staffers who was in the “War Room.” Then I’d find that player, print off 75 copies and take the elevator down to the media auditorium. I'd stand there, holding a folder and briefly enjoying one helluva secret. Once ESPN announced the pick on the big screen, I'd hand out the sheets to the media in attendance. Ron Wolf, the Packers’ general manager at the time, would come down to discuss the pick, followed by maybe the head coach or a coordinator, and then a conference call with the player. That format hasn’t changed much in 20 years.
But let’s rev up the DeLorean to 88 mph and go back to that copy room in 1995. I get this call, and the name I'm told we’re “going to pick” is Rashaan Salaam, the Heisman Trophy-winning running back from Colorado who had just rushed for 2,000 yards as a junior. I was a big Buffs fan back in my high school days when Badgers football was awful, so I was pretty excited.
So, I make my copies, put them in the folder and get ready to walk out when the phone rings again. Chicago just took Salaam one pick ahead of Green Bay. What did it do that for? Chicago had Lewis Tillman, who had 900 rushing yards and 200 receiving yards the previous season. But Tillman was 28 and the youth movement apparently was on with the 20-year-old Salaam.
With their preferred pick off the board, the Packers trade with Carolina and move back to the No. 32 spot. Carolina takes cornerback Tyrone Poole. Ty Law, Korey Stringer and Derrick Brooks are three of the next six players to come off the board. At the bottom of the first, the Packers grab Arizona State cornerback Craig Newsome, and pick up a third-round pick that they use on Colorado defensive tackle Darius Holland.
Roughly two hours after nearly walking out of the copy room with an armful of Salaam, I print off the bios for Newsome, head to the auditorium and hand them out.
But here's the best part ... and something that really educated me on the relationship between an NFL team and the media. Wolf — a man I have tremendous respect for and who belongs in Canton for the work he did with the Raiders, Buccaneers, Jets and Packers — walks up to the podium to take questions. The first question, as you might imagine, was: “Ron, did you have any interest in taking Salaam if the Bears hadn't moved up ahead of you?”
Without hesitation, a steely eyed Wolf calmly said: “No, we did not.”
Umm … yeah you did! I was stunned. Mouth-gaping stunned. This was an epiphany for me at the tender age of 24. But Wolf's job is to do what's in the team's best interest. It’s that simple. A GM’s job is not to provide the media with even the slightest detail that might undermine the franchise. Bill Belichick aside, Ted Thompson has taken talking about his draft plans without actually saying anything to an art form, though he’ll slip in some wry Texas humor if you’re paying attention. Thompson, of course, was Wolf’s director of pro personnel back in 1995.
Wolf continued to field questions about Salaam that day, and gave the cliché, “Nice player, but not someone we had an interest in, blah, blah, blah,” and then gracefully directed the conversation to the player he did pick.
Newsome was a 6-foot, 190-pound intimidator who quickly made a mark with the Packers. Capable of jamming the likes of Michael Irvin or Randy Moss at the line of scrimmage, Newsome also had a knack for the big play. In a 1995 playoff game at San Francisco, the rookie scooped up a fumble after linebacker Wayne Simmons blew up Niners fullback Adam Walker and returned it for a touchdown. It was a defining play for a franchise in the midst of a historic turnaround, as Green Bay downed the defending champion 49ers 27-17 on their home turf in a stunning upset. Newsome was one of the starting cornerbacks during that Super Bowl XXXI season a year later, where he had a forced fumble and an interception in the win over New England.
But there would be no victory tour. Newsome tore his anterior cruciate ligament on the first play of the 1997 season. He came back in 1998 but wasn’t quite the same player. He finished his career in San Francisco, retiring early after breaking his back. He played just 53 career NFL games, racking up 171 tackles and four picks.
Three shattered discs and two unsuccessful surgeries led to years of constant pain, depression and addiction. Newsome lives in the small town of Holmen, Wis., on the western side of the state and has only in recent years found relief from the debilitating pain issues that affected his post-football life and nearly tore his family apart.
Salaam, meanwhile, had a record-setting rookie year for the Bears, rushing for more than 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in 12 games. It looked as if he’d be running over NFL defenses the way he did in the old Big 12. But that was short-lived. Despite a breakout rookie season that had the Bears thinking they had the league’s next premier back, Salaam never got close to that success again. He started just six games the following year, rushing for 496 yards, and three games the year after that, rushing for 112.
In 1999, he was shipped to the Browns. After two games and 2 rushing yards, he was out of the NFL after an injury-shortened 33-game career plagued by fumbles and a lack of discipline. It was something he’d lament in an interview years later, saying, “The better you get, the harder you have to work. The better I got, the lazier I got."
As it turned out, not getting Salaam worked out just fine for a Green Bay team that had spent more than 20 years looking for a bell cow back. Edgar Bennett, the former Florida State fullback and current Packers receivers coach, emerged as the team’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Terdell Middleton during that 1995 season. He teamed with fullback Dorsey Levens the next season to key an all-terrain ground game that perfectly complemented the aerial assault of quarterback Brett Favre as they became Super Bowl champions. Bennett would start 76 games for Green Bay and rush for nearly 4,000 yards, along with 2,245 receiving yards.
Ironically, Bennett played his final two seasons for the Bears, after ceding his feature back role in Green Bay to Levens.
So late Thursday evening when the Packers finally make their selection, hope that the newest addition to their team — whether or not it was their first choice — is, ultimately, the right choice to help them return to the only place a city nicknamed “Titletown” really cares about.
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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.