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How the NFL Draft Became What It Is Today

Today's NFL draft hysteria? You can thank Mel Kiper Jr. and Joel Buchsbaum for that

Eric Edholm - Shutdown Corner - April 26, 2017


What is now a national obsession and one of the biggest days on the sports calendar was once mocked as a trivial obsession for two devoted — and very different — NFL draft analysts of yore. You can’t tell the story of the draft’s incredible rise from afterthought to prominence without giving the original NFL draftniks their proper due: Mel Kiper Jr. and Joel Buchsbaum.

One became and remains a TV star. The other was a behind-the-scenes shut-in who now is largely forgotten. Both were brilliant in their field in their own ways. Each deserve their due for helping the NFL draft become the theater it has.

Kiper started his draft empire out of his parents’ Baltimore-area basement with his dad’s help. A few hours up the road in Brooklyn, Buchsbaum started out writing handwritten notes to get people to consider printing his unique football observations. They were each trying to make a living at something that was not considered anything close to an actual career in the late 1970s.

 “I was told from the get-go, ‘You’re wasting your time. You’re going to have to get a job — a real job — at some point,’” Kiper told Shutdown Corner last week. “You can’t support a family doing this stuff.”

Within a few years, he went from being an 18-year-old home scout who was self-publishing and giving away his draft previews to NFL teams to becoming a self-confident 23-year-old explaining to ESPN audiences his vast knowledge about college football prospects from around the country. The rest is history.

Buchsbaum started earlier, first covering the 1978 NFL draft for Pro Football Weekly before anyone there had ever met him in person. (That would be a recurring theme.) Before long, he had established himself as a fixture in the business and had fans, not to mention coaches and general managers, hanging on his every NFL-related word in two annual draft-related publications (filed to editors in longhand, by the way) and in the pages of PFW (with his words often transcribed over the phone on deadline).

“When Joel was in high school, he started sending my father [former PFW publisher Arthur Arkush] these letters — pencil on notebook binder paper — saying he wanted to be our draft expert,” PFW publisher Hub Arkush said. “This went on for a few months, letter after letter, and finally my dad gave him a chance.”

Now generations later, they stand as two pioneers and giants — Kiper still very much in the spotlight, but Buchsbaum far too obscure these days — who helped turn a cottage industry into a billion-dollar industry that centers on teams selecting players.

Everyone knows Kiper, ESPN’s draft figurehead year with the made-for-TV hair and the gift of gab. He says he has lightened up over the years from when he was a confident, borderline cocky analyst, but sometimes he can’t help himself. The fire still burns after nearly four decades in an industry he helped create.

“When I talk football, I talk serious football,” Kiper said, his words getting faster as he talks, with one thought bleeding into the next. “What you see on TV, once I start talking football, that’s me. It’s not phony. It’s not a persona. That’s who I am.

“Back then I was just trying to get the information out. You didn’t have a lot of time in those days. Things were quick. I wasn’t trying to be cute. I was trying to give information. You want comedy? Go to the Comedy Channel.”

On the other end of the personality spectrum was Buchsbaum, who was as far from a camera as he could get and the opposite of brash. In fact, most days he hardly left his Flatbush apartment, except to walk his dog around the block, preferring to sit quietly and anonymously and study the game he loved so much.

Arthur Arkush died suddenly at age 53 in the spring of 1979. Hub and brother Dan Arkush took over PFW and quickly realized that they might have a gem on their hands in Buchsbaum. He was producing draft content that even today would be considered excellent, even more so considering he didn’t have the benefit of the Internet.

“For the next 15 to 20 years, as far as I am concerned, it was the two of them — head and shoulders ahead of everyone else,” Hub Arkush said. “Joel created the information gathering process. He dug on players back to high school. No one [in the media] did that then. You’ve got all these guys doing it now … but I am not sure any of them were even around when Joel and Mel were doing what they did.”

But as the generations pass, now more than 14 years after his death, Buchsbaum lingers more toward the unknown in this industry. He died of natural causes at age 48 just prior to kickoff of the Week 17 games in 2002, dropping dead in his apartment — the one filled to the ceiling with books, tapes, scouting notes and years worth of dust. In Buchsbaum’s cabinet were 100 cans of low-sodium soup and little else. The kitchen served as his dog’s room, the gas stove disconnected and faint urine stains on the floor. The bathroom tub was filled with media guides.

It was squalid. But it was also Buchsbaum’s bizarre football laboratory where a lot of magic happened.

“You know the show ‘Hoarders?’ His apartment was getting to that level when we found him,” Arkush said. “You had to walk very carefully and navigate through the stacks of everything, floor to ceiling.”

And let’s get this out of the way: Joel Buchsbaum was not an attractive man. He was frail (less than 100 pounds at the time of his death), not quite 5-foot-9 (5086 in draft-measurement parlance), wore Coke-bottle-thick glasses, had no interest in standard hygiene and less so in fashion. Buchsbaum admitted to friends he would forget to eat some days — letting his health slowly deteriorate — because he had developed food allergies while being so busy watching tape, writing reports or calling the heaviest of the NFL’s heavyweights for information from around the league.

How heavy? Bill Belichick, who tried in vain to hire Buchsbaum several times as his right-hand scouting consultant, once called him one of his closest friends despite meeting only a few times. The late Al Davis was a close confidante. So were Joel Bussert, Ernie Accorsi, John Dorsey, Jerry Angelo and dozens of other coaches, scouts, general managers and NFL decision makers. Buchsbaum’s monthly phone bill was $1,500 on average (footed by PFW), spent calling men who considered him one of the most dialed-in people in league circles.

“When he died, I went to his apartment to help clean it out, and there sat his Rolodex,” Hub Arkush said. “I won’t share all the names in there, but anyone who was anyone was in it. He was wired.”

The casual draft fans knew Kiper. He dominated TV and radio, and his publication grew as his popularity did. He delivered quality information and did so with an edge. The day the NFL draft perhaps turned the corner in terms of popularity might have become the same one Kiper went from niche celebrity to household name. He criticized the Indianapolis Colts’ pick of Nebraska linebacker Trev Alberts over Fresno State quarterback Trent Dilfer, and that’s when this happened:

That haymaker was delivered on the live broadcast via former Indianapolis Colts vice president Bill Tobin, and when Kiper held firm and handled himself well in the aftermath, he became a star at that moment. The draft suddenly became must-see TV.

The hardcore fans knew Buchsbaum. In addition to his writing, he became something of a cult figure in St. Louis and Houston for his weekly radio appearances on KMOX and KTRH, respectively. He won over audiences there first with his encyclopedic football recall but also with his nasaly Brooklyn accent and quirky on-air persona.

“He’d describe a player, as ‘Looks like Tah-zan, plays like Jane,’ in this accent,” said Howard Balzer, who hosted a show with Buchsbaum and (occasionally) Bob Costas in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “One time the host had mispronounced his name as Bush-baum, and he cuts him off and says, ‘Hold it! It’s Bucks-baum!’ Without missing a beat [the host] said, “Well, it has been Bush-baum for this long, so it’s Bush-baum from here on out.’

“It was absolutely a classic Joel moment. He just had a unique delivery, and people ate it up.”

Buchsbaum was such an enigma, in fact, that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a three-part series — perhaps a bit tongue in cheek — determined to find out if he was an actual person.

“No one thought he was a real person,” Balzer said. “Is it a computer-generated voice? Is he handicapped? Is he a real human? The rumors were crazy.”

The same mystery existed in Houston, where KTRH’s John McClain eventually would be one of the few people in either city who had actually met him.

“People used to be amazed that they could call in about any college player and he knew all about him right off the bat,” said McClain, who now writes for the Houston Chronicle. “They thought he had some computer on his lap and typed in the names. Joel hated computers. I watched him do a radio show once at his dirty apartment. He just sat down on his couch, the dust flew up off of it like ‘The Munsters’ and he rattled off information about the quarterback from Coastal Carolina. Never seen anything like it.”

One time on KMOX a local media member called in to the show pretending to be some regular draft fan, with the intent of stumping the mighty Buchsbaum by inventing a fake prospect on the spot. Hey, Joel, tell me about Rico Higginbottom, the linebacker out of Morehead State, I think he could be really good!

Of course, there was no Rico Higginbottom. And of course, Joel knew it. “That’s nawt a real playah,” Buchsbaum said without a moment’s hesitation, nor a crack in his soupy drawl. “Check the name. I watched Mowahead’s defense. That’s nawt a real puh-son.”

The joke, it turned out, was on the caller — not on Joel.

Buchsbaum was on live television once that we can tell: in 1982 when ESPN’s then-fledgling broadcast was in its near infancy, nothing like the high-flying production it is today. At some point late in the draft, the network thought it would be a good idea to kill time between picks and let Buchsbaum, who was sitting nearby the ESPN set on the floor of the New York Sheraton Hotel, for some commentary on the more obscure players. Balzer was part of the ESPN broadcast and remembered Buchsbaum (looking like he hadn’t slept in a week) telling a few media friends an hour before the draft that year that Clemson defensive end Jeff Bryant — one many writers didn’t know well — would go in the top 10, perhaps to the Seattle Seahawks. A few hours later, the Seahawks used the sixth overall pick on Bryant, to the amazement of many.

His reputation as a draft savant was growing in league circles by that point, and no media member could rattle off information on prospects like Buchsbaum could. Writers at the draft often would push their chairs closer to Buchsbaum to pick his brain on why certain picks were made and why others were not.

But the almost Woody Allen-ish Buchsbaum on live TV? It wasn’t an Emmy-winning idea.

“It wasn’t a good interview, terrible in fact,” Balzer said. “I’ll never forget hearing from someone in the truck saying in my ear, “Never again.’”

Footage of that portion of the draft is difficult to track down. Knowing that, Buchsbaum — who never wanted to be on TV, much less photographed — can lie peacefully in his humble grave at Riverside Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery in Saddle Brook, N.J. about an hour north of the apartment Buchsbaum spent most of his adult life.

It was at that grave site that only a handful of people showed up when Buchsbaum was laid to rest. The timing made it difficult, coming the day after the New England Patriots were eliminated from the playoffs, but Belichick and then Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli were both close with Buchsbaum — as close as they could be to a man they each met in person only a handful of times — made the drive down from Massachusetts to Saddle Brook. When they arrived, only a few other of his hundreds of close NFL contacts made it to the burial.

Scott Pioli and Bill Belichick, pictured in 2005, paid their last respects to XXXXX. (AP) View photos

Scott Pioli and Bill Belichick, pictured in 2005, paid their last respects to legendary NFL draftnik Joel Buchsbaum. (AP)

 “Ernie Accorsi, Joel Bussert, Joe Browne from the league office were the only [other] NFL people to attend his funeral,” Pioli told Shutdown Corner last year. “There were so many people who used him but then didn’t have the decency to show up and pay their respects. It broke my heart. Eventually, Bill and I talked about how sad that was.”

Buchsbaum was not just a collector of information. For some teams, he was a source. He’d do the countless hours of legwork for his twice-annual draft publications, the Pro Prospects Preview in the fall and the Draft Preview Guide, in the spring. Teams would call Buchsbaum for information on players — in some cases, if Joel didn’t know the answer, no one did.

Pioli was one of those men, formerly a grunt on Belichick’s early Cleveland Browns staffs, and Buchsbaum became a trusted ally. They remained close, talking often about players, football philosophies and everything else. But as Pioli and Belichick drove back after the funeral, sitting in silence for the first 20 minutes, Pioli couldn’t help but think of the Beatles song, “Eleanor Rigby” and its words about lonely people, an empty gravesite and apathy after death. It made him sad. And then the darnedest thing happened.

“That very song came on the radio,” Pioli said. “I remember like … bawling. It was sad. I left that funeral and as the drive went on I remember getting angry being disappointed at all the people who pretended to have relationships with Joel but couldn’t find it within themselves to make the time.”

Kiper and Buchsbaum were not close friends by any means, but they got to know each other over the years and shared a deep mutual respect. They knew that each could not do the other’s job, nor did they want to. But they would connect every year at the draft — one of the few days Buchsbaum was guaranteed to leave the house — and would always find time to talk.

“Our broadcast was just the first round, or a little beyond, in the early days,” Kiper said. “So Day 2, Joel and I, we’d sit back and watch the draft, write down the picks and just relax. Maybe debate a pick here and there, but it was always friendly and respectful.

“We’d sit back and get caught up on the year. We had our little reunion every year at the draft. We’d spend hours together just talking. I wish he was here today. I miss those times with Joel.”

Buchsbaum once said of Kiper to The New York Times shortly before his death, “I’m not half as brilliant as he is … I’m just a glorified information gatherer.”

Arkush believes Buchsbaum wasn’t giving himself enough credit.

“Joel was a scout. Yes, he was an information gatherer. But he was a scout. Belichick told me in person that Joel was one of the best scouts he ever worked with,” Arkush said. “I don’t think people do it today the way Joel did it. If people who cover the draft now read some of his reports from back in the day, they might be shocked at the information he had then.”

When Buchsbaum died, his mother was the one who was shocked. She read the tributes written on her son — everyone from John Q. Fan to NFL general managers left kind, heartfelt words — and was stunned that most of them considered her son a genius. Belichick always knew. PFW held an early-morning memorial service at the 2003 NFL scouting combine for Buchsbaum, a small, otherwise nondescript meeting room at the Indianapolis Convention Center, and dozens in the NFL — even Davis — were in the room. McClain spoke first, followed by Belichick. The Super Bowl-winning coach explained how he tried almost every year to hire Buchsbaum to work, first for the Browns and later for the Patriots, but he always rebuffed Belichick, saying that he was loyal to PFW and that he “liked working for all 32 teams.”

“Belichick would have paid him a lot, too,” McClain said. “But money was not important to [Buchsbaum], loyalty was. PFW gave him his shot early on, and he wanted to stick with him until the end.”

Belichick then told a story about how the entire NFL universe believed that the Patriots would select Michigan wide receiver David Terrell with the sixth overall pick in the 2001 NFL draft. Belichick had vowed not mention to anyone, even Joel, with whom he was exceptionally close and unusually trusting in, the true apple of his eye: Georgia defensive tackle Richard Seymour. Belichick explained to his Patriots inner circle that Seymour’s name was not to be uttered to anyone outside of the building prior to the draft.

On draft day that year, Belichick picked up the phone for what had become a tradition, he and Buchsbaum chatting about the picks to unfold later that day. After some chitchat between them, Buchsbaum — who never was much for small talk, always wanting to get or deliver to the information that mattered most to his livelihood — told Belichick, “Don’t wuh-rry … Seymoah is gonna be there fuh you.”

Belichick was gobsmacked. That’s when he knew Buchsbaum was the best-sourced person he talked to not part of any NFL team.

McClain visited Buchsbaum in Brooklyn for a story in 1998 and was one of the few who entered his apartment. They spent a few days talking about his scouting life, most of it in the unkempt apartment, and McClain returned to Houston with what few ever had managed to procure: a photograph.

“He had told me, ‘No pic-chahs,’ but I managed to get one,” he said.

McClain ran it with the story that pulled back the curtain on one of the draft’s most mysterious figures.

“I’ll never forget someone telling me they liked the story I wrote about Joel but wishing I hadn’t run the photo of him. ‘It was like pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz.’ I’ll always remember that,” McClain said.

Both Buchsbaum and Kiper had their critics. They were laughed at. Had their appearances mocked, for different reasons. Had their scouting misses echoed far more than their successes. But in the end, they left their indelible mark on a strangely huge event.

What made Kiper special was that he worked his way up and was willing to smile in the face of critics, knowing that he might be wrong but that he also arrived at his conclusions through hard work and strong sourcing. Kiper also never has shied away from his evaluation mistakes when they’re brought up, and he seldom touts his own contrarian assessments when they end up being right.

What made Buchsbaum special was that his thoroughness and quality of information were impeccable, he was immune to groupthink and willing to take strong, unorthodox stances. In his final piece for PFW that ran the day before his death, Buchsbaum predicted Ohio State’s shocking upset over the mighty Miami Hurricanes in the 2002 national title game. Nearly nailed the final score, too: 26-24. Now that’s a way to go out.

Pioli believes they each deserve their credit today — not just for the information they delivered and the movement they helped start, but also for how they got to where they were.

“People could be hard on Mel, but I give him a ton of credit,” Pioli said. “Both he and Joel were self-made. They were grinders from Day 1, and they were passionate about what they did. They lived and breathed this stuff. How can anyone criticize that? I greatly admire and respect the work they did, in the case of Joel, and are still doing, in the case of Mel.”

“They helped change the popularity of the draft,” McClain said. “Mel was great on TV. Joel did what he did, and there will never be another one like him. They helped take it to the next level, there’s no doubt in my mind.

“They were competitors, but they always respected each other. That was good for the league and good for the draft.”

Kiper agrees. And it’s around this time of year that Buchsbaum pops into his head. Thursday marks Kiper’s 34th draft with ESPN, and things have changed dramatically from the days when they first watched it all unfold in smoky hotel ballrooms. This year’s draft will be broadcast from the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum — outdoors — with one pick called in from, get this, outer space. What a weird, wild draft world in which we live.

“I think the gratification for me, and I think Joel would say the same thing if he were here today … back then in the beginning, people said, ‘Who cares about that stuff? You guys are wasting your time,’” Kiper said. “We heard all the negativity and we still did what we did.

“To see it now, over the last 10 to 15 years, to get to the point where everyone cares, everyone is watching … I think if Joel was here today, he was not a TV guy and never wanted to do what I did, but I think he would just find this all terrific. He’s a big part of all of this.”

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