Andy sent me an article on the Cowboys' Miles Austin. Austin is a New Jersey kid who has become a star in the N.F.L. One could say that without him, the Cowboys would not be 8-4, might not even been a playoff contender. Austin has had some spectacular games this year including one against K,C, which the "Boys" won in the last seconds. Austin had 250 yards receiving which is a pretty good day. One might say it was a pro-bowl day. Andy asked me about my experience with undrafted free agents. I have seen a number of very talented kids who somehow slipped through the cracks, were injured or just plain got overlooked by all the pro scouts. I missed some and so did the best in the business. It's amazing really. Kurt Warner spent his college days at Northern Iowa. He was undrafted and cut by the packers before the 1994 season. He found work with the Iowa Barnstormers. He has singlehandedly brought up the question, "What is an Iowa Barnstormer?" He was named to the all first team allstars in the Arena Football league not once, but twice. Only the Chicago Bears took notice and offered Kurt a tryout. He had an infection in his throwing arm when tryout time came. He didn't get invited again. He was signed by the St. Louis Rams the next year and went to that farm club for guys who probably would never make it but the N.F.L. was intrigued by having farm teams like those in Major League Baseball. Kurt got his chance when the oft injured Trent Green went down in 1999. Kurt Warner was an overnight sensation. Actually it was 1825 nights before he got his chance. Warner got to start the season for the Rams and threw for 3 or more touchdowns in each of the first three games and yes, the Rams went Super in his very first year (sort of). He won the M.V.P. of the Super Bowl that year as the Rams beat the Titans. That game was played right here in Atlanta and I got to go courtesy of the Raiders. Ray Lewis will never forget that year and the Rams won't either. The game was decided by inches. Kurt Warner was launched and he would go on to win another league M.V.P. in 2001 and the guy is still playing in Arizona after being told more than once he was through. The Giants let him go after he mentored Eli. Kurt felt he could still do it and damned if he didn't prove it.
That is my favorite undrafted free agent story and there was at least one every year for the past decade. Here is a list starting with 1995. Adam Vinatieri South Dakota State. One of the great clutch kickers who became a star with New England winning many games with his undrafted foot. There were five super bowls for Adam and it all started with the Amsterdam Admirals in good old N.F.L. Europe.
1994-Rod Smith Denver Broncos. I couldn't leave out Rod Smith, who played 12 years as an undrafted free agent out of Missouri Southern State University. Rod had 8 1000 yard seasons and two with over 100 receptions.
1995-You can't leave out Hofstra product Wayne Chrebet because he was an undrafted free agent signed by the Jets. He made the club as the 11th of 11 receivers on the depth chart. He was too small but he had the cliched heart of a lion. He finally became a starter and finished his career with 580 catches. 379 of them were for first downs so, the nickname "Mr. First Down." Hofstra is also known as the school that produced Willie Colon of the Steelers and Colston who is a pretty fair wide out in New Orleans. Hofstra has quit playing football.
1997-Jake Delhomme Louisiana -Lafayette. The much discussed Mr. Delhomme came from nowhere and went nowhere for a few years. The backup for Kurt with the Admirals in Europe, he would sign with Carolina in 2003 and is also still playing. He was the man who was part of an awful Carolina team that became awfully good with him under center.
O.K. I am editing the list but here are a few more who made a difference as unsigned free agents.
1997-Priest Holmes Texas. Signed by the Ravens as an undrafted free agent, Priest went on to star in K.C. He was a star whose career was cut short by injury.
2003-Antonio Gates TE Chargers. A pretty fair hoops player at Kent State, Gates decided he had a better chance in the N.F.L with the Chargers. He signed as a free agent and was a dominant player for several years. Everyone wants an Antonio Gates who is tall, has good hands and the ability to score in the red zone.
2004-Willie Parker-North Carolina RB. "Fast Willie " signed as an undrafted free agent with the Steelers. He backed up Jerome Bettis and took off literally when Bettis retired. Willie is a difference maker who has served the Steelers well.
2003-Tony Romo-Eastern Illinois. We played the Cowboys this past weekend so I am concluding with Tony"big game" Romo whose career is still in the making. He was an undrafted free agent and he has been the starting quarterback for Dallas since a reluctant Drew Bledsoe was told it was his time. Tony has played very well and Tony has played poorly. He, in my opinion, is a good young quarterback who, with stable personnel and a little more maturing could be a very good one. Let's here it for Jerry Jones and the "Boys." We got another win off of them, despite Romo's 394 yards.
The purpose of this article is to point out how important General Managers and Scouts are to professional football. It is also in tribute to the men who come from small schools with real talent and just don't get drafted. These are the real stars to me as a former scout and a fan. They are an important part of every team and the reason a good organization is so important. There are so many more from years past and years present but this is the guts of football. This is the part I love. These are the Rocky Balboas, and Warner for one went all the way.
Go BIG BLUE