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Gene Therapy: Remembering the man who made NFL Draft Day a national passion

Friday, January 17, 2003

By Gene Collier, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

All the NFL scouts who ever scouted, all the general managers who ever generally managed, all the can't-miss first-round draft picks who ever missed, or failed to do so, none did for the NFL draft what Joel Buchsbaum did for it without leaving his Brooklyn apartment.

Joel Buchsbaum died last week. Way, way, way too soon at 48. The poor guy had thousands of draft capsules left in him, and if you think that sounds callous, you ought to read some of the tributes to the original draftnik that are posted by readers on the Pro Football Weekly Web site.

"I hope this question isn't inappropriate, but will the draft preview continue to be published?" asks one. The answer seemed even less sympatheic. "The editors are reviewing Joel's notes and will continue his tradition."

Well, that's unfortunate. Both that they're poring over Joel's ratings in the middle of mourning and that the tradition Buchsbaum established will continue. I never found Buchsbaum's creation terribly palatable, but I admired his passion for it. It was comforting, albeit in some shallow and convoluted way, to see someone who loved something so much.

What Joel loved was rating college football players and publishing his work in advance of the NFL draft. If there was a strong safety from Texas Southern who was blind in one eye, Joel would provide that information. You'd like to think that preoccupation is pretty insignificant, as I always have, but the by-product of that preoccupation has turned into a phenomenon.

Essentially, Buchsbaum did for the NFL draft what Babe Ruth did for the home run. He made it big and glamorous and somehow captivating. He set the stage for Mel Kiper, another dubious achievement perhaps, but its impact can't be argued.

Prior to Joel Buchsbaum's publication of his predraft ratings, which means before 1978, the NFL draft was largely a private affair played out all but silently in a New York hotel. Today, of course, it's Armageddon. It's thousands of people in Madison Square Garden, wall-to-wall ESPN coverage, hour after hour after hour of impact players, go-to guys, slashing north-south runners, possession receivers, shut down corners, extremely physical players and people with great pocket presence who could well be the answer. For the Bengals. Or whoever's on the clock.

In his first few years, Buchsbaum annoyed the hell out of the NFL, mostly because his information was so good.

"Yeah, it was pretty good," said Jack Butler yesterday at the BLESTO scouting service. "It bothered people because here they were paying a lot of money to have this information gathered for them, and then they'd see it in the paper for 50 cents."

How did a young Woody Allen-type watching tapes and filling notebooks in a Flatbush walk-up gather enough good information to spook NFL executives? Easy. His telephone invaded a certain bleak social climate that was specific to scouting in that era.

"When you're a scout, you're always low man on the totem poll," said Art Rooney Jr., who started scouting for the Steelers in 1964 and stayed long enough to help build a dynasty. "And when you're a scout, you're always alone. And we all had big mouths. My wife said to me once, 'Do you think you ought to be a little more tight-lipped about this stuff?' She was probably right."

Probably. Because scouting in the pre-Buchsbaum era still held out the possibility that you could find a player whose blood type wasn't already registered on every team's hard drive.

"I went to Arkansas AM&N and had a lead on a kid named Cross," Rooney said. "I remember everybody in my family was sick and I didn't want to go. I had a bad cold, but I thought, 'If I'm going to do this right, I'd better go.' I thought Cross was a late pick, but he'd make it. But there's this other guy there, 6-6, 219-pound defensive lineman. Then on the film study I see this big, tall kid running around making plays all over the place. I wrote him up pretty good. Tenth round that year, I reminded [Chuck] Noll about him.

"L.C. Greenwood."

Ninth round? John Sodalski. I don't know. That's why I think the whole draft culture is so overblown, but that's beside the point.

There were hundreds of Art Rooney Jr.'s out there for Buchsbaum to tap, and he did it insatiably. But Buchsbaum was so ego-free that he was virtually anonymous outside a tight circle of devoted aspiring draftniks like himself. He never set foot inside the Chicago offices of Pro Football Weekly, according to the editors who employed him, and didn't particularly look forward to going as far as Manhattan, even for the draft. One profile on him in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch began by entertaining the notion that he didn't really exist.

Today, anyone with anything even approaching Buchsbaum's expertise during draft buildup is a national celebrity. I imagine his obit delivered in short phrases separated by ellipses, the way he did his draft capsules.

Buchsbaum, Joel ... 5-5, 140, but plays much bigger ... intense and meticulous ... extremely conscientious ... widely considered the greatest advertisement for the draft in football history ... generally credited with the phrase, "looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane." ... ironically, Buchsbaum is built more like Jane, but was Tarzan at the keyboard ... will be sorely missed.

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