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The Big Picture: Go-to guy will be missed on draft day

Thursday, April 24, 2003

In the draft's dark ages, before wall-to-wall cable coverage and dot.coms and radio saturation, a couple of professional talent evaluators rose above the rest of the draft with publishing guides behind drug-store counters. There was ESPN's Mel Kiper. And there was Joel Buschbaum.

Kiper became a media darling, embracing all those modern electronic venues.

Buschbaum remained, well, the anti-Kiper.

He wrote his essays and analyses and prospects lists on notebook paper.

In No. 4 pencil.

Longhand.

He did a little radio. He came out of his Brooklyn apartment on NFL draft weekends. He turned into a pro-football hermit's hermit.

Some folks still haven't noticed it, but Buschbaum is gone now. Died Dec. 29 of what has been described only as natural causes. Benched his last weights and moved well into heaven's space at age 48. Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi remarked recently that with Buschbaum and the late Boston Globe columnist and NBC analyst Will McDonough getting selected in The Maker's first round of 2003, the best information on this weekend's mortals draft is currently being circulated among the angels.

"We still get requests for him to do radio shows," associate editor Jeff Reynolds said from the Chicago headquarters of Pro Football Weekly, to which Buschbaum sent his exposes hand-written and then computer-typed for for a quarter-century. "I guess it was about two weeks ago that someone called to request the film rights to make a documentary about Joel's life."

To so many, Joel Buschbaum was a contributing-editor byline, a source of information, a compilation of 40-yard dash and muscle mass data. Few knew what he looked like: A beanpole of a man with eating and sleeping disorders. Even fewer knew the man. Reynolds, for instance, is one of thousands who made his acquaintance only by telephone.

Dan Arkush, the executive editor of Pro Football Weekly, was one of the privileged few whom Buschbaum allowed into his inner circle, his inner sanctum.

"He was quirky. He was a perfectionist," said Arkush, whose publication hired him in 1978 after being inundated with samples, same as the old Football News for which Buschbaum also toiled. "He was like our Sammy Sosa. He was a horse for us in providing copy not only on the draft but on the whole NFL, where he became quite an expert. He was always looking to extend his deadline. He didn't like to send his story in e-mail, because he was afraid it would get lost. And if something was on his mind, he would call and call and badger until you knew absolutely where he stood.

"But what you got was almost a 24-hour-a-day effort from the guy.

"He never would have been able to work in the mainstream media. We gave him the opportunity to work out of his little Brooklyn apartment. I don't think he would have been comfortable ... in a normal, work-type situation."

Because of his health problems, Buschbaum preferred anonymity. Until draft weekend, that is. Arkush would come to New York for the Madison Square Garden theater ceremonies, and "that was the one time of year when Joel went out." He would make a grand appearance there, ambling by every table to talk to NFL types he telephoned constantly.

Arkush still laughs at the mental image of the talent evaluator's apartment. "It wasn't a pretty site. Tapes and media guides and his dog," first Buck, named for former Chiefs lineman Buck Buchanan. "He had his bench press, which I always thought was amusing because he weighed about 115 pounds."

His latest dog was named Miss Brooks, after Brooks Robinson, the elegant third baseman of Buschbaum's beloved Baltimore Orioles. Yeah, he was a Brooklyn guy who favored Baltimore over the Yankees. He lived to be different.

Kiper got the fame, the face time, the TV and radio shows, the dot.com celebrity.

Buschbaum got a 40-minute memorial service on the Friday morning of the NFL combine in Indianapolis in February, with such folks in attendance as Patriots Coach Bill Belichick (who claimed he twice tried to hire him as a scout) and Bills assistant general manager Tom Modrak (formerly of the Steelers), Oakland owner Al Davis and Chargers General Manager John Butler, who died of cancer a week ago. "Then everybody went back to work, which is the way Joel would've liked it," Arkush said. "It just shows the measure of respect that he had." There is talk of launching an NFL scouting award in his name.

"Joel could not have gone on television. He was very uncomfortable with that," Arkush said. "With all due respect to Mel, he just couldn't hold a candle to Joel. It was a 24-hour-a-day pursuit for him. He really was unique."

The most unique of a unique lot, indeed.

Brian Allee-Walsh of the New Orleans Times-Picayune proposed in print that the NFL hold a moment of silence at the start of Saturday's draft in memory of Buschbaum.

And then the team with the first pick should send to the podium that draftee's name on a slip of notebook paper.

In No. 4 pencil.

Remote notes

Does this column space look like TV Guide or something? All these local television stations want you to know they'll be airing draft specials this weekend: PCNC from 4-6 p.m. and KDKA from 7-8 p.m. Saturday.

Puh-leeze, can we dispense with that atrocious phrase "Draft War Room" at this time of actual, killed-in-action war? It could just as easily be "Draft Room." Or "Draft Command HQ."

ESPN, already offering college football and basketball packages, yesterday announced it will launch a new pay-per-view to provide NCAA baseball championship games, martial arts programs, fantasy-league specials, movies that the network produces and more. (There's a "Junction Boys" joke in there somewhere.) This sounds like a reaction to the 3-week-old College Sports TV.


Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.

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