With what everyone hopes will be a return to football very soon, one of the elements that will happen fast and furiously will be the signing of new players.
No one knows how or when this will happen, just that it will be a one-of-a-kind occurrence when it does takes place.
And that put me in mind of an I-remember-when moment, that being back in May of 1982 when the Denver Broncos player personnel department cleaned out their files of resumes and letters sent by prospective players by inviting all of them—the entire player personnel file of unwanted, unrequested letters—to an open tryout camp.
In retrospect, I wonder if any pro football team has ever had a tryout camp of this size in the history of the game.
Four hundred seventy eight “players”—at least, in their minds they were players— showed up.
The best analogy I can give is to say it was like the “Star Wars” bar scene on a football field. They were too tall, too short, too fat, too thin, and some had a bizarre look to them that made you wonder where they had come from, what part of the real world they were occupying.
Everybody got a T-shirt with a number on it, and that’s how the identification process was made as the day went along.
Each player had to run a 40, and of course, the team has an absolute minimum standard of speed that a player must have, relative to his position. If that standard was not met—and it was not met in droves—those numbers were called out, told thanks for coming, and sent on their way.
Believe it or not, however, some players met the standard and got to run some drills pertinent to the position in question, and at day’s end, four of these players were signed for training camp.
Three of them were cut almost as soon as camp began, as the head-to-head comparison with the college free agents signed by Denver made it immediately apparent that they might have had the right speed, and done OK in some basic drills, but they had no chance to be NFL players.
And then there was one.
Placekicker Rich Karlis had been a placekicker at the University of Cincinnati and stood out like a real player, which as it turned out, he was.
Karlis beat out the incumbent kicker, Fred Steinfort, and a couple of other candidates, made the Broncos and went on to be an outstanding kicker here for seven seasons, 1982 through 1988.
Karlis was notable as a barefoot kicker in the NFL, but he was also notable to me as one of the outstanding guys I have ever had the honor to work with, just a complete class act for every second of our relationship.
I remember on the day of “The Drive,” the fateful AFC Championship Game in Cleveland to send the Broncos on to Super Bowl XXI on the strength of Karlis’s overtime field goal, he was sitting on the concrete floor just outside the Denver locker room, sort of thinking out loud with me as his only audience. The locker room was so small, so cramped, there was no room in it for hangers on, so Rich was just sitting there, thinking about the events that had brought him to this day. He said, “I just have the feeling it is all going to come down to a field goal today.”
It came down to being regarded as one of the 25 greatest games ever played in NFL history, it ended regulation play with John Elway’s immortal 99-yard touchdown drive to tie the game, one of the greatest ever played on the postseason stage, and ultimately it was won in overtime by an Ohio native who had joined the team via surviving a 478-player tryout camp five years earlier.
You just could not make it up.
As a postscript to that tryout camp, every player got to keep his T-shirt, the one that said “Denver Broncos tryout camp” and had his number on it. Turns out, one of the “candidates” eventually committee an armed robbery, and yes, you guessed it, he was wearing his Broncos T-shirt. So the police just came to us and asked who wore that number at the tryout camp.
We provided all the necessary information, the police found the guy, and the last I heard that prospective player was wearing another free T-shirt, and it had a number on the front as well.