Commentary

Dent's 'proud papa' saw potential

Tobin's discovery of skinny kid from small school paid off with a Hall of Fame career

Updated: February 9, 2011, 7:54 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- When the fifth round of the 1983 NFL draft rolled around, George Halas pushed his chair back and went to lunch, taking his general manager Jim Finks, his son-in-law Ed McCaskey and Finks' assistant Bill McGrane along with him.

The Bears traded their fifth-, sixth- and seventh-round picks away that year, so it was a natural break for the team's braintrust. But the Bears' scouting department, which consisted of pro scout Bill Tobin and college scout Jim Parmer, remained in the old Halas Hall war room monitoring the draft as one name on the board, or in this case wall, stared back at them.

[+] EnlargeDent
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesSuper Bowl XX MVP Richard Dent was a four-time All-Pro selection.

Tobin placed a second-round grade on a scrawny defensive end from Tennessee State named Richard Dent, which didn't mean he thought Dent would or even should be drafted then. But it did mean that was what he thought of his ability.

"When they came back from lunch," Tobin recalled, "Finks walks over to the wall and says, 'Hey Toby, your second-round grade is still here. Think we should take him now?'

"I said, 'Hell yes, we should.' I was shocked he was still there."

The Bears' eighth-round steal was elected this week to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, just one more notch on the belt for Tobin, who, in addition to drafting Walter Payton and scouting every member of the Bears' '85 Super Bowl champs, has the distinction of drafting two of the six players in the 2011 Hall of Fame class in Dent and Marshall Faulk, whom he chose as GM of the Indianapolis Colts.

But it was the underweight kid Tobin fell in love with in the fall of 1982 who made him feel like "a proud papa" this week.

Lugging his projector and a bottle of whiskey as a gift for Dent's coach, Tobin remembers it was cold and so muddy that October that they had scattered straw on the field at Tennessee State to improve the footing.

It didn't seem to affect Dent.

"The first sentence in my report," said Tobin, reading from the original, "is 'This kid has to get a zero for quickness.' "

Zero, it should be pointed out, is the best score a player can get.

"One is really special," Tobin said. "I wrote, 'He is extremely quick off the ball, one of the fastest I have ever scouted.' "

When Tobin returned to Nashville to get more film that December -- "Yeah, the technology wasn't quite what it is today," he said with a laugh -- Dent had a cast on his arm due to a complete dislocation of his wrist that required surgery. "But they turned him loose against Chatanooga," said Tobin, who read some more from his report.

" 'He played one-armed, and he was still very effective,' " he wrote. " 'He is one of the quickest you will see upfield, and he has a mean streak in him. He will really wrap up the quarterback when he gets to him.' "

If Tobin gets a kick out of looking back at his dead-on evaluation, it can't compare to the pride he had in seeing Dent grow. Literally.

"Scouts always say, 'After you pick them, they're not going to grow taller or get faster,' " Tobin said. But Dent actually did grow approximately an inch and a half. And after getting his teeth fixed -- dental problems were the cause of his low weight -- gained nearly 40 pounds by the Super Bowl year, rounding out at 275.

This from a player other teams scouted but didn't pursue. One team exec looked at Dent at the league combine and proclaimed: "He looks the president of the Bad Body Club."

Tobin and the Bears had a fair draft year in 1983. Among their haul: Jim Covert, Willie Gault, Mike Richardson, Dave Duerson, Tom Thayer and Mark Bortz, chosen in the eighth round after Dent.

"I was not fighting for [Dent] in those upper rounds because the others were more identifiable, more recognizable, and the common opinion was that they'd go where they went," Tobin said.

With something to prove, Dent quickly took advantage of the sheer force up the middle provided by future Hall of Famer Dan Hampton and tackle Steve McMichael, and quickly developed into an elite pass rusher. And once he put on weight and added strength -- despite Buddy Ryan's skepticism -- Dent became a "natural" run stopper, said Tobin.

As a big-time playmaker, Dent has few peers, something he clearly recognized by naming Devin Hester as the current Bear who reminds him most of himself.

Although Mike Singletary was singled out by Hall of Fame voters as the foundation of the Bears' defense, and Hampton was inducted four years later in 2002, Dent had to wait his turn.

Don Pierson, who covered the Bears and the NFL for 30 years at the Chicago Tribune and, as a former member of the Hall of Fame's Board of Selectors, argued in support of Dent's induction for several years, said there was no great injustice being done in taking eight years to make it. Dent made it "into the room" as one of the top 15 finalists in seven of the eight years.

"That's really an honor," Pierson said, "and I can't remember very many players who made it to the top 15 and didn't eventually get in."

Pierson pointed out that the 49ers won four Super Bowls in the 1980s yet have only two players in the Hall. "Lynn Swann had to wait 14 years," Pierson said of the Steelers great.

Dent was gracious Wednesday, saying "People don't understand the process. I don't understand the process. It takes a little bit of time."

Still, he called it "a relief" to get the call.

"I've always felt that you can't take a star from the sky," Dent said. "It can be cloudy, but sooner or later he has to shine, and I guess this is my shining time."

Tobin, meanwhile, whose 70th birthday is next week, is still scouting, now for the Cincinnati Bengals. He jokes that after drafting Payton, "it was all downhill," but it wasn't a bad ride.

"Most of the guys we took came off winning teams," he said. "We had a philosophy: 'Don't bring me any dumb ones or any who don't want to be physical. We wanted them big and fast but that was not a determining factor. We took solid, smart, achieving football people."

Sounds almost simple.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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