Susan Boyle, you've been drafted by the ...
Sports media is on the clock as the 2009 NFL draft sprints closer, one hyper-analyzed 40-yard dash at a time. Turn on the channel and you'll hear Todd McShay, Mel Kiper Jr. or Mike and Mike jawing about the primo pedigree of a 20-year-old kid. You may hear them describe "the look" -- the way some guys just look like professional athletes. They have size and swagger. They may have what scouts call a "good face." Sure, the front-office decision-makers study lots of film -- but we know there is a lot of eyeballing going on, as teams try to pick out future Pro Bowlers from a lineup of prospects.
Essentially, they will judge a kid's professional potential by its cover.
Some scouts swear by measurable attributues -- vertical jump, shuttle run, bench press. Others factor in a formula of height, weight, wingspan, footwork and the caliber of college coaching and competition.
Such is the dog show that is the NFL draft, with the combines and pre-draft individual workouts looking much like a scene from "Best In Show," only coaches lift running backs onto stools, give them the Wonderlic, feel their hind legs then peek beneath their upper lip to make sure their incisors look like those of a champion.
It's true that elite athletes are often hardwired as such. Many times, when a kid reaches the pro ranks, people close to them will tell you that they always knew he was going to make it to the top.
But I have to wonder ...
Last week, when a friend of mine sent me a link to the YouTube clip of Scottish slumdog singer Susan Boyle -- the unlikely contestant on "Britain's Got Talent" who resembles the lady who walks around my neighborhood collecting bottles and cans but wowed the audience and judges -- I could only wonder: Could this ever happen in sports, in 2009?
Even in America, if an individual doesn't have the means to play organized sports while young, talent can go latent for a lifetime (an idle idol). Maybe there is a high school dropout somewhere dreaming of making it big on the PGA Tour. Or a mattress salesman who can catch a football behind his back with his eyes closed and run a 4.5 40 but never played a game on the real gridiron.
Assuming that in sports, like everywhere else in life, there are diamonds deep in the rough, what would it take to find them? How are we to break free from thinking that only 18-year-olds dripping with Gatorade, honed by traveling treams, prep camps, Olympic Development Programs and AAU ball can make it?
In the early 1970s, the Kansas City Royals experimented in finding diamonds. The Royals' Baseball Academy took raw teenagers with overall athletic ability but little baseball experience and tried to turn them into baseball players. Due primarily to costs involved, the academy was shut down after a few years, but did graduate 14 players who eventually reached the major leagues, most notably second baseman Frank White, who played 18 seasons with Kansas City.
More recently, in November the Pittsburgh Pirates signed two javelin throwers from India who had won a television reality show for throwing a baseball the fastest. The two had never played the sport.
The problem is, we buy into "the look," even though it seems there are so many empty talents with the deceptive ability to look like stars. (How many of Saturday's first-round picks will one day be labeled "draft busts"?)
The NFL, in particular, is guilty of believing that stars look a certain way. That's the lesson we should learn from say, Ryan Leaf, and the likes. In the season of draft grades and "total package" potential, we're painfully aware of the guys who looked like pros but never played like one.
Unlike somebody like Tom Brady. He was drafted in the sixth round, 199th overall, of the 2000 NFL draft. He was slow and scrawny and thus looked like he deserved to be the seventh quarterback off the board. Drafted ahead of him:
• Chad Pennington, a Matthew McConaughey look-alike.
• Giovanni Carmazzi, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound graduate of Hofstra University with brain, brawns and an action hero chin.
• Chris Redman, groomed to be a pro under his father, his high school coach.
• Tee Martin, who did at Tennessee what Peyton Manning couldn't do -- win a national championship.
• Marc Bulger, the son of a former Notre Dame quarterback, who played at the same high school that produced Dan Marino.
• Spergon Wynn, the pride of Southwest Texas State, who was drafted 16 spots ahead of Brady, and from this photo of him playing for the Toronto Argonauts sure looks strapping and seems to possess excellent arm strength.
Sure, Brady didn't walk in off a construction site for a tryout with the Patriots. Still, he looked like this during the NFL draft combine.
In other words, he was kind of the Susan Boyle of NFL draft prospects.
And he turned into the football version of the 47-year-old woman with a bad haircut who belts out a Broadway show tune so beautifully that she immediately won center stage amongst the stars.
I want those goosebumps in sports. From a middle-aged everyman who walks into an open tryout and blows everyone away, a modern-day Vince Papale. From the guy buying a sixer at the Quickie Mart. Maybe from a kid from India.
I walk around the world now and wonder what lies beneath. Maybe he could really sing in the NFL. You never know.
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