INDIANAPOLIS -- As is the case with thoroughbred horses, strong bloodlines are a big positive in the NFL, and perhaps no one in league history has ever had more pro football corpuscles coursing through his veins than Max Starks.
It wasn't until 1999 that Elleanor Starks revealed to her son that his biological father was Ross Browner, who played defensive end in the NFL for nine seasons, who claimed the Lombardi Trophy and the Outland Trophy during a stellar college career at Notre Dame, and who is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. The revelation from mother to son, which followed a Valentine's Day call from Elleanor Starks to Ross Browner in 1999 to tell him that he had a son he never even knew existed, presented Max with a bevy of new and famous relatives.
But as much as he covets the time he now spends with his biological father -- his adoptive dad, Max III, died a few years ago -- Starks would like to make a name for himself. And in that regard, certainly, he is off to a solid start. Perhaps not a first-round selection, but clearly projected as a first-day choice, Starks has garnered attention for many reasons.
On the field, Starks has started at both guard and both tackles spots, but his long arms and quick feet should make him a left tackle candidate. At 6-feet-7 and 350 pounds, he might be a bit soft and will probably need to shed some baby fat, but has the vertical dimension every offensive line coach covets. Starks might need a fire lit under him sometimes but, that said, his overall work ethic has never been considered a negative.
Away from football, Starks has had great success as well, sort of a Renaissance Man on the UF campus. A legitimate student-athlete, he's posted fine grades, and was a member of the student government his first two years in school. He also has real-world business experience, having helped to operate Starks Funeral Home, a legendary burial parlor in Orlando, Fla., one that's been around for 70 years.
When his adoptive father died, Elleanor Starks continued to operate the funeral home, but just recently sold it. The new owners retained the name and Max, not yet licensed as a practicing mortician, continues to work part-time when available. His longtime nickname, "The Undertaker," he insisted, relates not only to his duties at the funeral home but also to his ability to bury opposition defensive linemen. There is some chance, no matter when he is drafted, that Starks, looking down the road to his post-football career, will pursue a mortician's license.
Asked about his strangest moment working in the funeral business, Starks smiled, then acknowledged he would probably get into trouble if he told the whole tale. Said Starks: "Let's just say it involved me picking up a body and it involved a train wreck. And don't even try to pursue any more of it, because that's as far as I can go with it."
He will also continue to pursue, of course, a relationship with his biological father and the rest of the talented Browner clan. Browner, who played much of his career in Cincinnati and resides in Atlanta, now pays plenty of attention to his son's career and even offers the occasional tip. "But he's good enough," said Browner, "that he doesn't need me out there giving him pointers. I think he's a very good player."
Browner dated Elleanor for nearly two years but the couple split shortly after she became pregnant and he never knew they had conceived a child. Now the two are very cordial and Elleanor is glad she placed the call to Browner in 1999, a few days before she told Max the truth about his biological father.
"It's great having two families," Max Starks said. "I cherish them both. I guess maybe the only downside is all the tickets I'm going to have to buy for NFL games."
Around the combine
Let's get this one out of the way first because it involves an embarrassing error on our part in the Friday "around the combine" section. Because of confusion in the manner that wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald announced his official height, we interpreted that the Pitt star measured 6-feet-0 ¼. Actually, his height was 6-feet-2 7/8, which is in line with what the Panthers listed Fitzgerald at on their roster. The actual height is counter to what many scouts felt it would be. In advance of the combine, several scouts opined to ESPN.com that Fitzgerald would check in at well under 6-feet-2. That wasn't the case, of course, and the fact Fitzgerald measured up vertically only further enhances his draft stock.
Speaking of physical measurements, Miami (Fla.) tight end Kellen Winslow Jr., son of the Hall of Fame member, checked in at 6-feet-3 7/8 and 251 pounds. That was about a half-inch shorter than listed by the Hurricanes, but right about where most scouts had him pegged. There remains some disagreement over whether the younger Winslow will be better lining up at the traditional tight end spot or at an H-back type position. He is a very gifted route-runner, adept at finding the open seam against a zone defense, but there are lingering doubts about Winslow's ability as an in-line blocker, Asked about the impact his father has had on him, Winslow replied: "A great impact. The biggest impact. It's just like being compared to The Lion King or something like that. It's just that he guided me through everything, you know?"
Coaches from a few teams wondered aloud Saturday just how many tight ends will be chosen in the first round. Long an ignored position, tight end is making a comeback in the draft over the last few years, and the performance of youngsters like Jeremy Shockey will only bring more attention in what is the ultimate copy-cat league. Beyond Winslow, it looks like Ben Troupe of Florida, who is still recovering from a finger injury and will be very limited here, is a certain first-rounder. The one other tight end prospect who might sneak into the first round is Ben Watson. The former University of Georgia standout was the top-rated senior tight end in the spring but suffered through some nagging injuries and inconsistency in 2003.
There was considerable buzz here Saturday about the Friday report by ESPN.com that Southern Cal wide receiver Mike Williams will apply for the 2004 draft, provided he doesn't suffer a change of heart. Some league scouts noted that Williams' timing might not be optimal, given the depth at wide receiver in this year's lottery, and others claimed the Trojans' star would still be a top-five selection. Scouts who have seen Williams firsthand insist that his listed height (6-feet-5) is legitimate and that he might actually be bigger than the 230 pounds next to his name on the roster. "He's like (San Diego wide receiver) David Boston, but quicker, more explosive," said one scout. "All I know is, if he's going to be in the draft, it's one more great player in the pool."
Two teams to keep an eye on when discussing Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett: The Chicago Bears and Cincinnati Bengals. Both franchises have the tailback spot listed as a priority, and neither club was put off, during individual interviews, by his demeanor. "I can't see taking him off our board, not just because of some hearsay, that's for sure," said Bears general manager Jerry Angelo. The Bengals will almost certainly part ways with tailback Corey Dillon and will need a viable backup to Rudi Johnson, plus owner Mike Brown has always harbored a soft spot for Buckeyes players, and former Ohio State coach John Cooper is a Cincinnati personnel consultant.
It seems that University of Florida offensive tackle Max Starks, who has worked part-time in his family's funeral home, isn't the only prospect who held an unusual job. For two years after high school graduation, during a period in which he twice failed to qualify academically for entrance to LSU, defensive tackle Chad Lavalais was a prison guard at the Avoyelles Parish (La.) Correctional Facility. "Even when you were a guard," said Lavalais on Saturday, "you felt like you were a prisoner. I mean, you went to work, they locked the doors, and 12 hours later you were allowed to go home. It wasn't something you wanted to make your life's work, that's for sure. I only did it because I lived in a small town, there wasn't much work to be had, and it was a job." As was the case with Starks and the funeral home, Lavalais said he could not divulge the hairiest situation in which he found himself at the correctional facility. "It was nasty, and let's just leave it at that," he replied. A possible first-round choice, certainly no worse than a second-rounder, Lavalais is a tremendous example of perseverance. Twice he failed to have sufficient grades to get into LSU, one time missing by a single point on his ACTs, but he never gave up on his dream of playing for the Tigers. His reward: A championship ring and the right to crow a little bit. "You guys might say 'co-national champions,' but my ring has 'national champion' on it," Lavalais said. "No offense, but it's the ring that counts, not what the media says."
University of Hawaii defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga garnered some attention here on Saturday by doing 42 "repetitions" in the standard 225-pound bench press. A tough run-stuffer, who has suffered through injuries much of his career, Sopoaga is an intriguing guy, even if only projected as a middle-round selection. He has a thick, live body and, obviously, superb strength. Hawaii is better known for its offensive linemen, especially under coach June Jones, but Sopoaga could be a steal in the middle rounds.
One of the best interviews of the day was that of Oklahoma defensive tackle Tommie Harris, who was colorful and glib and quick-witted during a media session that others seem to find an ordeal. At one point, Harris pointed to ESPN's John Clayton and said: "Hey, man, I see you on TV all the time, and it's finally good to see you in person." A very quick athlete, scouts still aren't sure whether Harris is best suited for the nose spot or the "three technique" tackle position. He weighed in at 296 pounds, considered on the light side by some teams, and might be projected to the latter spot. Then again, Harris didn't care where he lined up, as long as it's on defense. "Play me at safety and, trust me, I would take care of business," Harris said.
Tatum Bell, RB, Oklahoma State: Sometimes overshadowed by tailbacks with higher profiles, Tatum Bell of Oklahoma State stepped up nicely on Saturday, blistering the 40 in a time of 4.37 and generally doing more than enough to catch scouts' attention. Bell might well be the most explosive back in the entire draft. He has nice enough size but will have to run tougher inside and also get his pad level down. Right now, he's a tad too upright and stiff. He catches the ball well, though, is a willing blocker and can run away from defenders if he hits air in the secondary.
Claude Harriott, DE, Pittsburgh: A year ago, scouts were touting University of Pittsburgh defensive end Claude Harriott as a possible first-rounder. But his stats fell off precipitously in 2003 and he ended up splitting playing time toward the end of a disappointing campaign. Harriott isn't very stout, doesn't hold up well against the run and seems to have lost much of his initial explosiveness.
The last word
"Yeah, I could have blocked him. Maybe not that often, you know, but I could have blocked him. I would have finessed him out of the play instead of just using my strength against him. Let him use his speed and then ridden him away (from the quarterback)." -- University of Florida offensive tackle Max Starks on how he would have blocked his father, former NFL defensive lineman Ross Browner
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.