Downey deserves shot in NFL

Khiawatha Downey has MS. But he's a legitimate prospect who deserves a shot at the NFL.

Updated: April 27, 2004, 2:37 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Over two days, a first-round marathon that made Rip Van Winkle's fictional deep sleep look more like a cat nap, and 255 selections, NFL franchises rolled the dice on prospects whose medical dossiers included severe knee injuries and assorted broken bones.

Teams invested in a few players whose rap sheets are longer than their stat sheets. They chose prospects of suspect character, of dubious production, players who suffered from the "terrible too's." You know, too short, too fat, too slow. One team picked a player who suffers from bipolar disorder. Another used a first-round spot on a defender who might need surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder.

Khiawatha Downey
Khiawatha Downey began his career at Pitt before transferring to IUP.
Heck, the Carolina Panthers took a literal Gamble, the NFC champions grabbing Ohio State cornerback Chris Gamble in the first round, despite his limited résumé on defense.

But nowhere in the pool of 255 players initiated into the NFL over the weekend -- and, taking it one step further, not even among the legion of undrafted free agents signed by the 32 teams since the draft concluded on Sunday evening -- will you find a prospect who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis.

So much for the enlightened NFL.

Apparently, in a league that shortens anything it can into shorthand, ACL and ADD and even DUI are initials that only get you knocked down a few pegs on draft boards. But the letters MS, the weekend demonstrated, get you purged from the lottery completely. Your humble columnist over a 26-year tenure covering the NFL has witnessed plenty of clubs who were shortsighted in the draft, but never so many who were so purposely blind.

If you are a regular visitor to this web site, especially over the last few weeks, you know where we are headed. And, even at risk of being overbearing on the subject, well, folks, we're going there anyway. It's our party, after all, and we'll sigh if we want to.

Three weeks ago, we wrote at length about Khiawatha Downey, an intriguing offensive line prospect from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, but a young man diagnosed with MS three years ago. Downey was featured on a segment of Outside the Lines on Sunday morning, only an hour before the start of the draft's second day. He had attended in early April the NFL's recheck of players whose medical conditions had raised red flags during the February combine, armed with a three-page letter from one of the country's top MS experts, a technical missive declaring Downey asymptomatic and able to play football.

Last week, in an effort to assuage any lingering misgivings, Downey's agent, Joe Linta, dispatched to all 32 franchises a waiver document, essentially freeing teams from any and all liability associated with MS.

The collective response of the league? Let's just say the silence emanating from the 32 draft rooms on Saturday and Sunday, at least concerning Downey, was hardly golden. Even in the hours following the draft, when teams scramble frenetically to sign free agent prospects, some of whom can claim only a steady pulse as their primary call card, no one called on Downey. And the ever-proactive Linta, whose track record of having undrafted clients make it onto regular-season rosters is exemplary, couldn't call in any favors.

In fact, as we write this column two days after the draft, the only nibble that Khiawatha Downey has received is from the San Francisco 49ers, who have invited him to minicamp this weekend. If he performs well during his audition, Downey will get a contract offer, 49ers officials assured Linta. So give the San Francisco organization a nod, at least, for stepping up a bit when 31 other franchises stepped back from Downey as if the disease for which he is being treated was leprosy and not Multiple Sclerosis.

If by now, you feel we have taken Downey's circumstance a little too seriously, carried the flag with a tad too much ardor, well, guilty as charged. As we noted three weeks ago in the original piece on Downey, we are sadly too well educated on MS, because it has afflicted a family member. But because we understand some of the ramifications of the disease, we also know it is not a death sentence, and that there are Multiple Sclerosis patients (our loved one included) who function daily with nary a hint of liability.

Downey, who had a fourth-round grade on some draft boards before ignorance spread like an epidemic throughout the scouting staffs of 32 franchises, functions well. It is true that his weekly injection of Avonex, the medication he takes to inhibit the progress of his Multiple Sclerosis, caused side affects such as flu-like symptoms, fatigue and cranium-splitting headaches during his college career. It is also true that he has improved thanks to the efforts of Dr. Rock Heyman, the Pittsburgh-based neurologist now treating him, and that Downey should not suffer anymore from the rigors of camp than any other prospect.

Citing the letter Dr. Heyman wrote to all 32 teams: "Regarding the issue as to whether his medical condition would place him at significant risk for playing professional football, I do not believe this is the case. Multiple Sclerosis is a disease that has not been shown to be aggravated or caused by trauma. ... He has not had symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis. Specifically, he does not have fatigability. He does not have any heat sensitivity. He has not had any cognitive symptoms."

Unfortunately, he does not have an NFL contract, either, and that's the rub.

You would think by now that a league that has seen the light in so many areas in recent years, elements on and off the field, would have done a bit more research on Downey. But the bet here is that Heyman's three-page letter (single-spaced we might add) ended up in the cylindrical receptacle of most personnel departments. Why? Because in a lot of ways scouting remains in the Dark Ages.

League scouts love to chide the media for not understanding the draft, for making snap judgements on the lottery with day-after report cards, and those sentiments are justifiable. Not even the hardest-working journalist has pored ever hundreds of hours of videotape, or written reams of reports, as has any NFL scout. Ranking a draft is not a Kodak moment.

But I'm betting I know more about MS than just about any NFL scout, perhaps even most team-retained doctors. And in that regard, I'm betting that whatever ramifications of the disease affect Khiawatha Downey, they'll come far after his football career has ended.

It used to be that teams were savvy enough to include a dose of public relations into their draft classes. Back "in the day," the Pittsburgh Steelers would always usher "The Chief," franchise patriarch Art Rooney Sr. into the draft room for the final pick, and he would invariably choose some throwaway prospect from the University of Pittsburgh. The media loved it because it provided a rainy day training camp story before the kid got axed.

But public relations don't mean anything in the draft now, not with just seven rounds, not with the salary cap dictating that franchises not waste selections on sentimentality. Think about this: No team saw fit, not even with a seventh-round compensatory choice late on Sunday afternoon, to draft the son of the late Walter Payton. If teams couldn't understand the public relations value of that move, why would they comprehend the positive spin of choosing a kid battling MS, right?

Yet even in the corporate, button-down world the NFL has become, putting aside any of the positive ancillary benefits a franchise would have accrued, Khiawatha Downey should have been drafted or signed as a free agent, because he is a legitimate football player.

Just because he has the initials MS attached to his medical record, just because teams opted to attach some stigma to that, doesn't make Downey any less so.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

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