The million-dollar extravaganza that provides the occasion for the new Kevin Costner movie, Draft Day, used to be a simpler affair. Time was, any two skinny kids could run -- and I mean run -- the pro football draft. I know, because me and my brother Joe did exactly that 50 years ago.
I was 14 and Joe was 12. Lord knows we weren't qualified to run the American Football League draft, but we ran it anyway.
A bit of background first. The AFL was "The Other League," the upstart brainchild of men named Lamar Hunt and Bud Addams and Ralph Wilson -- millionaires with tons of money who had been denied NFL franchises of their own in the late 1950s.
Millionaires don't take easily to rejection, so eight of them got together and started a league of their own, much to the scorn of the solons of the very-firmly established National Football League.
The early years of the AFL were predictably rocky. But slowly, the teams started catching on in their home cities of Buffalo and San Diego and Denver. Contrary to the NFL's fondest wishes and predictions, The Other League refused to go away. It even prospered.
Most ominously for the NFL, the AFL owners were putting their money where their teams were, which meant that for the first time ever, the NFL's monopoly on recruiting college players was being challenged. Competition was great on the field but not in the corporate boardrooms of the NFL. The AFL "stole" any number of big-name college stars from the NFL in its early years, and they did so under the auspices of a secret college draft.
That's where Joe and I came in. We were the means to the AFL's allegedly larcenous ends. Together, we didn't weigh much more than a tackling dummy. But we were fast. And we had what scouts like to call certain football "intangibles," such as a willingness to for the occasional cup of hot chocolate.
Here's how it worked: on draft day, Joe and I were stationed at league headquarters on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. After fielding a hurried phone call, a league official would scribble the name of some All-American and the team that had drafted him on a slip of paper and hand it off to one of us. We'd take off down Fifth Avenue and run about 10 blocks to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel over on Park Avenue, where we, in turn, handed off the paper slip to another adult. We'd catch our breath in time to run back down to Fifth, where the process started all over again.
We ran all day and into the night. And none but a select few knew our secret.
I have no idea why running two kids around Manhattan was deemed necessary or even wise, why names could not have been more easily delivered by phone than by boy. In retrospect, I suspect the influence of our father, who was the league's publicity director and ever-eager to give his boys unique educational opportunities like this one.
Dashing through bustling city streets, dodging innocent passersby, racing red lights, we were spies on a secret mission, clutching in our hands the fate not only of college prospects, but of entire football teams and the cities they represented. No one knew, would even guess, that those two annoying kids zipping past their plodding city selves held the fate of thousands -- millions! -- in their hands.
Like so many things that used to be, a draft day like ours would be impossible today. But the experience had its effect. As Joe and I got older, Dad found additional ways to educate us through football. We both did stints as water boys for the Buffalo Bills, our hometown team. Joe went on to make a career at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where he's now the hall's vice president of communications. And though I never got closer to a career in football than when I was a water boy, I still retain bragging rights to memories of that day in Manhattan, when Joe and I helped make the Draft Days of today possible, for better or worse.