Off the top of my bald head

Barry Warner: Part of NFL scouting history

The first Combine actually took place in Houston. Barry Warner

The first NFL Combine was put together by the legendary Cowboys' guru Gil Brandt.  It was held in 1982 in TampaFlorida, the next year moved to New Orleans and finally landed in Indianapolis.

But the real first combine was held here in Houston. It gave me street cred as a young scout while screwing the NFL.

Thanks to the victory in Federal Court in the Ralph Neely case, the Oilers got extra picks in the first common draft, March 14-15, 1967. Dallas lost picks in the 1st, and 2nd, 2 picks in the 5th, and 1 in the 8th round.  The Cowboys were forced to play five years against each other in the exhibition season, with three in Houston. My boss, colorful Oiler GM Don Klosterman was nicknamed The Duke. He called Tom Williams, in charge of scouting black schools, scouting director John Breen and me over to his home for dinner and drinks.  We knew something cool was going to happen but did not dream of what he came up with.

  “Houston has great weather, easy to get to from all parts of the country and plenty of hotels,” Klosterman started the conversation. “I met with Rice legend Jess Neely, and he will allow us to use both the practice field and the track starting next weekend until the weekend before the draft. We’ll have our coaches and you guys set up drills, time them in the 40, 10-yard shuttles and cone drills. Most important we will get a thorough medical status with our team doctors and Methodist Hospital.  Give me your thoughts,” he said.

At the end of the ten weeks, we saw over 300 potential prospects from first-rounders to free agents. It was a huge help in evaluating lower round talent, like Zeke Moore and Pete Barnes who had solid NFL careers plus many others who went onto long NFL careers.

Ten of the first 100 players drafted were from the small black schools, including Willie Ellison and Roy Hopkins from TSU, Jackson State’s Lem Barney, Willie Lanier from Morgan State and South Carolina State star receiver John Gilliam.

I was like a little kid in a candy store.

Four made it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Barney, Lanier, my all- time favorite, Kenny Houston and Rayfield Wright from Ft. Valley State.  Once again, the Duke had a plan.  We all loved it, especially me. Between being the youngest on staff and hearing both a season full of anti-Semitic and racist crap, I knew getting the small school black athlete here would be a tremendous showcase for their talents to shine. These were turbulent times in the Deep South. There was plenty of name-calling and threats as a “honkie” going to an all-black stadium on a Saturday.

After the postseason bowl games, he obtained the game film from the 1962 Grambling-Jacksonville State game. The footage was subpar, grainy and had to be watched back and forth to really zone in on a play.

Klosterman called a 9:00 am meeting.  The room was set up T shaped, with Don, Tom Williams and myself at the head, the coaches and other scouts seated opposite each other.  His plan was simple. “Warner and Williams will pass out players to watch for coaches at their respective positions.  With extra draft picks and more time, the franchise will have a competitive advantage.”

During a lunch break, Klosterman, Tom, Breen and I made a chart of the players graded. Then copies of the rosters, highlighting the names and numbers of the respective players, were given to those that returned to their seats at the long table.

When they looked at the rosters, there was dead silence followed by embarrassed looks on long faces. Only four players were given draft status.  The others were either not worth bringing to camp, or graded out as cheap free agents. Grambling was led by Hall of Famers Willie Brown and Buck Buchannan, Jamie Caleb, Garland Boyette, Alphonso Dotson (father of Packers star Santana Dotson), Lane Howell, Woody Peoples, Goldie Sellers, Frank Cornish and Nemiah Wilson.

They all played pro football after leaving the legendary Eddie Robinson. Jackson State players included Gloster Richardson, Coy Bacon, Verlon Biggs, Roy Hilton, Speedy Duncan and Willie Richardson, all of whom ended up in the pros.

The GM spoke loud and clear. “It is obvious there is a gap wider than the Arctic Circle to Brazil in your evaluations.  Maybe it’s the grind of the past season. Maybe not.  What is clear is that Williams and Warner know their stuff and can help in the process of turning a miserable, underachieving 4-10 to a winner.  Do you want their help? Do you want to be in the playoffs?  My suggestion is you take your blinders and personal feelings and toss them away.  Are there any questions?”

Klosterman stated with a stern rise in his voice.

After the grading session was complete, our boss took us to an early dinner at a great steakhouse, ordered a bottle of wine and toasted us. “Never doubt the Duke. I’ve always got your back. We all won today.  Keep grinding.” as he smiled.

Klosterman let me make two of the first ten picks we had.  In the sixth round, hard-hitting Southern University linebacker Pete Barnes. Three rounds later, Ken Houston from nearby Prairie View, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

It was amazing how I was treated that day forward. There was a newfound respect that allowed me to scout for Hall of Famers Paul Brown, George Halas, Ron Wolf and the legendary Al Davis.

All thanks to the belief of the Duke.

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