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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Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March. Photo via: NRG Park/Facebook

Football players, coaches and general managers have come and gone, but only one person has been running the business side of the Texans, well, even before they were the Texans. Jamey Rootes has been President of the Houston Texans since 1999, when an NFL team in Houston was still just a gleam in owner Bob McNair's eyes. That's before the team adopted the name "Texans" in 2000, before there was NRG Stadium, which opened as Reliant Stadium in 2000, and before they became serial champs of the AFC South, six titles between 2011-2019.

The precise date was Oct. 6, 1999 when NFL owners voted 29-0 to award the NFL's 32nd and newest franchise to Houston. Not only that, Houston was awarded the 2004 Super Bowl. Rootes, 34 years old with no NFL experience, had his work cut out for him. Before taking the job in Houston, Rootes was team president, general manager and CEO of selling peanuts and popcorn for the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer.

Major League Soccer, with all due respect, is not nearly a national obsession like the National Football League.

"I wasn't intimidated," Rootes said. "There's a quote that I love, 'Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.' I've always been a purpose-driven person. As for the step up to the NFL, I went from knowing nothing at the start of my time in Columbus to five years later thinking, OK, I've got this sports thing down. Actually, I had a very significant reduction in my responsibilities in Houston. When I was in Columbus, I ran the stadium, I ran the team's business, I was the general manager so I did the talent side of it, too. When I came to Houston, all I had to do was the business, so that was great."

Rootes has captured his remarkable journey from the soccer team at Clemson to grad school at Indiana University to the business world at IBM and Proctor & Gamble to the Clemson Crew, to ultimately being named President of the Houston Texans in his new book, The Winning Game Plan: A Proven Leadership Playbook for Continuous Business Success, available next week.

I've known Rootes from his day one with the Texans, but I still had to ask: everybody knows what the general manager does, and what the head coach does. What exactly does the President of an NFL team worth $3.3 billion do?

"I like to use the parallel of a pharmaceutical company to describe my job. There are two sides to that company. First you put scientists in one building and you leave them alone. They create products, which is what our football team is. The football side has a coach and general manager and all the people who prepare the team to play on Sunday. But getting that product to market is done by the business side, traditional business disciplines. Those are the things that fall to me. Basically, everything between the white lines is run by the football side. Everything outside of those lines, I do," Rootes said.

Between 1999 and 2002, when the Texans played their first game (let the record show the Texans defeated the Dallas Cowboy, 19-10), the team was essentially a massive start-up project. First orders of business for Rootes involved building a new stadium, developing relationships with suppliers, contractors and government officials, preparing for a Super Bowl and, most important, developing a relationship with fans.

Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March, but it's really an accumulation of lessons learned and behind-the-scenes stories about building the Texans from scratch into one of the most admired and valuable franchises in all of sports.

"I've always been a meticulous note-taker. I've kept every presentation I've ever done. I took all of my notes and concepts and put those down on paper," Rootes said. "To be a good leader, you need a wild imagination. You can show me a blank piece of paper, but I don't see it as blank. To me, it's a finished product that hasn't been created yet," Rootes said.

Rootes lays out his leadership strategy in seven chapters: Are You a Manager or a Leader, Get the Right People on Your Team, Build a Winning Culture, Create Raving Fans, a Winning Playbook for Adversity and Success, Your Leadership Playbook and Play to Win.

He learned lesson No. 1 the hard way. A friend once counseled Rootes, "your staff doesn't like the way you're all up in their business, you need to back off." Rootes took that advice to heart.

"It was an epiphany. I wasn't a leader. That's when I truly began thinking about leadership. I say this all the time, I don't do anything. All I do is create an environment where exceptional people can be their very best self. I know what's going on. I'm fully informed. I leave every game day exhausted. I get there early. I do the things I need to do. I kiss babies. I shake hands. I present checks. I entertain clients. I'm dialed in. It absolutely wears me out because I love this organization so much. I am so proud of what we've been able to do for this great city of Houston."

I asked Rootes, as someone who lives for Game Day and a packed NRG Stadium, are you devastated by 2020, the year of COVID-19 and small crowds limited by Centers for Disease Control guidelines?

"I don't look at it that way. I think there's a song by 10,000 Maniacs that said, these are the days that you'll remember. I told my staff, I know you're all going through hell right now, but later on in life, you'll talk about this year. Things that are important are memorable, for the positive and those things that leave a scar. You learn from adversity and you're a better person for enduring it. Victor Frankl said 'We can discover meaning in life in three different ways, by creating a work or doing a deed, experiencing something or encountering someone, and by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.' Suffering is part of life. He should know, he survived a Nazi concentration camp," Rootes said.

H-E-B President Scott McClelland wrote the forward to The Winning Game Plan. Rootes dedicates the book to late Texans owner Bob McNair. Rootes' book is a fun read. All I kept thinking was, where was this book when I needed it? And before you buy too much into Rootes as a leader, consider that Rootes admits that he had to ask for wife Melissa's permission before he could accept the Texans job.

Personal note: I believe that a big part of leadership is the ability to keep a promise. Several years ago, I was riding my bicycle with my dog Lilly on a leash. It was the only way I could keep up with her. Well, one time Lilly saw a squirrel and pulled me off my bicycle. I tumbled a few times and rolled next to the curb. When I looked up, there was Jamey Rootes. I told him, "There's no need for you to tell anybody about this." He never said a word.

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