Off the top of my bald head

Barry Warner: Part of NFL scouting history

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.

Most Popular

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome

Listen Live

ESPN Houston 97.5 FM
The Astros are back in action Friday night against the A's. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.

The Astros need to whip up on the Oakland A’s this weekend in California as they did in sweeping four from them last week at Minute Maid Park. That was the start of a homestand which ended up with seven wins in 10 games. That goes down as a successful homestand, especially since it felt like the Astros’ prior winning homestand came while Donald Trump was President (it actually started in late July). Still, 7-3 doesn’t feel like a smashing success with it ending by dropping two of three games to the lowly Los Angeles Angels.

It is not exactly with bated breath that anyone should be waiting on Jose Abreu’s return to the lineup, but it’s coming. It should not be on this road trip. After the three games with the A’s the Astros move up the coast for a big four game set with American League West leading Seattle. The M's start all right-handed pitchers. That is no time to sit Jon Singleton to see if Abreu has managed to pump a few drops of gas into his tank while spending the better part of this month at the Astros’ minor league complex. It’s not as if Singleton has been stellar since Abreu’s departure, but by comparison, he’s been Lou Gehrig-esque. The series with the Mariners isn’t make or break but the Astros are strongly advised to get at least a split. That it should be Framber Valdez starting the opener Monday night doesn’t breed tremendous confidence, coming off his meltdown outing against the Angels. Another start, another opportunity.

The Mariners are at the Nationals this weekend, starting it a mere four and a half games ahead of the Astros. In four of the five other divisions the Astros' 22-28 record would have them at least 10 games off the lead.

One step forward, two steps back

Speaking of washed-up first basemen, Joey Votto should be a future Hall of Famer. The 40-year-old Canadian is trying to make it back to the big leagues via the minor leagues with the Toronto Blue Jays. Votto was an absolutely tremendous player with the Cincinnati Reds. As the Beastie Boys said, “Ch-check it out.” Over Jeff Bagwell’s first ten seasons with the Astros he hit .305 with a .417 on-base percentage and .552 slugging percentage, yielding a phenomenal .970 OPS. Over Votto’s first ten full seasons with the Reds: .313/.429/.540 for an exactly phenomenal .970 OPS. Where am I going with this? Read on!

Votto had phenomenal strike zone and bat control. He turned 30 during the 2013 season. That year Votto had 581 at bats. He popped out to an infielder once the entire season. Alex Bregman turned 30 the third day of this season. Bregman popped out to the shortstop four times in the Angels series. So much for Bregman’s “knob past the ball” epiphany that saw him hit three home runs over two games last week. Going into the weekend Bregman has one hit in his last 23 at bats. His season stats continue to be pitiful: a .209 batting average and .607 OPS. Bregman has only struck out once in the 23 at bats of his latest deep freeze. It’s that so much of his contract is feeble. There is a lot of season left for Bregman to build up to decent numbers, but one-third of the regular season will be complete after the Astros play the Mariners Monday night.

While Bregman’s season to date has basically been one long slump, Jose Altuve is in a funk of his own. Since blasting a homer Monday, Altuve is hitless in 12 at bats. Mini-slumps happen to everybody but Altuve’s woes trace back farther. Over his last 15 games, Altuve is batting .175. He last had more than one hit in a game May 5. He’s also drawn just two walks over those 15 games. It’s tough to ever sit Altuve, but he’s probably playing a little too much. Altuve turned 34 earlier this month. He has started 48 of the Astros 50 games at second base. Mauricio Dubon should be getting a start per week at second (and probably another at third given Bregman’s level of play). Over a full season not playing the field once per week still means 135 starts. Altuve should mix in some more at designated hitter (he has just one DH game so far this season). Wear and tear is a real thing, players don’t grow less susceptible to it as they get to their mid-30s.

King Tuck

On the flip side, Kyle Tucker! So far this season, he’s making himself as much money as Bregman is costing himself. Only Shohei Ohtani (1.069) starts the weekend action with an OPS higher than Tucker’s 1.060. The law of averages dictates that Tucker won’t finish as high as 1.060, but if he does, it would be the greatest full-length season offensive performance in Astros’ history. Jeff Bagwell posted an absurd 1.201 OPS in the strike-shortened 1994 campaign. Yordan Alvarez came in at 1.067 in his 87 games played rookie season of 2019. Lance Berkman’s 2001 was a monster. Enron Field was more hitter-friendly then than Minute Maid Park is now, but Berkman’s numbers were “Oh My Gosh!” spectacular. .331 batting average, 55 doubles (second in franchise history to Craig Biggio's 56 in 1999), 34 homers, .430 on-base percentage, .620 slugging percentage, and 1.051 OPS. And that was just Berkman’s second full season in the majors. Lance finished fifth in National League Most Valuable Player Award voting. Giant-headed Barry Bonds won MVP with his 73 home runs among other sicko stats.

* Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome