By Jason Keidel
Though I never saw Jim Brown, I’ve seen everyone else. In nearly 40 years of watching football, through the golden age of Earl Campbell and Walter Payton and Tony Dorsett, the best running back I ever saw didn’t play a down in the NFL until he was a tattered shadow of his former eminence.
Don’t take a sportswriter’s word for it. Just ask Barry Switzer, who had Billy Sims before him and scouted Campbell before he landed Sims. One of the rather rare coaches who has an NCAA title and Super Bowl ring, Switzer said that, after Campbell, the only 18-year-old he ever saw who could walk from high school turf onto an NFL gridiron, was Dupree.
But Marcus Dupree was not allowed in the NFL at 18. Or 19. Because the NFL would not let him, based on a misguided decree that says you must be three years removed from high school to brandish the NFL shield.
Many things felled Dupree, who was harangued by sycophants, awful counsel and bad luck. Once he fled Oklahoma, Dupree had to pinball around the South before landing in the USFL, where he shredded his knee, and his career. He made a heartwarming comeback to make a cameo for the (Los Angeles) Rams, but that was way more cosmetic than seismic.
We’ve since seen the solemn cases of Maurice Clarett, Marcus Lattimore and, on a lesser level, Todd Gurley, who plays for the Rams but wrecked his knee at Georgia while toiling for his time in pro football. More than a few gifted athletes have been battered by the car wash of NFL restrictions, and for no good reason.
These injuries are as much metaphors as mangled ligaments. The hypocrisy is too vivid and important to ignore. You’re telling young men they are responsible and reliable enough to vote and have their blessed limbs blown off in war, but not to run with a football for a living.
Now we have LSU’s Leonard Fournette, the latest athletic savant to face this fork in the professional road. Over the last decade, I’ve seen two teenagers whom I knew would star in the NFL in a few years, and could start that year: Julio Jones and Leonard Fournette.
If you saw Fournette play against Syracuse — or play with Syracuse – last Saturday, you witnessed a rare chasm in size and talent. Syracuse not only produced Jim Brown and Larry Csonka and Floyd Little, but more recently spawned Dwight Freeney, Donovan McNabb and Marvin Harrison. Last year, there were 13 Syracuse alums on NFL rosters, including three who played five minutes from my home, for the New York Giants.
Syracuse may be known as fertile college soil for future media icons, but they’ve produced a conga line of high-end NFL players. And Fournette made them look like a Pop Warner club; defenders bounced off his bulging frame as though he were a full head above them on the evolutionary scale.
Yet Fournette can’t enter the next NFL draft. Why? Because the NFL says so. There’s no more nuanced or logical defense. He just can’t. And if he sits out next year, or pulls a Jadeveon Clowney and loafs his way through his junior year, he will be seen as a pampered, entitled teenager who’s had the world handed to him ever since he broke his first, spellbinding touchdown run.
We’ve heard the cynics. This rule is in place to protect the kids, whose vocational eyes are often bigger than their bellies. And if one or two young men are caught in the legal cracks out of millions of otherwise unaffected kids, then so be it.
Allowing sophomores to enter the NFL Draft doesn’t hurt anyone else. There’s no physical, spiritual or legal debris. It’s a legal transaction between a legal adult and a potential employer. We don’t care if a kid drops out of college to support his family in any other endeavor except college athletics. Then we morph into career counselors, lawyers and doctors.
Sure, a few kids will follow Fournette into the league long before they’re ready, and get lost in the breakneck speed on the field and tornadic life outside the lines. But such are the perils of freedom. No policy can keep a young man from making mistakes. And some kids are in such brutal financial shape that just one contract can boost his family life forever.
For his part, Fournette is playing the good teammate and company man, vowing not to leave his band of LSU brothers on the field. He says, for the record, he will not skip next year to guard his gifted body from the endless perils of his contact sport. Good for him. Word is he’s as modest as he is monstrous. But it’s not a choice he should be forced to make.
If the NFL just adopted the NBA’s policy — forcing young ballers to wait one year after high school — that would make exponentially more sense than this three-year purgatory the league imposes.
It speaks to a wider narrative. There’s an Orwellian feel to this argument, the idea that other people should make life choices for us. If our biggest mistake is we chased our dream a year too early, we’ve lived a largely healthy life.
Most of us would accept that mandate. Lord knows, Leonard Fournette would.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.