I Think Somebody Panicked in That Organization
“You look at it and you say, ‘Yeah, they made a mistake.’ It’s not something I focus on that much.” Dan Marino here describes the 1983 NFL draft, the one where he was selected second to last in the first round and John Elway first, the draft that is now best remembered for its quarterback class. Six were chosen during that first round, four of whom would go on to play in Superbowls, four selected for Pro Bowls, and three inducted into the Hall of Fame. Still, as Marino puts it here, so concisely and so vaguely too, that special draft also speaks to the fundamental problems of the process.
And so today, as the 2013 NFL draft gets underway, the story of that class three decades ago is instructive. Or, more accurately, the several versions of stories about it are instructive. And as these are assembled in 30 for 30: Elway to Marino, they form a beginning and an end, in the sense that then commissioner Pete Rozelle read names, draftees and their families posed for television cameras as they took their phone calls, and commentators commented on these names and took their own poses. It’s striking now, watching this now ancient-seeming footage (Elway did once look like the “surfer boy” his detractors claimed he was), that the show was so elaborate and so stagey, that before cell phones such efforts were made to set up selections and reactions so they looked—for TV—to be immediate and authentic.
The draft at the time was focused on the drama of the quarterbacks, mostly by setting up an opposition between Marino the truck driver’s kid from Pittsburgh and Elway the privileged coach’s son, a star at Stanford. Drama ensued when rumors leaked that Marino was using drugs at Pitt, and then Elway and his dad, Jack, made public their displeasure that he was the top choice for Baltimore Colts, asserting that he’d play for the Yankees (with whom he had a contract, and the film does note briefly the sorts of wrenches that George Steinbrenner was wont to throw into anyone else’s plans) rather than play for Robert Irsay’s organization. Marino, meantime, was drafted by the USFL’s LA Express, under whose auspices he remained for draft day, awaiting the moment when a team in the NFL would take what even then didn’t seem like so much of a risk.
These two players’ trajectories provide the film with a remarkable range of questions to ponder: How much power should a college player (and/or a famous father) wield in negotiations over that player’s future? How do GMs and scouts and owners and coaches negotiate their own needs and powers, as these might clash or coalesce? How much money makes enough difference in such negotiations? How can anyone trust anyone in this vipers’ pit? In the center of this pit was agent for both Elway and Marino, Marvin Demoff. A lawyer who decided he didn’t want to spend his life defending clients who were actually guilty. He turned to sports, he says, as if this might provide another sort of moral arena. The film doesn’t examine the potential inconsistencies or illogics I this assessment, the corruptions that help to define the NFL or the trading in college players especially, but instead appears to accept the opposition as Demoff presents it. Still, the unfolding plot makes clear the orchestrated craziness of event, the deals, egos, and vengeful schemes in play.
The characters in this plot were colorful, to be sure, ranging from Irsay and Rozelle to Art Rooney Jr. and Al Davis, but the film’s primary interviews are with the guys—and they are all guys—who were more or less behind the scenes, Demoff and Colts GM Ernie Accorsi. When Accorsi—against Irsay’s stated desire—chose Elway first, the day erupted, not so much into chaos as into ongoing uncertainty, as each pick that followed had something to do with when and how the Colts were then going to sell Elway, for how much and to whom.
The film dramatizes this uncertainty via multiple effects, a camera that swoops around the Sheraton Ballroom, where Demoff sits and recounts the theatrics, his reading of entries from his diary (only made public here), which amount to brief notes on meetings that occurred or transactions were likely or utterly undoable. That this diary has been used to promote the film—for the first time!—Is a bit of a gimmick. But the diary does lay out the systemic brutality of the draft, the sundry preparations, offers, and meetings, the promises, broken and kept, that make up the circus of draft day, the preparations before and during, the friendships strained or determined. In this, Demoff’s diary—and the film built around it—are fascinating, but not revelatory.
What Ken Rodgers’ film does very well is to lay out the effects of this circus on the young men who form its central spectacle. These are young men who are essentially bought and sold, some for lots of money, some for less, all for the benefit of someone other than them, someone who is much richer than they will ever be, someone who has all kinds of reasons - personal, professional, and sometimes pathological—for buying and selling young men.
This isn’t to say that Elway to Marino mounts a sustained analysis of the trafficking of college players, or that it looks forward even abstractly to today’s phenomenally lucrative and ethically compromised NCCA. But it does show, in the look-backs provided by Marino, Elway, and Accorsi too, as well as in the floating text that denotes the stats and careers of all players who were also chosen on that day, how events and personalities can collide, and how all the maneuvering and backstabbing can lead to unexpected ends. And so, the film contemplates the draft’s first round, say, quarterback Jim Kelly, who went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Bills, running back Michael Haddix, picked eighth by the Eagles and holder the record for the fewest average yards per carry for a player with more than 500 carries in the NFL, or defensive tackle Gabriel Rivera, drafted by the Steelers and then paralyzed in a drunk driving accident just a few months after the draft.
These stories may lead to more contemplation, of the vagaries of sports or perils of celebrity, the dangers of drinking and driving, the gambles that may or may not pay off. For all the necessary guessing, though, Elway to Marino makes clear that the men involved in this business, those on the block and those selling and buying, all have more at stake than they might imagine on that one day. They might make a mistake, but they can’t know until they do. And even then, they’ll be hard pressed to admit it.