SI Vault
George Plimpton
February 09, 1970
The author of 'Paper Lion' sits in on the Detroit pro football draft and learns about the market in rare gems
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February 09, 1970

Rubies And Diamonds

The author of 'Paper Lion' sits in on the Detroit pro football draft and learns about the market in rare gems

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The Detroit contingent arrives in Philadelphia the afternoon before last week's NFL draft: the Lions' coach, Joe Schmidt; Russ Thomas, who is the general manager; the chief scout, Jerry Neri; and Lyall Smith, who is in charge of public relations.

The official ritual of the draft will be performed in New York's Belmont Plaza Hotel, where the picks will be announced before the newspapermen and the television cameras. But the real work will take place in the home offices of the football teams, where the scouts and coaches or their representatives are gathered with their data, and, in the case of the Lions, Steelers, Eagles, Bears and Vikings, in the Eagles' offices.

The Lions check in at the Penn Central Motel. They go to Bookbinders' for dinner. The waiters tie paper bibs with lobster designs around their necks. Clams are ordered. Joe Schmidt offers a toast: "Well, men, a good draft." The big men with the bibs drink solemnly and then reach for the bags of steamers. Forks squeak against the shells. The football discussion begins. The speed of Steve Zabel, an Oklahoma tight end, becomes an issue. "He can do 4.8, I swear," someone says. He is referring to the number of seconds it takes an athlete to sprint 40 yards. Joe Schmidt snorts. "If he can do a 5.0 I'll blow a lunch in that guy's hat." He points to the chef behind the clam bar. He leans across the table. "It's like arguing about broads," he says.

The draft begins at 10 the next morning. Each of the individual teams takes over an executive's office. Jerry Neri sits behind a big teak desk. He has his tin box of 3-by-5 scouting report cards and a list of 11 players. Detroit has the 19th pick in the draft. Neri's desperate hope is that one of the 11 will still be available by the time Detroit's turn comes up. The names are Bradshaw, Cowlings, Olsen, Hardman, Stegent, Owens, Zabel, McKay, Asher, McCoy and Files. Cedric Hardman, a defensive end from North Texas State, is the man Neri would really like to get, but the chances are slim. Neri has a second list marked "seven who could help us for trade or depth: Farmer, Shanklin, Gillette, Burroughs, Phipps, Cappleman, Shaw." At the top of his projections for the second-round draft is Ray Parsons, a tight end from Minnesota. If all 18 names fall to other clubs, Parsons will be Neri's first-round choice.

The Lions depend primarily on Neri's astuteness as a scout for their picks. But they also have the counsel and research facilities of a group of a dozen or so scouts—the mysterious BLESTO-V—who comprise one of the three scouting services used by pro teams. These men are in an outer room, available for consultation—a surprisingly varied group whose only common characteristic is the big signet ring from his college days that each one wears.

Originally, BLESTO-V was called LESTO. It was put together six years ago by the Lions, Eagles and Steelers. Each team gave its first initial to the title, with the "TO" standing for Talent Organization. The Bears subsequently joined the pool, as did the Vikings, with their initials enlarging the group's name to BLESTO-V. After the Vikings won the NFL championship there was a mild move afoot to reposition the letters to read V-BLESTO, but the Super Bowl outcome ended that. Some interesting anagrams can be made of BLESTO-V (VOBLETS, for one), but Jack Butler, an ex-Steeler assistant coach who is the head of the organization, has kept his head. Some of the scouts wear the odd letters done up in red thread on their dark blazers.

The BLESTO-V scouts have a special numerical jargon. Superstars are identified as being in the range from 0.0 to 0.6. If a player is marked from 0.7 to 1.2 he is almost sure, according to the scouts, to make the starting team of whatever organization drafts him. If his grade ranges from 1.3 to 1.8 he'll make a 40-man squad; 1.9 to 2.4 indicates that he is a good prospect; from 2.5 to 3.0 the player is of questionable prowess, and anyone above 3.0 might as well pack it in and try something else.

The grades are derived from a complex form sheet that the scouts fill out, marking various categories pertinent to the player's position. The average is then determined, which is the player's grade. A perfect athlete in every respect—including character—would be rated 0.0, which has never been given. Indeed, Superman himself would be hard pressed to achieve it. The scouts would probably misjudge his "mild manner," his apparent backing down from confrontation, his age, of course, and he might very well end up with a 2.3.

The best rating ever scored on the BLESTO-V scale is O.J. Simpson's 0.4. This year the ratings were comparatively high. There were none in the zero range. The only ones designated as sure starters—that is, rated under 1.3—were Norm Bulaich, the running back from TCU and Mike McCoy, Notre Dame's defensive tackle, both rated at 1.0; Phil Olsen, Merlin's big little brother from Utah State (1.1); and Cedric Hardman (1.2). Terry Bradshaw was 1.3.

There is very little that goes through a scout's mind that does not translate itself immediately into a numerical evaluation. A pretty girl in a restaurant could be a 0.7. A stale Danish pastry will ring up a 3.0. Towns, their motels, get rated, too. When scouts consider a college they think of it numerically, and whether it is a "producer." Johns Hopkins is not a producer. It is a 3.0. Alcorn A&M is a big producer. It rates 0.4. So does Texas Southern.

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