The 1988 NFL Draft: A Day That Will Live in Infamy (or somewhere less dramatic)

Bumped from the fanposts. When I asked Anthony if he would be interested in doing some writing on BTSC this offseason, this is exactly the kind of stuff I had in mind -- stories. Good stuff. Thanks to him and the rest of you for keeping the discussions lively so far while we wait news on the lockout front. - Michael B. -


I'm not a huge NFL draftnik these days, but there was a time, way back in the 80's and early 90's, when I couldn't get enough of it. Especially the 80's.

My favorite draft day was 1987. That was the last year the event was held on Tuesdays, before it became almost a national holiday. My mom surprisingly let me stay home from school and I got to witness the Steelers select a future Hall of Fame cornerback in one Rod Woodson out of Purdue. I won't lie, I didn't know who Rod Woodson was before that day but I was still pleased as punch because all the experts said he was great and a steal and nobody could believe he dropped to the Steelers with the 10th pick in the first round. When Pittsburgh saw that he was still available, they wisely didn't waste any time selecting him and the rest is history.

That day was nice and awesome in every way. However, the 1987 draft isn't the one I want to discuss today. It's the 1988 NFL draft that I want to talk about.

Back before the Internet, I relied on newspaper features and rankings in-order to get my draft information. It was the week before the 1988 draft when I read the article that left me obsessed and salivating over that year's draft.

There was a little blurb in the paper about the Steelers wants and needs and it said that the team was looking at two running backs: John Stephens, a late riser out of Northwestern St. and Lorenzo White out of Michigan St.

When I read that, I was hooked. I was especially excited about the prospect of drafting White out of MSU. You see, he was a known name and believe it or not, back when I was a youngster in the 80's, I had an inferiority complex about the Steelers and didn't think anyone outside of the city respected them. The fact that they were pretty mediocre during that decade didn't help matters any.

Besides, when I was growing up dreaming of someday playing in the NFL, I fantasized about being a running back. I idolized Eric Dickerson, who was my favorite player as a kid. I wanted to run just like him. Of course, I didn't have the speed or the moves that he did, I was more like John Riggins or Earl Campbell. Nobody wanted to see my big butt coming at them with the ball.

After Franco Harris retired, the Steelers didn't really have a featured back to be proud of. They had Frank Pollard, who was nice, and Walter Abercrombie, who really wasn't much, but they didn't have a horse, someone to build the ground game around.

"If they could get Lorenzo White," I thought, "Maybe he could be that guy." Of course, it never occurred to me that White was projected in the second half of the first round (where the Steelers were drafting at 18) and all-world running backs are usually projected a lot higher. What did I know? I wasn't even old enough to drive yet. All I knew was that White was a name guy and if he could just last long enough for the Steelers to grab him, it would be pretty awesome.

1988 was the first year the draft would be held on a Sunday and I couldn't wait all week for it to start. I could hardly concentrate on school or anything else. In fact, some 23 years later, I can admit that I faked illness for a couple of days because I just wanted to stay home and read the draft previews. It's a good thing they didn't have the Internet back then or I may have missed an entire week of school.

I've never anticipated a draft day as much as that one. Since it was on a Sunday, I knew pesky school wouldn't be in the way and when I woke up the morning of the draft, it was like Christmas. I just counted the hours until noon when the first round would officially kick-off.

The Atlanta Falcons, owners of the number 1 overall selection, were free to talk contract with potential draft picks even before draft day and it was announced that they had come to terms with linebacker Aundray Bruce out of Auburn and they would formally announce him as their pick when the draft officially started.

Bruce turned out to be the poster boy for the saying: "Every draft is a crap shoot." He would go on to have a rather unspectacular career for the Falcons and Raiders.

The '88 draft wasn't thought to be very rich in talent but it did produce Neil Smith, Paul Gruber, Tim Brown, Michael Irvin, Keith Jackson, Randall McDaniel, and Thurman Thomas just to name a few.

While watching that draft, I don't recall anyone being home except my mom who was busy doing laundry all day.

I was all alone and enjoying it. I had a piece of paper and a pen by my side that I used to write down each selection as it was announced by the commissioner. I suppose I would have been better off using the pen and paper to do my homework, but I digress.

One-by-one, I saw each selection go off the board. Neil Smith was gone, so was Paul Gruber, Bennie Blades, Michael Irvin, Sterling Sharpe, etc, etc.

The New England Patriots were drafting 17th and Stephens and White were both still available. I knew that the Steelers would have a shot at at least one of those running backs. The Patriots announced their pick and it was John Stephens, running back out of Northwestern St. I jumped for joy. I was so happy! I went running around my house and even into the basement and I think I even had a towel in my hand. It wasn't a Terrible Towel, it was just a dish rag, but I was twirling it and screaming "We're gonna get Lorenzo! We're gonna get Lorenzo!" My mother must have thought I was nuts.

Finally, the Steelers would have that featured running back that I had been dreaming of. My whole week of anticipation was going to pay off. Lorenzo White was about to become the newest member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Just like in '87, the Steelers wasted no time in making their selection. The commissioner was up at the podium about a minute into Pittsburgh's allotted time. "With the 18th pick in the 1st round of the 1988 NFL player draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers select.............Aaron Jones, defensive end from Eastern Kentucky."

Remember the 4th down play in the Super Bowl when Ben Roethlisberger's pass fell incomplete and you knew Pittsburgh wasn't going to win their 7th Super Bowl? Well, I don't know how you felt, but I was numb. I tried to go about my business, but everything was a blur.

That would describe how I was feeling that day when I heard the name Aaron Jones. I tried to go about my business and write the selection on my little piece of paper, but instead of spelling Jones' first name the male way: "Aaron," I used the female version: "Erin." This was not meant to disrespect Jones or females in any way. I was either just in a state of shock or just plain dumb. I'd like to think it was the former, but it was probably a little of both.

I was completely depressed after this and I don't remember if I continued to write down the rest of the selections. I do know that Randall Mcdaniel, the future Hall of Fame offensive lineman, went 19th to the the Vikings and White went 22nd to the Oilers.

PITT's Craig "Ironehead" Heyward was even still available when Pittsburgh selected and eventually went 24th to the Saints.

In rounds 2 and 3, the Steelers selected a couple of centers in Dermontti Dawson out of Kentucky and Chuck Lanza out of Notre Dame. "Two centers," I thought. "Why are they doing this to me? Where are the sexy picks? The running backs? The receivers? Come on, Emperor!"

Later that evening, I was going over the position rankings in the newspaper and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Jones was ranked 2nd among defensive ends right behind Neil Smith. That gave me a little hope, but I was still pretty dejected. Maybe I wasn't paying attention to the local pundits (didn't really listen to sports talk radio back then) but I didn't hear anyone even mention the name Aaron Jones in the days leading up to the draft. But that ranking did sort of convince me that the Steelers really did make a great selection. I mean, the 2nd ranked defensive end in college. That's not bad.

"I'm in love with him," is what head coach Chuck Noll was quoted as saying about the selection of Jones. Noll apparently said the same thing a season before when he drafted Woodson so that had to be a good sign.

The draft concluded on Monday with the lower rounds and the Steelers did make a juicy selection (at least I thought so) when they picked running back Gordy Lockbaum from Holy Cross in the 9th round (the draft consisted of 12 rounds in those days.) Lockbaum finished 5th in the Heisman trophy voting in 1987 and I was happy that they got such a high-profile player. I was obviously too naive to know any better. Lockbaum didn't make the team in training camp and to my knowledge, didn't catch on anywhere else.

As I said, McDandiel went on to have an outstanding career that eventually led him to Canton. As for Lorenzo White? He had a fairly decent career in Houston and even made the pro bowl in 1992.

Unfortunately, Jones, despite making some bold sack predictions before his rookie year, never amounted to more than a journeyman defensive lineman throughout his career and was one of the last glaring examples of Noll's futile quest to duplicate the success of the 70's Steel Curtain.

No, the 1988 draft wasn't much to write home about for Pittsburgh in terms of sexy picks or even overall quality, but as I mentioned earlier, they did draft Dawson who would go on to have one of the best careers of any player taken that year and is widely regarded as the premiere center of his era and, more-than-likely, a future Hall-of-Famer. Also, the Steeler scouts did find a good player from Eastern Kentucky after all when they selected offensive tackle John Jackson in the 10th round.

Dawson and Jackson would go on to form the foundation of Pittsburgh's offensive line in the glory years that were the 1990's.

So, that 1988 draft taught me a lesson: Sometimes the sexy picks aren't always the best picks, and a draft class can still pay huge dividends even if it only produces a couple of productive players.

The Steelers didn't get Lorenzo, but they did get "Dirt" and as it turned out, they were much better off.

Still, though, in-spite of that valuable lesson, I will always look back on that 1988 draft with the kind of disappointment that is normally reserved for postseason losses.

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