I was 16-years old, and I had just read a blurb in a local newspaper stating that, if he were available, the Steelers would likely select running back Lorenzo White of Michigan State in the 1988 NFL Draft, an event that was fast-approaching.
This made me very happy. This was a player I knew. This was a player I watched in college. This was a name that would make me jump up and down if it was called as Pittsburgh’s first-round selection.
And if the Steelers didn’t select White, the blurb suggested they could take John Stephens, running back, Northwestern State. I didn’t know Stephens at all, but he was a running back, and I loved running backs when I was a kid. I wanted to be a running back when I was a kid. My favorite NFL player at any given time was usually a running back in those days. Therefore, if Pittsburgh selected this Stephens fella, I would be okay with that.
Anyway, after reading that blurb, I started to really anticipate this draft that was literally just a week or so away. That’s right, the Internet didn’t exist, back then. Therefore, the coverage of the annual draft didn’t truly ramp up until a week or two beforehand.
But it was a quick acceleration from zero to 60 for yours truly, and I couldn’t have been more amped-up for the 1988 draft.
You know how you wake up every year on the day of the draft and exclaim, “Today is like my Christmas morning!”? When I woke up on the morning of Sunday, April 24, 1988, that’s exactly how the day felt to me.
I simply couldn’t wait for it to start, and when it did, I was enthralled. I had my little pen and notepad, and I would write down each name as it was selected—Audrey Bruce (1); Neil Smith (2); Sterling Sharpe (7); Michael Irvin (11); Gaston Green (14), etc.
When it was the Patriots turn on the clock at 17, both White and Stephens were still there. Since the Steelers were picking at 18, this meant that at least one of them would be available. This made me happy. I was even more excited when New England selected Stephens. When I heard that name, I ran around my house screaming, “We’re gonna get Lorenzo! We’re gonna get Lorenzo!”
Pittsburgh didn’t waste much time before handing its name to Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who stepped to the podium with card in hand:
“With the 18th pick in the first round of the 1988 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers select.....Aaron Jones, defensive end, Eastern Kentucky.”
I was devastated, but before that, I was stunned. So stunned, in-fact, I wrote Jones’ first name down wrong (Erin). It wasn’t an insult. I was just really, really out of sorts—like I had just received the worst news of my life.
Was it the worst news of my life? Of course not, but it was certainly the worst news of the day. I was all-in on Lorenzo (or at least John), but little did I know head coach Chuck Noll was about to take his fourth swing of the ‘80s at trying to recapture the magic of a Steel Curtain defensive line that reigned supreme in the previous decade.
It may not have been so bad had I actually been prepared. But there was no mention of an Aaron Jones in any article I read just before the draft. I didn’t hear any radio personalities or sports anchors mention his name as a possibility for Pittsburgh at 18.
It would also not have been so bad had Jones actually gone on to be a productive player.
I didn’t realize this at the time, but that ‘88 disappointment taught me to look at the big picture as it pertains to Steelers draft classes.
Why? For starters, their very next pick was a guard/center named Dermontti Dawson out of Kentucky. Yawn, right? Eight rounds after that, Pittsburgh went back to Eastern Kentucky to select a left tackle named John Jackson. Yawn and double yawn.
Obviously, you know the career Dawson had as the successor to Mike Webster at center. As for Jackson, his time as a left tackle in Pittsburgh wasn’t Hall of Fame-worthy, but he was one of the more consistent Steelers offensive linemen in recent memory, starting 130 games between 1989 and 1997.
Nope, neither guy’s name jumped out at me when they scrolled by on the bottom of my television screen (I was only allowed to watch the first round), but they would go on to form part of the nucleus of those awesome Steelers playoff teams of the 1990s.
Same for Carnell Lake, the linebacker from UCLA who was drafted one round after Pittsburgh selected both Tim Worley and Tom Ricketts in the first round of the 1989 NFL Draft.
Could you imagine if the Steelers had two first-round picks in this era? BTSC editor Jeff Hartman would probably have to hire more writers and podcasters to talk about it. Fans would have trouble sleeping in the days leading up to the draft. After the round-the-clock coverage, BTSC would likely have to change its signature to: “The Steelers had two first-round picks, and BTSC and Texxon were there.”
As you probably know by now, Worley’s career was quickly derailed by drugs, while Ricketts’ never actually got on track.
As for Lake, not only did he quickly make the transition from linebacker to safety in the NFL, he ultimately played the position at a Pro Bowl level. And when the need arose in 1995, thanks to the season-ending knee injury suffered by Rod Woodson, Lake played the corner position at a Pro Bowl level.
All-in-all, Lake played 10 years in Pittsburgh and is one of the more highly-regarded defensive backs in recent team history.
My anticipation and excitement for the draft began to wane after the ‘80s. Maybe it was because I was getting older. Maybe it was because the Steelers started winning more in the ‘90s.
No matter the reason, I stopped living and dying with each draft selection. Have I questioned many over the years? Sure, but I don’t seek euphoria or any sort of winning feeling from any player selected in any round—even the first.
It’s all about the big picture for me.
I guess Aaron Jones proved to be a valuable pick, after all.