CINCINNATI -- The 2017 NFL Draft starts Thursday. On Friday, coverage of the 2018 draft will begin.
The draft is probably the most-covered, most-talked-about, most-argued event on the sports calendar that’s not actually a contest. Football writers are on their 18th version of their mock drafts. ESPN might as well be called the Draft Channel this week.
But it wasn’t always this way.
Bob Johnson, the Bengals' first pick ever and second overall pick in 1968, says he heard from one team prior to the draft. The morning of the draft -- yes, it was in the morning -- he went to class at the University of Tennessee. His wife, Jane, took the call from Paul Brown.
“When I got back, she asked me what a Bengal was,” Johnson said.
If Johnson were in this year’s draft, he’d be in at the Philadelphia Museum of Art at Eakins Oval, where the draft show is aired, with a camera crew following him.
There’s a Cincinnati connection to the growth of coverage and scrutiny of the draft. Before there was Mel Kiper and the long list of other draft experts, there was Jerry Jones.
“Jerry was into the draft before it was cool,” longtime NFL coach Dick LeBeau once said.
Jones owned a pharmacy in Mariemont and was a draftnik before there was such a thing. Jones started following the draft as a hobby. In 1978, he began publishing The Drugstore List, a 30-some page pamphlet with his breakdown of each position.
Jones published it until his death in 2012.
The media loved Jones. He was a nice guy who would always return your call. He was remarkably good with his predictions and remarkably humble.
“I miss that guy,” WLW Sports Talk host Lance McAlister said. “I think of him every year at this time. I had him on every year multiple times a week and live during our draft shows. The guy had no ego. He was simple and basic in his approach.”
It was Sports Talk that got Jones his first big media break.
“It all started by accident,” said Bob Trumpy, the original Sports Talk host. “He was bored to death and started putting together his list. He sent me it. I’m like, ‘What the hell is this?' It had Mariemont, Ohio on it. 'Who is this guy?’ I didn’t pay much attention to it really.
“It wasn’t a book. It was sheets. We would do the draft live. I’m looking at it. I’m like, ‘Holy Christ, this guy knows what he’s doing.' When the draft was over, I called him.
“I said, ‘Look, I don’t know who you are, but your list was almost perfect.' I said, 'Come down here. I want to meet you.' That’s how our relationship began.”
Trumpy would have Jones on his show three or four times before the draft and on the day of the draft.
Trumpy’s description of the Drugstore List is spot-on. Jones typed the early one on a typewriter. The sheets were stapled together. The cover was gold with a drawing of a quarterback handing off. It was the opposite of slick.
But the information was top-rate. Jones sold the list for $13 the last year it was published. Trumpy would see copies on general managers' desks when he'd go in to do games for NBC.
When I covered University of Cincinnati and Miami University football, I’d make a call to Jones before the draft. If a player was even a fringe prospect, Jones could give you a rundown on him: His size, his 40 time, etc.
Jones had the respect of NFL insiders. Gil Brandt, the legendary Dallas Cowboys’ personnel director, endorsed The Drugstore List. “It’s the best prospect list put out by someone who’s not working for an NFL team,” read Brandt’s testimonial.
Jones was close to Bengals owner Mike Brown. Jones would be the only non-employee in the Bengals war room on draft day.
Those insiders helped with compiling the list. But Jones spent five or six hours a day year-round working on the list, capturing as many college games as possible from his three VCRs.
Jones kept score on his work. He told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2012 he correctly predicted 77 percent of both the top 50 and top 100 selections between 2007 and 2011.
“He put the info together and got it out in a simple form that was easy to understand,” McAlister said. “I loved the draft guide. No glitz. No glamour. Just solid info. One of the easiest and nicest people I have ever worked with. Nothing better than going to the mailbox to find his draft guide.”
John Fay is a freelance sports columnist; this column represents his opinion. Contact him at email@example.com