Welcome to Throwbacks, a weekly-ish newsletter by Michael Weinreb about sports history, culture and politics.
One morning in late April of 1980, a fledgling cable television network engaged in a vaguely comedic attempt to weave a compelling narrative out of what seemed like the barest of threads. “Picture the Academy Awards with Billy Sims instead of Dustin Hoffman,” wrote one sports columnist in Florida, although this was not really what the first televised NFL draft was like at all, unless you equated Johnny Carson presiding over the Oscars with a sportscaster named George Grande presiding over a low-budget affair held in a Sheraton ballroom and broadcast at 8:45 a.m. on a Tuesday, on a channel that a vast number of American households had no awareness of and could not yet access on their televisions even if they wanted to.
“It’s just a room with some people on the phone,” one producer for that network, ESPN, had told his boss, network president Chet Simmons, and yet Simmons didn’t care if the broadcast was periodically stultifying, because he wanted his network to be affiliated with professional football in any way he could. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle didn’t care if it was boring, either, because for all of the concerns among league executives that the NFL would somehow reveal its trade secrets or cede too much publicity to the sports agents who represented college athletes, the additional media exposure in the midst of an otherwise yawning offseason presented no real downside.
But this was about to change. Lodged inside the largely positive review of that first draft from Fort Lauderdale News columnist Jim Sarni was a sentence that would soon become prophecy: “ESPN covered the draft like a political convention.” The network spoke to random fans; they predicted the draft picks, critiqued them, and interviewed them in real time (though, as Sarni wrote, when the network interviewed the wife of Billy Sims, the No. 1 pick, she “had nothing to say”). It offered, wrote one Iowa columnist, “a rare inside look at how teams build into powers in the future, or, in more cases, why they turn out such lousy excuses for football teams.”
This was the moment when we first came to realize that sports could be covered like politics on television (and eventually, we learned, politics could be also be covered like sports). This was also the moment when a 24-hour sports network—grounded in speculation and argument, in the ideas that would eventually come to define sports television and sports-talk radio and the currency of the Internet—suddenly seemed like a perfectly sensible idea. Those of us who were obsessed with sports wanted to absorb more of the narrative; we wanted to peek beyond the curtain and feel like insiders and experts, which is why a televised draft offered something that even a football game could not.
Before 1980, wrote Dave Anderson of The New York Times, the NFL draft was “the last newspaper story.” The draft wasn’t even broadcast on the radio, so hardcore nudniks and weirdos would phone the sports departments at various newspapers and ask them to read their team’s picks off the wire service reports that would stream onto their desk terminals. Information was at a premium, both for fans and journalists as well as for team executives; even into the 1970s, franchises would often draft players sight unseen, utilizing rolls of changes to making desperate last-minute pay phone-calls to college coaches in an attempt to track down a left guard. The 2020 draft, conducted from a social distance and presided over in Roger Goodell’s basement, feels like it could be a callback to that era.
And yet it won’t be the same, largely because the draft has become an industry to itself by now. The sheer volume of available information and pervasive technology means that draft picks rarely traffic in randomness (although perceived idiocy is another matter). In this era, there are no truly unknown prospects anymore.
Before 1980, the draft was interminably long, and the dearth of widespread knowledge about small-time college football meant the later rounds were a potpourri of novelty selections and longshot wagers on Kuwaiti-born kickers who attended the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. Teams would draft college basketball standouts like Kentucky’s Pat Riley (who played quarterback in high school) just for the hell of it, and they would draft high-profile track stars like Tommie Smith and John Carlos with the hope that one of them would turn out to be the next Bob Hayes. Al Davis once drafted a seven-foot tall defensive lineman, mostly because he was obsessed with height. With the final pick in the 1967 draft, the New Orleans Saints chose Providence basketball star Jimmy Walker (father of Jalen Rose), largely, it would seem, to establish the symmetry of Walker going first in the NBA draft and last in the NFL draft. (That final pick later became known as “Mr. Irrelevant,” which actually made it far more relevant than the majority of the other late-round picks.) At one point in 1972, the Washington Redskins attempted to draft John Wayne.
And while it was not meant to be a novelty pick, the Falcons chose a running back in the fourth round of that 1980 NFL draft whose name will forever resonate in the annals of college football. He was born Isaiah Moses Walter Hipp, in the small town of Chapin, South Carolina, but a savvy sports information director at the University of Nebraska realized one day that he’d stumbled upon one of the greatest monikers in college sports history.
Hipp was a star running back in high school until a shoulder injury his senior year led colleges to back off recruiting him. He’d become obsessed with the Cornhuskers in 1971, when, in the weeks leading up to the Game of the Century between Oklahoma and Nebraska, his friends on the playground all insisted on siding with Oklahoma, so Hipp chose to pull for Nebraska. So he borrowed $96 from his girlfriend, booked a one-way flight to Lincoln, and attempted to walk-on at Nebraska. The only problem is that the coaches had no idea who he was; one of them inexplicably referred to him as “Ezekiel.” But eventually, Hipp became a star at Nebraska, despite a series of injuries; when he left, he was the school’s all-time leading rusher.
And so it was that, with the 104th pick in the 1980 NFL draft, Atlanta selected I.M. Hipp.
Hipp never played a game for Atlanta; he bounced from team to team before giving up football altogether (as of 2015, he worked as a property manager in Virginia). And I know it’s a stretch to say I.M. Hipp served as some sort of bridge between modern football and post-modern football, but here was a young man who had come from nowhere to become something, thanks in part to the sheer alliteration of a name that felt as if it had been constructed for television. And he emerged at the very moment when the 24-hour churn of sports television took over American sports.
In retrospect, that 1980 draft was a dividing line: Suddenly, it was perfectly acceptable to obsess over sports beyond the games themselves, and far beyond the static pages of the morning newspaper. ESPN had “telecast a sports addict’s dream and made it work,” according to that Iowa sports columnist. Information became currency, and we couldn’t get enough of it. Jim Sarni, the Florida sports columnist, referred to ESPN as “the new toy for sports junkies,” and 40 years later—as we subsist in a world temporarily devoid of sports, and as the draft serves as one of the only fixes we’re able to cling to—a series of rooms filled with people on the phone now feels like a profoundly American event.
(Top Image: ESPN Front Row, which claimed that the NFL draft “netted one review,” in the Hartford Courant the next day. I found at least two others, and several previews, including one from the Associated Press.)
(Hipp Image: Lincoln Journal-Star)
Books: Those Guys Have All the Fun, by Jim Miller and Tom Shales
America’s Game, by Michael MacCambridge
YouTube: 22 Seconds of I.M. Hipp
(This newsletter is very much a work in progress. Ideas, thoughts, suggestions and veiled insults are welcome: My email is in my Twitter bio.)