With draft day fast approaching, I decided to take a meander down memory lane, and have a wee glance at the draft which I consider to be one of the strongest top five of all time—the almighty 1989 NFL draft.
Number one overall, HOF quarterback Troy Aikman.
Number three overall, HOF running back Barry Sanders.
Number four overall, HOF linebacker Derrick Thomas.
Number five overall, future HOF cornerback Deion Sanders.
You’re probably asking, "Who was number two in this once in a lifetime top five"? Who was the guy drafted ahead of Sanders, Thomas, and Sanders?
Well, it was Hall of Fame workout warrior, Tony Mandarich, who probably put in the greatest combine workout in NFL history. To such an extent that he made Sports Illustrated’s esteemed front cover, as “The best offensive line prospect ever.”
Mandarich was no one hit wonder. He had a stellar college career for Michigan State, being named as a first-team All-American, an Outland Award finalist, and a two-time Big Ten Lineman of the Year. But for all his obvious talent, he had “character issues” to match.
He was notorious for turning up to public meetings late, and sometimes drunk. He often missed team meetings because of hangovers. And of course, he notoriously laid out an open challenge to the then-heavyweight champion of the world, Mike Tyson, for a street fight, 2 weeks before draft day.
This wasn’t the guy to walk your mother to church on a Sunday.
However, his almost mythical workout numbers swept most of this under the carpet. A potential problem player became merely “eccentric.” “Troublesome” became “charismatic.”
And if you check out the guy’s combine, it’s hard not to see how teams got caught up in the moment.
Firstly, you have to understand that we are talking about a 6’6", 330-pound offensive lineman here. As a brief example, the top NFL line prospect in the '09 draft, Jason Smith, at an inch shorter, and 15 pounds lighter than Mandarich, put up these numbers:
· 40 time – 5.14 seconds
· Bench press – 33 reps
· Vertical leap – 25 inches
· Broad jump – eight feet
Jake Long, the uber-talented number-one overall pick of 2008:
· 40 time – 5.22
· Bench press – 37
· Vertical leap – 27 inches
· Broad jump – eight feet
That’s what we are talking here, in terms of an elite tackle prospect, and their combine performance. Now for Mandarich. I suggest you set your faces to “stun”.
Tony Mandarich, at 6'6" and 325 pounds, ran an official 4.65-second 40 time, meaning this beast of a man covered 40 yards faster than future HOF players Emmitt Smith and Jerry Rice at their respective workouts.
He was only marginally slower than 2009 studs Knowshon Moreno and Aaron Curry. At 325 pounds. Unthinkable. Incomprehensible.
And no, this guy was no one-trick pony. He bench pressed 39 times (only two less than dumbbell wonder Jonathon Ogden). His vertical leap was an unbelievable 30 inches. His broad jump was over 10 feet.
All figures that are rarely touched by tackles in any draft class.
This, my friends, was probably the greatest single workout in combine history. And along with some stellar tackle drills, elevated Mandarich from mid first round to second overall. His numbers made the Packers pass on three future HOF players for a guy who was fully recognised as a risk.
Like a lot of things that seem “too good to be true,” Mandarich was, sadly, too good to be true.
The whitewashed character issues soon came to a boil (such as calling Green Bay “a village” within months of joining the team), and Mandarich wouldn’t even start a game for the Packers for his first two seasons.
By then, the Packers had realized they had been duped, and soon shipped Mandarich out of Lambeau Field, and out of the NFL.
You see people, the whole Mandarich thing was a myth. A mirage. A carefully-planned assault by Tony on the NFL combine. To be fair to Mandarich, he knew the system and played it perfectly.
He managed to create this unbelievable shell for the scouts to drool over, but they were in no position to look at what lay beneath until they paid him big, and got him in training camp, to the determent of the Green Bay Packer coffers.
Mandarich was a steroid user, all through college. He faked his Rose Bowl tests weeks before the combine in fact, allowing him to sculpt a 330-pound bulk, with only 11 percent body fat. That, my friends, is how a 330-pound athlete works out like a 200-pound running back.
Slack testing laws in college and at the combine allowed Mandarich to abuse the system, and create this almost mythological projection of himself for the scouts. And make no bones about it, Tony planned it this way.
"I wanted to create as much hype as I could for many different reasons—exposure, negotiation leverage, you name it. And it all worked, except the performance wasn't there when it was time to play football."
However, becoming a professional athlete meant professional drug testing, and given a choice of fail (and default his multi million dollar contract) or fall, Mandarich chose the latter. His weight plummeted from 330 to 290 pounds in only a few seasons. His power and speed disappeared to such an extent that the Packers felt his only future in pro football was at the less-demanding guard position.
He dropped out of the NFL in 1998, making only 47 starts in 10 years. All the while, the Packers had to come to the realization that they passed on (Barry) Sanders, Thomas and (Deion) Sanders. For a combine myth.
The moral of the tale? The combine matters. But don’t rest your entire draft on it. Running a 4.7 forty doesn’t make you a bust (Rice). Running 4.65 for a tackle doesn’t make you a cert.
Just ask Tony Mandarich. The man that beat the system.