In 1966, the NFL draft wasn’t as big a deal as it is now. The names were listed on a chalkboard. The top prospects weren’t even invited.
But it was still a big enough deal that the league hired a private detective to discourage Tom Mack from signing with the fledgling Miami Dolphins of the rival American Football League.
The NFL draft was held on Thanksgiving weekend. Mack, a longtime resident of Henderson who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999, was feasting on turkey and all the fixings at his parents’ home in Bucyrus, Ohio.
His father, Ray, a former all-star second baseman for the Cleveland Indians, was at the head of the table. Tom had brought his girlfriend, Ann, whom he had met on a blind date at the 1965 Rose Bowl, home to meet his folks.
“A fellow from the Los Angeles Rams showed up and interrupted Thanksgiving dinner,” recalled the former Michigan stalwart. Instead of pumpkin pie, there were contract negotiations.
The Rams promised they would take the offensive lineman in the first round if he would rebuff the Dolphins. Ann typed up the contract.
“They did a full-court press and flew us to New York for the draft,” said Mack, who was selected No. 2 overall after the Falcons erased Texas linebacker Tommy Nobis’ name from the big chalkboard at the Summit Hotel.
He still has an old scrapbook with a picture of himself with NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and Ann taken at the draft.
Mack laughed when recalling that. He said in the picture, his wife of 53 years is identified as his friend from California.
Guard rejects tackle
Guys never forget where they were on draft day.
George Kunz, another longtime Las Vegan, was the second overall pick in the last combined pro football draft in 1969. The only name called before his: Orenthal James Simpson, running back, Southern California.
The NFL draft was an inexact science then. Kunz figured he would get selected and it didn’t matter by whom, so long as it wasn’t Chicago. The Bears were notorious for underpaying rookies, he said.
Falcons coach Norm Van Brocklin had given him the heads-up that Atlanta would select him after the Bills took O.J. Kunz, a consensus All-America offensive tackle at Notre Dame, was more concerned about the Selective Service draft than the NFL one.
Because this was during the Vietnam war, the Falcons, after flying him to Atlanta, encouraged him to join the National Guard to fulfill his draft obligations.
“The day before draft day, they took me down to the Atlanta administration building for the National Guard to get me in,” Kunz recalled. “They saw that I had an ACL surgery, and I’ll never forget the captain there saying “Whoops!”
Instead of the Mekong Delta, he would fight in football trenches. Kunz made the Pro Bowl eight times during a nine-year span during which he was considered one of pro football’s premier offensive linemen.
After meeting the Atlanta media and returning to Notre Dame, Kunz said the phone rang in the room he shared with Fighting Irish defensive back Tom Quinn. It was assistant coach Abe Gibron of the Chicago Bears, who had selected Quinn in the 13th round.
Quinn thought Kunz was playing a joke when he delivered the message.
The Bears cut Quinn during training camp and probably did him a favor, Kunz said. His roomie returned to Notre Dame, got his master’s degree and became a senior vice president for a major hospital supply company.
Rocky Mountain high
The 1991 NFL draft was at the Marriot Marquis in New York. Mike Pritchard, the former Rancho High standout who starred on Colorado’s 1990 national championship team, was not invited. Pritchard was projected as a second-round pick; he said he was still sleeping when the teams started making their selections.
He was awakened by a call from the Dallas Cowboys. Then he received another one from the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Unbeknownst to Pritchard, Notre Dame’s Rocket Ismail, projected as the first overall pick, had signed instead with the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts. Herman Moore and Alvin Harper were quickly taken off the board, and teams that were looking for help at wide receiver suddenly were scrambling.
The Falcons drafted Pritchard in the first round, 13th overall. He was in his underwear when he got the news. The Falcons said he had an hour to get to Denver to catch a flight to meet his new bosses and the media down there.
“If anybody knows the distance, getting there in an hour was going to be difficult,” Pritchard said of the 45-mile commute from Boulder, Colorado, to the old Stapleton Airport.
He made it.
Pritchard said somebody should have put a stopwatch on him as sprinted to the gate. He said he felt like O.J. hurdling airport stuff in those Hertz commercials.
Being drafted in the first round was one of the highlights of his football career, he said. But he didn’t have time to share it with anyone until he touched down in Atlanta.
“My world was changing, and I couldn’t even call my parents,” said Pritchard, who would catch 422 passes for 5,187 yards and 26 touchdowns during his nine-year NFL career.
He was cruising at an altitude of 30,000 feet. In first class. Pritchard said it was the first time he had ever flown up front with the curtain drawn.
Welcome to the NFL, young man.
Catching a draft
Draft round selection of selected football players with Las Vegas ties:
— Hugh McElhenny, Washington, Round 1, Detroit Lions (1952)* **
— Tom Mack, Michigan, Round 1, Los Angeles Rams (1966)* **
— George Kunz, Notre Dame, Round 1, Atlanta Falcons (1969)*
— Gerald Riggs, Arizona State, Round 1, Atlanta Falcons (1982)*
— Mike Pritchard, Colorado, Round 1, Atlanta Falcons (1990)
— Steven Jackson, Oregon State, Round 1, St. Louis Rams (2004)*
— Randall Cunningham, UNLV, Round 2, Philadelphia Eagles (1985)*
— Ickey Woods, UNLV, Round 2, Cincinnati Bengals (1988)*
— DeMarco Murray, Round 3, Dallas Cowboys (2011)*
— David Humm, Nebraska, Round 5, Oakland Raiders (1975)
— Frank Hawkins, UNR, Round 10, Oakland Raiders (1981)
** Pro Football Hall of Fame