BY GAIL GLEASON
Originally published March, 2001
The NFL is gearing up for its annual draft of college talent next month. The mere thought of it puts a pit in my stomach.
A year ago, my son Steve Gleason and I had planned to enjoy our last Mom's Weekend together at WSU. For the first time in his tenure in Pullman he wasn't running between baseball games and the Crimson and Gray football game. In fact, after watching the spring football finale on Saturday, we just planned to chill at his house on Sunday with a barbecue while we endured the suspense of day two of the NFL draft.
Today, nearly 365 days removed that draft, I have two thoughts: First, that the BBQ was a great idea. And second, that the draft is a cruel and grueling experience.
No matter how much you try to be realistic and levelheaded about your chances, it is a gut-wrenching two days. The facts are that only 3 percent of high school athletes make it to the college level. And only 3 percent of college athletes make it to the professional level.
Local heroes don't always make it to the next level, no matter what their fans say. If Steve could have a dollar for every fan who told him he's so good they just know he'll make it, he wouldn't need a signing bonus. Through it all, he would say, "Well, I don't have a lot of say in where I'd play," or "We'll see what God has in mind."
Of course, it didn't help matters that Steve hurt this ankle badly late in his senior season. He was leading the Pac-10 in tackles at the time.
Because he didn't play the last three games, he went from first to fifth in tackles and from a probable first-team all-Pac-10 pick to second team. And, for whatever reason, he wasn't chosen for any senior all-star games or the NFL combine tryouts. So we knew ahead of time that his draft outlook was uncertain at best.
Most "experts" projected that Steve was too small to play linebacker in the NFL, which is the position he played in college, but that he could probably play safety or cornerback. For that, he needed to lose weight and pick up speed and work out in a different position than he was used to --to learn a new position at the pro level in a matter weeks.
THE OFF SEASON, he worked hard to rehab his injured ankle and to work on the new position. NFL teams came to WSU to have him and other seniors work out for them. His tryouts were good; his times were good. He adjusted to the new position--running backward and making interceptions. (His experience in centerfield came in handy there.) Every scout told him he should be chosen somewhere--if not drafted, for sure as a free agent. Some said they couldn't understand why he wasn't at the combines or in the Senior Bowl. Some said they would be pushing to have him picked in the draft if he was still around in the sixth or seventh round.
I knew in my heart the NFL would know a good thing when they saw it. A three-year starter. A Rose Bowl starter. A team leader. A good student. A workout fanatic. An all-around good athlete with great speed.
Steve chose an agent whose job it was to send his films and stats to all the NFL teams and to talk to them about him. Teams called. In the end, about 12 teams came and scouted him. In the last week before the draft, three more called and talked to him; some saying we want you to come and play for us. Interestingly enough, some of them wanted him as a linebacker - the position he'd played in college.
Through it all, he kept trying to be level-headed and realistic about his chances. He kept telling admirers -- people who are Cougar fans for whom he's a big fish in a small pond - that we'd have to wait and see.
MOM'S WEEKEND, we pretty much knew he wouldn't be picked on Saturday in the first four or five rounds, and that realistically, it would be on Sunday in the late sixth or seventh if he went he is small, but as reports said, quick and intelligent.
The biggest drawback was that he was projected by the "experts" to go as a cornerback or safety which is more appropriate in the NFL for his size and speed, but he had not played that position in college, so he was an unknown. Will they be willing to risk a draft pick on an unknown?
Even though we knew he wasn't going in the early rounds, we couldn't help but watch what the teams who had scouted and contacted him were doing to keep track of whom they had chosen and how many picks they had left - to see if he still had a chance with them.
Saturday, during the first rounds, we went to the Crimson and Gray game and stood on the sidelines. We were trying to get our mind off the draft, but Fox TV was filming the game and the sideline reporter stopped to interview him about the draft. He told the reporter that he knew it was a 50/50 chance to be drafted, but he was sure he'd have a shot as a free agent. He laughed at the end and said, "We'll see what happens. I just want a shot."
As we left the scrimmage, fans came up and thanked him for how he had played and wished him well.
All Steve wanted to do on Saturday was keep his mind free and hang out with his friends and their moms. Up to this point, things were pretty relaxed and enjoyable, which is what we needed. Then we went someplace to see if we could dance. And that was nuts! The whole atmosphere and attitude changed. People who had known him when he was little or in high school lay claim to him. Drunk people wanted pictures and hugs and to tell him they just knew he was going "in the sixth to the Giants."
One mom hugged him, then told her daughter she should have pinched his butt. Steve didn't hear this, but I did! One very strange person just wouldn't go away. When Steve ignored him, he went to the next ball player. When they all ignored him, he started on the moms! Now, I know why athletes are sometimes rude to fans; I wanted to punch the guy!
I want patience, Lord, and I want it now!
Steve handled it much better than I did, but he told me, "Now you know why I just stay home or hang with my friends." We decided to go do just that.
WE JUST HUNG OUT at his apartment Sunday with his cousin, Brendan, and his roommates, fellow football players Austin Matson and Wendell Smith, and Austin's girlfriend, Jen.
We watched the draft on ESPN. Fourth round, nothing.
Where are the PAC-10 players? We flipped over to tennis or the car races frequently. Fifth round, nothing except, now and then a, "Hey, I know that guy. Remember when so and so tackled him in that game?"
I worked on my taxes—talk about nerve wracking!
Even though we were trying to be calm, every time the phone rang, we would jump. Wrong number. Another senior player--no nothing here either. Part way through the sixth round, the phone rang again. It was the Jets! They wanted to let Steve know he was still on their list, but they only had one pick left. If they didn't choose him, they would want him as a free agent.
Then the phone rang again. It was Steve's agent. The Colts called and said the same thing as the Jets. Then they called Steve as well, saying the same thing. San Francisco did the same. His agent called them all back to let them know other teams want him as a free agent too.
So I'm thinking, just draft him already so his poor mother can relax.
Interestingly, all of them wanted him as a linebacker - -not a safety. How ironic! Why then, all the work in the off season to lose weight and practice the safety position? Why then be promoted to all those teams as a linebacker who might be able to adjust to the safety position?
What if ...? What if...?
I say, if they call back again, tell them ... oh, I don't know what to tell them! Except, call and draft him already or don't call at all!! Steve says it will all work out, Mom. (Whose child is this, I ask? He's so calm it's irritating.)
Some of the teams that had scouted him or contacted him earlier in the week still had two or three picks left, even in the seventh round. Not a lot of safeties have been chosen so far. We watched as a linebacker from the Pac-10 got drafted. Not as good or quick as Steve, not as many tackles, but bigger. Someone from a school we never heard of takes another spot. A Michigan linebacker he had played against in the Rose Bowl goes to another team who had scouted Steve. Some guys who were supposed to go in the third round are finally chosen.
INDIANAPOLIS CALLS AGAIN and again. "We still want you, we're fighting for you." Their pick comes. Most of the teams have chosen pretty quickly in this round - Indianapolis takes a long time. Finally, they make their pick; it's not Steve. They call again right after their last pick - "We still want you as a free agent."
The three teams who had called still had picks left. Cincinnati, Cleveland, and the Giants had all scouted him. They still have picks left. There's Rob Meier's name --a Wazzu teammate finally gets picked! By Jacksonville in the seventh. Good for him. Down to the last picks. Cincinnati and Cleveland fill their spots. Chicago chooses dead last - " Mr. Irrelevance" is what the last pick is called. Ouch. Just as well for Steve not to get that label.
Soon, Steve's agent is on the phone. He's heard from the Colts too, and SF and NY. He'll get back to us. The Colts called again. Steve says, "I'm waiting to hear back from my agent about SF and NY." The Colts call right back; they can't get through to his agent. The agent calls; he can't get through to NY and SF.
Steve says, "I want to go where I have the best chance of making the team."
Let's look at all of this -- weigh the pluses and minuses. The Colts have Peyton Manning and Edggerin James They were one game from the Super Bowl. They want Steve as a weakside linebacker, which is what he played at WSU, so he won't have to learn a new position. They say he'd be penciled in at second string because they don't have a backup there. Steve checks the Internet to see their position chart. It's true. He checks the Internet again to see who else they drafted. Hmmm, they didn't draft a safety - he could do that too. He could do their special teams as well. They told him if he came there, he'd make it. They've called a bizillion times - they really want him there.
Where the heck is Indianapolis?
Steve's calling Ken his agent. He asks some questions. Okay, he'll call them -- he's going to try to get more signing money. He's on the phone with both the Colts and Steve. They go for the "big" money -- from $4,000 to $6,000 - that's more than any of Ken's other free agents get this year.
It's a deal!
ALL THAT WAITING. All that angst. And bam, decisions are made and deals finalized in a matter of moments. This is crazy.
Ken's off the phone; the Colts fill Steve in. Mini camp in two weeks. Another camp later. August is the beginning of regular camp. Five pre-season games. Does he have a passport? One pre-season game is in Mexico City. They'll Fed Ex everything to him. Do they have his address right?
Steve walks into the front room where everyone is waiting and says, "I'm done with college. I have a job. I'm an Indianapolis Colt. I have a shot!
"That's all I want. Thank you, Jesus!"
Send an e-mail to a hundred people who want to know.
Teammate Earl Riley calls. He's going to Kansas City. Is that near Indianapolis? Looks close in the atlas -- hmmm, maybe not. Well, we'll play one another. That will be weird. Earl got $5,000 to sign.
A friend calls who works for the Seahawks PR department. She says the Seahawks first pre-season game is in Seattle -- against the Colts! Great, friends and family can make it. (Ninety-five of them come to the game.)
We don't barbecue. Austin goes and picks up Chicago-style pizza. June Salters, a high school teammate's mom, comes over. She brings salad and champagne.
We thank God and toast friends and family and the future.
The phone rings. It's the Steelers. We want you to play safety. Too late. I'm a Colt. Oakland calls. We want you as a linebacker. Too late, I'm a Colt.
Shoulda drafted him, ya bums!
THE FACT IS he still has to make the team. Even veterans will be cut before the season starts. Even those who were drafted in the early rounds will get cut. Free agents are low men on the totem pole and most of them get cut -- but he's got a shot.
That's what he wanted.
He also has a degree in Management Information Systems, lots of true friends and family and a strong faith to fall back on. And he will never have to go through the draft again!
Brendan and I pack up to leave for Spokane. Steve's roommates are playing a computer football game -- WSU and Michigan in the Rose Bowl. Steve's computer self sacks the quarterback. Steve's real self is asleep in a chair.
Bye Sweetie. It's been a nice Mom's weekend. Lord bless your rest. Sweet dreams.
2005 EDITOR'S EPILOGUE: Steve was cut by the Colts on the last day of the Y2K pre- season, 15 minutes before regular season rosters had to be finalized. He had signed with Indy as a linebacker, but was moved to safety. When the Colts cut him, Coach Jim Mora told him he didn't have what it takes, but his position coach takes him aside and tells him he'll make it in the NFL.
After tryouts with several NFL clubs, the New Orleans Saints picked him up mid-way through the season and he became a special teams mainstay right on into the playoffs, immediately followed by a season with the Rhein Fire of NFL Europe.
He just completed his fourth season with New Orleans, where he has become a fan favorite and one of the most respected special teams players in the NFL.
From the CF.C archives: A mother's chronicle of her son's introduction to the NFL
BY GAIL GLEASON