Note: This story appeared in the 1996 post-draft print edition of Packer Report Magazine.
For a place known as the “War Room,” it was a relatively peaceful setting by the time the Green Bay Packers approached their fourth-round selection.
The emotional meetings where coaches campaign for their favorite players and draft strategy were long over. Now was the time to watch and wait, with a cool, collected demeanor. In a crowded room of more than 30 coaches, scouts, medical staff, pro personnel and administrators, the team prepared to add another soldier to their army on the second day of the 61st annual National Football League draft.
As ESPN2’s draft day coverage filled the background, former Green Bay linebacker and current scout John Dorsey, with a phone to his ear, belted out the latest picks. On the other end of Dorsey’s line was Packers video director Al Treml, the team’s representative at the draft headquarters in New York. Treml was the eyes of the organization that weekend, providing a rundown of the latest action taking place.
With each name Dorsey shouted, Eliot Wolf, the youngest son of Packers general manager Ron Wolf, removed it from their draft board and held it up for all to see as he carried it over to college scouting administrator Bryan Broaddus, who slotted the pick onto an adjacent board for draft selections.
BOARD OF POSSIBILITY
Two long, wooden tables absorbed the middle of the large room over green carpeting patterned with tiny Packer “G” emblems. Wolf and head coach Mike Holmgren were positioned at the longer of the two tables, along with pro personnel director Ted Thompson and college scouting director John Math. The head coach and general manager sat face to face with the infamous Packers draft board they’re always referring to in press conferences. A long, rectangular construction, it stretched out in front of them and beamed with possibility.
The top of the board had a list of positions, first offense and then defense. Down the left side were numbers one through seven, representing the rounds in the draft.
Players’ names were posted on the board at the point where the Packers expected them to be taken based on evaluations and scouting reports. Nearly 11 hours into the process, the board was beginning to take on the look of a barren cupboard, but as the players’ names came off, the Packers’ options were crystallizing. Would it be a guard to add to their offensive line “pile”? Maybe a defensive end to challenge for a backup position to Reggie White or Sean Jones? Perhaps a speedy running back? It would soon be known.
The other table was host to a collection of team scouts joined by pro personnel assistants John Schneider and Reggie McKenzie. Dorsey was perched at one end with the phone to his ear and a laptop computer at his fingertips. Against the back wall, in front of the board of already selected players, was Packers general counsel Lance Lopes, chief financial officer Mike Reinfeldt and President Bob Harlan, along with others. On the other end of the room was head trainer Pepper Burruss, seated at a table with team physicians Dr. Patrick McKenzie and Dr. John Gray. Huddled near the television listening to the draft stylings of Chris Berman, Mel Kiper Jr. and former Packers all-pro receiver Sterling Sharpe was offensive line coach Tom Lovat, running backs coach Harry Sydney, tight ends coach Andy Reid and administrative assistant Gary Reynolds. Behind the table with Burress and the doctors, defensive backs coach Bob Valesente was busy scouring through a wall of scouting video. Though it all, the clock was ticking.
BUZZING WITH ANTICIPATION
The phone in front of Wolf rang at 10:57 a.m. Covering his right ear to block out background noise; Wolf began to write something down on a notebook. A possible trade in the making? Only Wolf and those close to him knew for sure.
Minutes later, ESPN2 took a break from their draft updates to talk about the tragic death of Nebraska quarterback Brook Berringer, who died in a plane crash earlier that week and a quiet came over the room. Holmgren, whose back had been to the television most of the time, turned around in his chair to watch. After the Berringer piece had ended, calmness remained in the room. Dorsey broke the relative silence when, at the stroke of 11 a.m., he called out, “Chicago is on the clock.” The Bears went on to take defensive tackle Paul Grasmanis of Notre Dame with the 21st pick and Green Bay was now just six spots away from tabbing their man.
Dorsey continued his conversation, at one point mentioning Notre Dame guard Dusty Ziegler. Could this be the Packers’ next selection?
“Write it down and turn it over,” he added.
While Dorsey kept in constant communication with Treml, a table away Holmgren and Wolf had been joined by offensive coordinator Sherm Lewis, defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur and receivers coach Gil Haskell. The group began to engage in a mini-conference of their own. Holmgren leaned to his right toward Wolf and pointed to the draft board as they talked in hushed voices. Moments passed and Holmgren turned towards his medical staff to ask about Minnesota running back Chris Darkins. The response was a positive one. Lock on target.
Lewis walked over to Sydney and asked the running backs coach if he’d gotten a good look at Darkins. He had.
“He’s going to be the best guy on the board,” Lewis added.
“Take the best player available.” That was the refrain heard throughout the weeks leading up to the draft and the team was sticking to it. As the 28th pick of the fourth round neared, that player was starting to look a lot like Darkins, and the room began to buzz with anticipation.
The Packers had Darkins slotted right at the top of the fourth round for running backs. That was lower than some projections, such as Pro Football Weekly, which had Darkins going as high as the mid-second round.
If potential equals production, then Darkins could be one of the great steals of the 1996 draft. The 6-foot, 215-pounder had one of the best size-speed ratios of any player leaving college this year, and was recently timed at 4.39 in the 40-yard dash. He rushed for 825 yards and six touchdowns on 164 carries (5.0 average) during an injury-riddled senior year in which he played in only eight games. Against Purdue, he returned from a hamstring injury two weeks prior to pile up 294 yards on 38 carries in a 39-38 victory.
He was also the Big Ten Conference indoor champion in the 55-meter dash in 1996 with a time of 6.24, and aside from Texas A&M running back Leeland McElroy, had arguably the best all-around workout of any back at the NFL Combine. As a junior, the Houston native rushed for 1,443 yards and 11 touchdowns on a mediocre Gophers squad while also snaring 22 passes for 299 yards.
Darkins’ stock likely dropped because his injuries hadn’t allowed him to be seen against top competition like Michigan and Ohio State. He sat out both games, nursing s a high left ankle sprain. He also missed a game against Illinois after he re-injured his ankle the previous week against Wisconsin. Still, Darkins’ low-to-the-ground, explosive style and ability to wave through traffic would make him an intriguing addition to an already-solid backfield.
PACKERS ON THE CLOCK
“Darkins?” Holmgren said in a voice filled more with confirmation than question, following a quiet conversation with Thompson and Math. They nodded to the affirmative. Sydney then walked from his chair by the televisions over to the table where Wolf and Holmgren were seated and they began to talk.
The Packers were on the clock and the finger was on the trigger. But it wasn’t being pulled just yet.
“Let’s see if somebody calls,” Wolf said, insinuating a possible trade.
Sydney returned to his seat wearing a look of mild disappointment.
“I don’t think we’re getting him,” Sydney said as he leaned forward to consult with Reynolds.
But the phone in front of Wolf never rang during Green Bay’s 5 minutes to choose, so Wolf made a call of his own. At 11:20 a.m. on Sunday, the two-day wait by the phone ended for Darkins as he became the newest member of the Green Bay Packers. All eyes turned to the television screen where the pick would soon be flashed as Wolf stood and walked to the door of the War Room.
“Send it,” urged Dorsey to Treml, the man responsible for writing the team’s picks on a card and delivering them to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
Sydney got up and left the War Room. Any feelings of disappointment had clearly vanished as the running backs coach gained one more horse for the stable. Seconds later, ESPN2 made it official to the outside world, but inside the War Room it was business as usual.
TIME TO FACE THE MEDIA
The collected assembly in the Packers media auditorium viewed the ESPN2 footage of Darkins in action. It had barely ended when Wolf entered the lower-level room and stepped to the podium to discuss his latest acquisition. Before he could begin to speak, a local radio station began its live broadcast from the fourth row. Wolf smiled with amusement as the usual instantaneous questioning from the media hesitated for a few second before kicking in.
“Gee, that pick really excited you guys, huh?” Wolf said with a laugh.
That was all it took to get it going.
What do you like about Chris Darkins? What are his strengths? The questions came in rapid succession.
“I think strength is the conference he played in. That’s one of our favorite conferences,” Wolf said with a comedic dry wit. Then he got serious. “His size, his speed is all very attractive to us. The fact that he played on, not one of the upper-echelon type teams, but was the ‘bell cow’ for that team and did a pretty good job. You’re talking about a man that was the Big Ten 55-meter indoor champion. I’m not sure where he finished outdoors, but he was 224 pounds when he did those things. He’s obviously blessed with speed.
“He’s going to have to learn how to catch the ball more consistently. Although he played in a passing offense at Minnesota.”
Will Darkins be able to step in and give a break to Edgar Bennett?
“I think everyone is well aware that at this point and time we’re rolling the dice here,” Wolf said. “That would be nice if something like that occurred.”
Wolf admitted that Darkins’ ankle injury may have been the reason he lasted into the round he did. He went on to dispel any talk that Darkins’ running style was similar to that of former Packers first-round pick Darrell Thompson, also a running back from the University of Minnesota.
“Thompson to me was an angle running, a wishbone kind of back. Darkins can play out of a split backfield. That would be the big difference between the two,” Wolf said.
Neither is Darkins like LeShon Johnson, a former Packers backfield project who never worked out.
“Johnson was a bam-slam-bang kind of runner. This is a much different guy,” Wolf added.
While Darkins hopes to get a chance to get some carries, he will be challenged for those touches on the ball by second-year back Travis Jervey, a player Wolf compares Darkins to with his unique size-speed combination.
“Nothing’s going to be handed to him (Darkins), but he has an opportunity to shine in this type of offense because we believe in using players like that. That guy can be a genuine threat coming out of the backfield. We can take advantage of that,” Wolf said.
Darkins is hoping they do. He expressed as much in a conference call placed to him after Wolf’s departure.
“I think I’ll fit in pretty well,” Darkins said. “I think they needed a speedy back that can complement Edgar Bennett, and I hope I can be that person.”
But the first order of business was responding to his position taken in the draft, a place somewhat lower than he expected.
“I’m not disappointed at all,” Darkins said of his selection as the 123rd player overall and 18th running back selected. “Green Bay is a team that needs a running back with my style and I’m in a great position right now.”
Concern eventually turned toward his ankle, the main culprit which landed him in a green and gold uniform come the fourth round. He assured everyone that it’s fine now. Evidence included his 55-meter conference championship and his times of 10.29 seconds in the 100-meter and 21.7 in the 200-meter dashes.
As for his pass catching ability, a crucial ingredient for any back in Holmgren’s offense, Darkins said he was very comfortable catching the ball out of the backfield, but could always improve on that and his other skills. How much he improves and how the skills he possesses translate to the professional level will determine if he’s another fourth-round gem like receiver Andre Reed of Buffalo, defensive end Charles Haley of Dallas or Seattle running back Chris Warren — or just another fourth-round pick.
Darkins would be doing well to follow in the footsteps of a fourth-round success story right here in Green Bay. Someone that Wolf selected in his first draft as Packers GM and someone Darkins will soon be getting to know quite well: Edgar Bennett.
“Four years ago when we sat here, we talked about another fourth-round draft choice while everyone was yawning and he gained a thousand yards this year,” Wolf said. “So we’d hope that same type of thing would occur here with Darkins. He certainly possesses the ability that is so necessary to participate in the game today. He’s blessed with unbelievable speed and athletic gifts. You look at the competition he’s played against, and I think he’s got an excellent chance of succeeding.”
So does Darkins. Now all he has to do is prove it.
W. Keith Roerdink has covered every Packers draft since 1994 and will be crisscrossing his way between Chicago and Green Bay this year. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.