Training camp showcases surprises

Packer training camp never fails to introduce a slate of names that rarely see ink after Labor Day. Summer is the season to speculate on whether we're getting the first glimpse at a future superstar, or witnessing someone's paltry 15 minutes of fame.

Every year packs it own surprises; this year will certainly be no exception. But one memorable training camp brought a whole slew of stories that were entertaining at the time, then understandably erased by the incredible season which followed. Let's look back at training camp 1996, and remember a few of the characters that put their personal stamp on Clarke Hinkle Field.

Kyle Wachholtz The Packers drafted USC's Kyle Wachholtz in the seventh round in the 1996 draft. Brett Favre was then 26 and the reigning MVP. The best-case scenario for the rookie would be to earn the third QB spot, in hopes of joining the parade of backups who rarely played, but learned from the best in Green Bay then moved on. The system worked for Mark Brunell, Ty Detmer and later Matt Hasselbeck. So in '96, talk turned to Wachholtz - would he the next to roll of the QB factory line?

Riding the bench would have been nothing new for Wachholtz - he started just two games in four years at USC. Learning from the bench would be a new challenge, however.

Wachholtz's numbers were simply terrible. All of them. His stats at USC were dismal, but his off-field stats were worse. He was academically ineligible to play in 1994, and a 1.9 GPA prevented his attempt to transfer to Colorado State. Later, his score on the Wonderlic, an intelligence test used by the NFL, made him the object of ridicule. Wachholtz scored only a 12 -- reportedly one of the lowest among draft-eligible quarterbacks.

Asked by a reporter at minicamp his potential to become a more cerebral player, Wachholtz paused, then asked what "cerebral" meant. The odds of Wachholtz grasping Mike Holmgren's complex West Coast system appeared quite slim.

As the preseason slate approached, Wachholtz's numbers didn't look much better. He completed 2 of 7 passes in the teams' intersquad scrimmage, then was ruled unready for the exhibition opener against New England. Despite the struggles, Wachholtz survived the first wave of cuts. Instead, the first QB voted off the island was Alabama's Jay Barker, a fifth-round pick.

Wachholtz ended up on the practice squad, and was promptly forgotten in the storybook season which followed. Ask most fans about Wachholtz's tenure in Green Bay, and most would be hard-pressed to remember anything after his stint as training camp clown. While the USC product doesn't show up on the Packers' all-time roster, he did manage to spend a few summers in Green Bay.

Why did Wachholtz stick around? He had size (6-4), athleticism, and multi-sport ability as he was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 1991 MLB draft. Wachholtz was also versatile, making a move to tight end the following year. At that position he saw pre-season action before the axe eventually fell.

Richie Cunningham From hero to unemployed, then back to hero again. Such is life in the NFL.

Kicker Richie Cunningham provided an entertaining storyline for fans during the 1996 preseason, and not only because of his name.

Cunningham was brought in as training camp competition for veteran Chris Jacke. Not an unusual move, but one that reportedly caused hard feelings for Jacke in what turned out to be his final season in Green Bay.

The unknown kicker didn't bring much of a pedigree to the Pack. He made just 67 percent of his field goals at Southwest Louisiana, then was cut twice since his first NFL experience in camp with the Cowboys in '94.

Early in Packers camp, Cunningham made a dubious name for himself by failing to connect on a pressure-packed kick. How do special teams' coaches create pressure situations during camp? By gathering a star-studded defense around to watch, then declaring that if the kicker connects on a long field goal, the defense will be granted a two-hour curfew extension. In his first such manufactured test, Cunningham missed. The 5-foot-10, 167-pound youngster had to walk past the likes of Reggie White, Gilbert Brown and LeRoy Butler on his way off the field.

The next time Cunningham faced high stakes in a Packer uniform, things were different. He connected on a 42-yarder to give the Packers a last-second 17-15 exhibition win over Baltimore at Memorial Stadium on Aug. 17, 1996.

"I've had a couple of pretty big college kicks but this is definitely big as far as my career in the NFL," Cunningham said afterward. "Chris (Jacke) is a great kicker. My thing was to come to practice and give it my best shot and make a good showing. I've had a great camp and that goes a long way. Coaches talk to other coaches. That's what I'm hoping for. We got a great bunch of guys here and it's good to win one for them."

Two days later, Cunningham was cut. It wasn't a surprise, as the Packers retained their veteran kicker, but the move was an example of how quickly fortunes can change in the NFL.

Fortunately for Cunningham, his clutch performance served as great publicity in his quest for another job.

The Cowboys were must have been watching. They picked up Cunningham, who went on to success in Dallas. Cunningham replaced Chris Boniol, who followed free agency to Dallas. The newcomer didn't waste much time becoming a clutch performer for the Cowboys. In 1997 he gave them a win over arch-rival Redskins with a game-ending 42-yard field goal in his first season.

Cunningham didn't get a chance to repeat his heroics on Lambeau Field the following week, but he did make two extra points and a field goal as the Packers pummelled the Cowboys 45-17 on Nov. 23, 1997 to break an 8-game losing streak vs. Dallas.

Cunningham went on to a successful career, the Packers parted ways with Jacke but found a true gem in Ryan Longwell -- Happy Days for all.

Alan DeGraffenreid This little-known receiver provides another cautionary tale about how one can do everything right and still have things turn out wrong.

DeGraffenreid should be remembered by the railbirds of '96 as the one diving for catches, leaving defenders in his dust and reminding every one of a young James Lofton. Praised by coaches and teammates, the Ohio State product brought size (6-2) and speed to the table.

The only thing DeGraffenreid didn't have was luck. He waded into the Packers' WR waters when they were stocked with talent. The competition included Robert Brooks, Antonio Freeman, Don Beebe, Terry Mickens and Anthony Morgan. Also standing in DeGraffenreid's way were combination receiver/returnman Desmond Howard and second-round draft pick Derrick Mayes.

While Howard's receiving abilities were not impressive in camp, his real value was as a returner, and we all know that story ended with him holding the Super Bowl MVP trophy. Mayes, unfortunately, turned out to be a bust and the Packers wouldn't have lost any ground by giving his spot to DeGraffenreid. At the time, however, Mayes' potential was sky-high and a second-rounder would never be cut loose without a solid shot.

DeGraffenreid was used to being an "outsider." He walked on at Ohio State as a 150-pound place-kicker and eventually earned a scholarship his senior year as a receiver. He caught just eight passes his collegiate career (six for 65 yards his final season). That's impressive considering his spot in the Buckeyes' pecking order was behind future NFL players such as Joey Galloway and Chris Sanders.

But DeGraffenreid performed well enough (he owns 4.45 speed in the 40) to be signed as a rookie free agent by his hometown Cincinnati Bengals. He spent the majority of the next two seasons on the practice squads of the Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs. His first real playing time came with the Scottish Claymores of the World League in the spring of 1995. He started all 10 games and led the team in receiving with 44 catches for 624 yards (14.2 yard average) and four touchdowns.

With nearly impossible odds of cracking the Packers' impressive lineup, DeGraffenreid never gave up on the try-out phase of training camp. That was not lost on observers.

One catch in particular grabbed the attention of fans, coaches and press on an otherwise uneventful July morning. DeGraffenreid made a fully outstretched dive over the middle of the field where, in between two defenders, he tucked the ball in a foot off the artificial turf.

"He had some great catches and a real good camp," Holmgren said. "That's not a highly publicized guy that we have. So there will be some surprises when we make the final roster cuts."

DeGraffenreid was even willing to dust off his kicking shoes to help the Packers. With no practice, DeGraffenreid placed three kickoffs inside the 5. Similarly, the Ohio State product had impressed Kansas City coach Marty Schottenheimer with a wind-aided 61-yard field goal in camp at River Falls, Wis. the year before.

With no fewer than six receivers and two kickers ahead of him, there was no room in the puzzle for DeGraffenreid. He didn't end up as one of Holmgren's predicted shockers of the 1996 final cuts.

The pieces that were kept obviously made for one perfect picture in 1996. Another year -- like this one -- there would be a role for a talented young receiver who wants to play. Who will provide those storylines in 2005? The countdown to find out stands at nine days.

Editor's note: Laura Veras Marran grew up in Green Bay, Wis., and is a longtime sportswriter. Her column will appear Sundays on PackerReport.com.


Packer Report Top Stories