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Sacco Sez: How 'the Combine before the Combine' led Steve Watson to Denver

Posted Mar 5, 2018

The NFL Combine did not officially begin until 1982, but that didn't stop a former Broncos coach from administering his own tests in some unusual settings.

This has been one of the most exciting and meaningful weeks of the National Football League offseason: the league's annual Combine in Indianapolis.

The top college prospects, designated by the NFL, descended by invitation into Indianapolis to be studied, observed and interviewed by coaches, scouts and medical personnel.

A breakfast meeting with former Broncos wide receiver Steve Watson got me to thinking: What about the experience of a player before there was a Combine?

The Combine began in Tampa in 1982 and has continued every year since, but Steve Watson was a senior at Temple University in 1978.

Temple is located in Philadelphia, surrounded more by urban cityscape than by acres of green grass.

Watson had just finished toiling through his senior year like hundreds of other college players, and there were to be only so many spots on NFL teams or in training camps.

The Broncos were coached by future Ring of Famer Red Miller and Denver's quarterback coach was Babe Parilli, known as the "The Sweet Kentucky Babe" during his legendary three decades playing college and pro football.

Parilli had seen a lot of college video, because in those days, coaches were expected to be a big part of the college-player evaluation program during the first months of the offseason. There was something he liked about the gangly but strong wide receiver from Temple.

Watson picks up the story from there.

"Our season was over," Watson said, "and I was spending a few days at a beach in Florida with some friends when I got a call telling me that because a wide receiver could not participate, I could get added to the roster for the East-West Shrine Game."

"I flew from Florida to the San Francisco Bay Area, and [I] had no uniform, nothing. I had to borrow items to have a full uniform, but practiced and played in the game."

Later, Watson asked Broncos assistant coach Fran Polsfoot how he had performed during the week and in the game. With his trademark candor, Polsfoot said, "You really stunk it up, Stevie, terrible," but then remarked that, "Babe Parilli thinks you might have something."

So Parilli flew to Philadelphia to conduct his own tryout with Watson. If you will, it was a combine three years before the combine truly began.

Watson described the situation during a recent conversation.

"It was rainy and I was just in my dorm room when I got a call from the front desk that Babe Parilli was there to see me," Watson said. "'Babe Parilli!,' I thought. I scrambled down to meet him and he said he would like to work me out.

"He said he need me to run a 40[-yard dash]. He took a long look down the hallway of my dorm and said that it would do OK for the 40. Babe asked two [people] to stand at each end of the hall and make sure no one came through the doors — and thus down the hall — while I was running. It was crazy.

"Babe [marked what] seemed like about 40 yards to him, had me get set and run. I ran as fast as I could down the hallway, and when I finished I turned to Babe and asked him what my time was."

"Don't worry about it," Parilli told Watson.

And so ended Watson's rung portion of his "combine."

"Then he asked me to go to the gym so he could throw me a few balls," Watson said. "Babe threw them all over the place — high, low, I was diving on the ground, even into the stands. After a few he said that was fine and suggested Broncos were interested in me."

Watson says that in retrospect, "Babe was just looking me over real well. He never did tell me what time I ran in that so-called 40, but he liked my attitude going after the ball."

Watson had just had a combine in a dormitory hallway and on a barren gym floor. But it was enough.

The draft came and went without his being selected, but Parilli was very stubborn and insisted to Denver that the team sign him as a free agent. The Broncos did so, and after Parilli's upbeat meeting with Watson in Philadelphia, Steve worked out for several weeks with the Temple track team to improve his speed.

I personally remember very well our 1979 rookie minicamp, when the top time was recorded by "some kid named Watson." The press wanted to speak to him, and I went looking for what I figured was a smallish receiver or defensive back.

I still remember the first time I saw Steve Watson — all 6-foot-4 of him — catching his breath against our aluminum storage shed. It surprised me that a guy that tall had recorded the best time, but Watson had a lot of surprises in store for the Broncos.

His career with the Broncos lasted for nine seasons, from 1979-87. He had 353 career receptions and an excellent 17.3 yards-per-catch average. Watson scored 36 touchdowns here and made the Pro Bowl in 1981.

He was a vital cog on two Super Bowl teams, in both 1986 and 1987, and he made an early mark on special teams as a willing blocker and tackler.

It turned out that Fran Polsfoot had been prophetic when he told me and other staffers that "Babe Parilli sees something in that kid."

Babe was right, Steve Watson was a terrific receiver for Denver, and it all began with a tryout held in a stark hallway of a dormitory at Temple University.

"Don't worry about it," Babe had said to Steve's question about his time in the 40.

Parilli chose the eye test for Watson, who passed with flying colors.

A more sophisticated level of that test was administered to the top prospects this week in Indianapolis, but everyone is still looking for the same results.