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Draft Can Yield Surprise Stars From Nowhere

The talk of the National Football League world at this time of year is the annual player draft, coming up later this month.

Nowhere can you read more about the draft here in Denver than in the Denver Broncos website, which does a great job previewing star and wannabe stars from around the country.

But after all the bodies are measured and the stats are studied, sometimes a player still can come from relative obscurity.

Perhaps the greatest example in Broncos team history of a player coming from a really small school and going on to make it big was the late Lyle Alzado.

How he came to be a Bronco is a short story worth telling, and thanks in advance for reading it.

Most fans know that the months of June and early July provide NFL coaches a chance to get away to some well-earned family vacation time.  That has always been a part of the pro football life, and it is specifically how the Broncos got Alzado.

Back in the off-season of 1970, Broncos defensive line coach Stan Jones (who is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his great playing career with the Chicago Bears, and who was one of the funniest storytellers I have ever heard) was driving with his wife Darlis through the Black Hills region of South Dakota, taking in the sights such as Mount Rushmore.

But their car broke down and they were in a real small town.  The local garage said repairs would take an entire day, so Stan decided he would do what any football coach does on summer vacation—he walked to the local college, introduced himself at the athletic offices and asked if there was any game film he could watch.

And in those days, it was film, not video.  A coach became expert at threading film though a projector and utilizing the nearest white wall as a screen.

Stan did not see any players for that local college worth a second glance, but the school had played a late season game against Yankton College of South Dakota the previous year, and Jones took note of a wild, crazy, undisciplined but completely fearless, relentless defensive end named Lyle Alzado.

He remembered the name, and told other coaches about his crazy young pass rusher.

The next NFL draft produced the usual well scouted prospects, but Alzado and his school were so obscure—and again, this was back in 1971, so it was much easier to be undiscovered then—so with their first selection in the fourth round (the Broncos had two fourth round picks that year) they chose Alzado.

I think it is accurate to say that four decades later, very few people still have heard of Yankton College.  In fact, Alzado's academic background in high school was so erratic that the Yankton admissions office had to look every way but straight ahead at the grades to admit the young football player, who had been a Golden Gloves fighter and was basically just trying to escape out of Spanish Harlem in New York City.

Lyle and I were real good friends, and I can say he had a real rough past.  But Lyle and Me is a topic for another blog—this one is about where players come from.

I am not sure how to describe his style of play, but "maniacal" comes to mind.  He was a crazed maniac when he got going after the quarterback.

Naturally, he was an immediate hit with his all-out style and had eight sacks, second on the team, as a rookie.

Lyle was second in sacks, but rapidly flew into the number one position in the hearts of fans.

He had 10.5 sacks in 1972, nine in 1973, and 13 in 1974.  Alzado had seven in 1975 and then was hurt in the first game of the 1976 season, missing the entire year.  He and I did a live one-hour daily radio show that year, again, the topic for another blog.  A very well edited blog.

The following year, 1977, Lyle Alzado returned to his fearsome pass rushing ways with eight sacks, tying fellow defensive end Barney Chavous for the team lead, as the Orange Crush defense, with Stan Jones still coaching the defensive line, led the Broncos to the American Football Conference championship and a berth in Super Bowl XII.

He was one of the Broncos' most popular players of that era, a really good pass rusher, and a product of Stan Jones' car breaking down on a driving trip through the Black Hills of South Dakota.

And sometimes, that is where players are found.