Over the years, much has been written and discussed about how important the draft is to each NFL team. It’s generally recognized as being the life blood for a franchise. Make a mistake on a play call and it could cost your team a first down or even a victory. Make a mistake on draft day and it could set your team back two, three or even more years. But not all mistakes are created equally.
In 2003, the Minnesota Vikings missed their allotted 7th overall pick because they didn’t consummate a trade with the Baltimore Ravens before their 15 minute selection window had expired. When this happened, two teams (the Jaguars and the Panthers) jumped on the opportunity and forwarded their draft picks to the podium before the Vikings could react. In retrospect, not a huge deal other than the embarrassment of officially recording a “pass” in the first round.
In other cases, teams simply make a bad pick. Todd Marinovich, Brian Bosworth, Tony Mandarich, Ryan Leaf and Jamarcus Russell come to mind. And, in yet other cases, some teams make a habit of reaching for players that have no business being drafted in the first round (Brady Quinn, Brandon Weeden and, so far, Johnny Manziel – all of which were coincidentally drafted by the Browns with the 22nd overall pick).
But, as far as I can tell from researching past drafts, only one team has ever forwarded the wrong name to the podium during the first round of the NFL draft. That team was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and this is the story.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers entered the NFL as an expansion team in 1976 and proceeded to go winless in their first season with a 0-14 record. In their first three years, they managed to win only 7 games against 37 losses. But what few people remember is that in 1979, they finished the season with a 10-6-0 record and actually won the NFC Central Division with the tiebreaker over the Chicago Bears and advanced in the playoffs to the NFC Championship Game (losing to the Los Angeles Rams).
In 1980, they took a brief step backwards with a 5-10-1 record but rebounded in 1981 and won the NFC Central again with a 9-7-0 record (losing to Dallas in the Divisional Playoff round). They had a young, talented Quarterback in Doug Williams who was entering the final year of his rookie contract and a defense led by Lee Roy Selmon that yielded the fewest touchdowns of any team in the NFL. They had all the earmarks of a team on the rise. And that brings us to the 1982 NFL Draft.
In the month’s leading up to the draft, the Buccaneers had narrowed the list of players to be selected with the 17th overall pick down to two. Sean Farrell, a guard out of Penn State, and Booker Reese, a little known Defensive End out of Bethune Cookman. Veteran Equipment Manager, Pat Marcuccillo was given the plum job of representing the Buccaneers at the draft being held in New York City. He was told by Ken Herock, Tampa Bay’s Director of Player Personnel, to write down two names, Farrell and Reese, and be prepared to submit one of them to the podium for the Buc’s pick at 17.
Back in the Buccaneers’ “War Room”, Owner Hugh Culverhouse, Head Coach John McKay, Ken Herock and others were gathered around a speaker phone with a connection to Marcuccillo in New York City. As the clock ran down on the Buc’s pick, Herock told Marcuccillo, “Listen, Pat, you’ve got those two names there. We’re not going with Sean Farrell, we’re going with Booker Reese. Turn it in.”
Any of you that have had to deal with speaker phone technology in the early 1980’s know that they act more like a walkie talkie than a telephone. If one person is talking, the other can’t. It’s assumed that the ambient noise in New York City end of the connection (raucous Giants’ fans in attendance at the draft had already started making noise for their upcoming pick at #18) had rendered the Tampa Bay end of the connection to be sporadic, at best. The only thing Marcuccillo heard was “Sean Farrell” and that’s the name on the card that was forwarded to the podium.
This was only the third year that the NFL draft was televised live. Imagine the shock in the Buccaneers’ war room when ESPN televised Pete Rozelle announcing their pick not as Booker Reese but as Sean Farrell. All hell must have broken loose. No one else would have been any the wiser about the mix up but then Herock instructed Marcuccillo to go up to the podium to see if they could rectify the mistake and the cat was out of the bag. The whole sporting world now knew that the Buccaneers’ had turned in the wrong name.
As it turned out, the Sean Farrell pick didn’t turn out all that bad for Tampa Bay. Farrell played in the NFL for eleven years with four different teams. He was a first team NFL All-Pro as a Buccaneer in 1984 and was later traded in 1986 to the Patriots for three draft picks.
But the story doesn’t end here.
Once the dust settled in the Buccaneers’ war room, they noticed that Booker Reese was still available as the 1st round was winding down and started in earnest to find a trade partner that would get them in a position to still get their guy. No one questioned why the player they planned to select with the 17th pick had not yet been selected by one of the eleven teams that concluded the 1st round.
Enter the Chicago Bears who owned the 4th pick in the 2nd round (#32 overall). The problem was that the Buccaneers didn’t have a 2nd round pick as they had traded that pick to Miami in 1980. The Bears were more than willing to trade their 2nd round pick to Tampa Bay for the Buccaneers’ 1st round pick in 1983 and the deal was consummated in short order.
So, at the end of the day, Tampa Bay got both of the players that they had pegged for selecting with their 1st round selection. Just not in the order they planned to select them. All’s well that ends well – right? Not exactly.
Booker Reese was characterized prior to the draft by most as a raw, freakish talent. Apparently, Tampa Bay thought they could develop that raw talent into a pass rushing bookend opposite Lee Roy Selmon. Obviously that didn’t happen as Reese was often over matched on the field. He never did develop the techniques required to succeed and couldn’t (or wouldn’t) shed the bad habits so often associated with raw talent.
As bad as he was on the field, he was ill prepared to handle the pro football lifestyle off of the field. The most famous antidote that describes his maturity when joining the NFL is that, when he received his signing bonus of $150,000, he went car shopping for himself and for his mother. After closing the deal for the two cars at the dealership, the Salesman asked how he would like to pay for the vehicles and Booker simply handed him the bonus check and said, “Take this and just give me the change”. That change would have been well over six figures.
Booker Reese lasted only two years in Tampa Bay. In 1984, he was traded to the Rams for a 12th round draft pick. He then signed with the 49ers in 1985 but was released before the start of the season after failing a drug test. In his entire four year NFL career, he recorded only two sacks and two interceptions. In 1999, he was convicted of cocaine possession and was sent back to prison in 2004 for a parole violation. Sadly, his whereabouts today is unknown.
But this is a story that is much more than a botched draft pick. If you recall, I mentioned earlier that, in 1982, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a talented quarterback in Doug Williams who was entering the final year of his rookie contract. As it turned out, the negotiations to re-sign Williams turned into a bitter contract dispute. Williams left Tampa Bay to play in the upstart USFL and subsequently returned to the NFL when the USFL folded only to lead the Washington Redskins to a Super Bowl title.
His departure left the Buccaneers looking for a Quarterback for the 1983 season. It just so happens that the 1983 draft class is regarded by virtually everyone as the premier class in the history of the NFL for Quarterback talent. John Elway (1), Todd Blackledge (7), Jim Kelley (14), Tony Eason (15), Ken O’Brien (24) and Dan Marino (27) were all drafted in the first round of this draft. The Buccaneers traded what would turn out to be the 18th overall pick to the Chicago Bears (who selected Wide Receiver, Willie Gault).
Think about that for a second. The Buccaneers traded a 1983 pick that could have been used for Dan Marino to draft Booker Reese. Had Doug Williams been re-signed or Dan Marino been drafted by Tampa Bay, either could have avoided the revolving door at Quarterback that rivals that of the current day Cleveland Browns.
1983 marked the start of 12 consecutive seasons (1983 – 1994) where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers recorded double digit losses. They did eventually recover, however, and won the NFL title in 2002. Since then they have, once again, fallen on hard times and now own the #1 pick in the 2015 NFL draft. Hopefully, they have upgraded their phone system.