Archive for Sunday, August 29, 1999


August 29, 1999


Chicago Tribune

Chicago -- Ron Dayne had considered turning pro after his junior year at Wisconsin, but he came back because he had a shot at winning the Heisman Trophy and breaking the all-time major-college rushing record -- and because he wanted to stay close to his young daughter in Madison.

Wide receiver Peter Warrick returned to Florida State for his senior year after deciding that he wanted a shot at the national title more than an NFL signing bonus. Linebacker Brandon Short came back to Penn State for the same reason.

The three stars represent the crest of a trend that began two years ago when Peyton Manning returned for his senior year at Tennessee despite projections that he would be the first player taken in the NFL draft as a junior.

"Peyton Manning kind of started it off," Dayne said. "He didn't just come back to win the Heisman (Manning finished second as a senior). He wanted to continue to play in front of 80,000 people every Saturday and enjoy the experience of being in college."

Manning was invited to speak to Playboy's preseason All-Americans at their annual gathering in Phoenix last spring.

"We had him expressly talk to the 25 guys we had there about the benefits of staying in school and about staying away from agents," said Gil Brandt, the magazine's consultant for the all-star team. "A kid stays in school and it's probably the best year of his life. He makes relationships that will last the rest of his life. A lot of people forget about that."

For years college football observers worried that NFL money would lure the top collegians, creating the sort of talent shortage that plagues major-college basketball.

But the anticipated flood to the NFL hasn't materialized. The number of underclassmen who have declared themselves eligible for the NFL draft has dropped each of the last three years; 35 underclassmen declared for last spring's draft, the fewest since 1991.

"Kids keep proving the critics wrong," said Indiana defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, who decided to come back for his senior year despite being projected as a first-round pick last spring by ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper. "We love the sport. Some of us realize that it's different once you're in the NFL. It's a job then. You can't blame a kid for going with his heart."

Players who stay in school risk injuries that could jeopardize future NFL earnings, though nearly every serious pro prospect hedges with million-dollar insurance policies.

There are a number of reasons more pro prospects are completing their college eligibility.

First, NFL teams are not allowed to draft players until they have been out of high school for at least three years. Legal experts and college officials long have agreed that the rule would not stand up in court, but it never has been challenged.

In basketball, players can jump to the NBA from high school. But because the NFL doesn't have a real minor league, pro prospects need the weight training and skill development the colleges offer.

To some football players, staying an extra year is an investment. Defensive end Adalius Thomas returned to Southern Mississippi this season after hearing projections that he wouldn't be picked until the fifth round last spring.

"I'm not saying I'm the best player, but I feel I'm better than the fifth round," Thomas told the Hattiesburg American.

Then there's running back Joe Montgomery, who used his senior year at Ohio State to show NFL scouts that he had recovered fully from a serious 1996 knee injury. Few teams were likely to gamble on the Robbins product after his junior year, but last spring the New York Giants picked him in the second round.

There also is growing anecdotal evidence that could discourage players from leaving early. Leaving Washington State as a junior, quarterback Ryan Leaf was selected second overall behind Manning in the 1998 draft. But while Manning had a fine rookie season in Indianapolis, Leaf's first year in San Diego was a disaster on and off the field.

Former Northwestern star Darnell Autry turned pro after his junior year in 1997 and wasn't selected until the fourth round by the Bears. Two years later, the leading rusher in Northwestern history is out of football.

Sometimes it pays to jump early. The No. 1 overall pick in last spring's draft was a junior, Tim Couch of Kentucky, and four other top-10 picks were underclassmen.

But more stars are staying in school, with varying motivations.

Tennessee defensive tackle Darwin Walker said he decided to come back because he wanted to complete his civil engineering degree.

The Nittany Lions' Short believed he was physically ready to make the transition to the NFL. It was his psychological side that kept him in school.

"I'm an emotional player and I followed my heart," Short said. "The money's attractive. God willing, it will still be there next year.

"At the end, it's not the money you make, it's not the car you drive. It's your legacy that's important."

For Ogunleye, the temptation to turn pro was strong.

"My mom has been working so hard all her life; she needs a break," Ogunleye said. "That really tugged at me."

Ogunleye, who has received his English degree and plans to attend law school after his playing career, said he considers himself fortunate to be able to stay in school.

"Some guys really have to go," Ogunleye said. "Some guys have so many responsibilities, people have no idea. They make it seem as if they're greedy or just all about money, and they don't know where these kids came from."

But those who have the choice seem to be sticking around.

"College is more fun, and the NFL is more like a business," Dayne said. "Guys know that they can always work next year."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.