Mel Kiper Jr.
ESSEX COMMUNITY COLLEGE
A veteran pundit who doesn't pull any punches. Seems like yesterday that everybody was saying, "Who the hell is Mel Kiper Jr.?" but these days he's all over the field, offering his opinion whether anyone wants it or not. Speed is his greatest asset; no pundit talks faster. Fans like his decisiveness, but scouts say he's reckless and tends to cough it up in pressure situations. Good ears, questionable eyes. Bad haircut keeps his rating down.
Who is this guy, anyway? It's Senior Bowl week in Mobile, Ala., and everybody else who walks and stalks the lobby of the swankiest hotel in town—the Riverview, across the street from the city's swankiest bail bondsmen—announces, by his dress or by his bearing, who he is and what he does. There are the players, who are young and huge and outfitted in shorts and baseball caps and are showing extraordinary deference to the coaches, who wear team togs and are as hale and ruddy-faced as charter-boat captains. There are the scouts, who are finicky and fidgety and try at all costs to avoid the agents, who wear checkbook smiles and suits that shine. There are also the parents of the players, who pray before they cat, and the groupies, who don't, and the reporters, slinking at the fringes, and the autograph hounds.
The Senior Bowl is a college football all-star game designed to showcase college seniors to the NFL, and so the Riverview lobby hums and throbs with whispers of appraisal—a meat market, yes, but one in which the cattle are genuinely thrilled at the prospect of the sale.
Then into the middle of this scene strides a man who talks to everybody, except the groupies, or whom everybody talks to. As he walks through the lobby, you can hear the drumbeat of voices in his wake: "Hey Mel"..."Hey Mel"..."Hey Mel"..."Hey Mel." Everybody knows him, but who is he, and what does he do? He's not a player, that's for sure; he's average-sized, with thick legs and a slight paunch. He's not a coach, either; he looks indoorsy instead of outdoorsy, with a haircut that rises straight off his forehead and would fit just right on a fellow selling odd-lot carpets on late-night TV. He's not a scout, because he wears a tie, and he's not an agent, because the tie isn't pure silk—and besides, he's too nice a guy—and he's not a reporter, because on occasion he's followed by the autograph hounds. He's a star of some sort, but what role does he play?
Then he opens his mouth, and it becomes clear.
Mel Kiper Jr. is the draft expert. How does he announce such an arcane calling? Well, feed him the name of any player in the lobby, any player in the Senior Bowl, any player in the world, and he'll dip into a memory crammed with facts, figures, rumors and oodles of received and original opinion. Then he'll spit out, without hesitation or even a breath, the data. The data, in Kiper's case, always have to do with how a player will measure up—or should measure up, in a perfect world that would let Kiper do all the picking—in the NFL draft on April 26-27.
O.K., Mel. Let's give it a try. How about...Greg Skrepenak, enormous offensive tackle, University of Michigan? "The bottom line on Greg Skrepenak, in my opinion, is that he wasn't the true dominant lineman he should have been," says Kiper. "He's not a strong lineman; he's 315 pounds. 320. but he's not doing the 25 reps |he's not bench-pressing 225 pounds the requisite 25 times], he's not attacking and burying people at the line of scrimmage. He only did 16 reps at the scouting-combine workouts, but the problem is at the strength program at Michigan, where they do a lot of machine lifting instead of free weights.... I think Skrepenak will be better once he gets in the NFL than he appears now, which means that someone like the Bears, picking in the latter part of Round One, could be interested in bringing in a guy like that."
Excellent! Now...how about David Klingler, quarterback, University of Houston? "I like David's physical and athletic ability. He's a great kid," says Kiper. "The problem with David is that he played option football in high school and a run-and-shoot offense in college. He has to forget everything he learned at Houston and pick up the nuances of running a pro offense. Footwork and mechanics all need to be developed, but he's a down-the-road potential—and I say potential—franchise quarterback."
Kiper is never at a loss for words, and you can't tire him out, either. He can opine for as long as you want him to, or as long as necessary, in two-minute or two-hour bursts. One day Kiper drove for nine hours in a car with Ernie Accorsi, the vice-president of personnel with the Cleveland Browns and Kiper's mentor, and the two men talked nothing but football the entire time. Kiper, says Accorsi, "did 80 percent of the talking. I've never heard anything like it." Oh, Kiper's a prodigy, no doubt about that—he's encyclopedic, logorrheic, a monologuist extraordinaire. But the question is. Who listens to him?
The answer, at first, seems obvious: The guys who listen to Kiper (and it's safe to say that his audience is composed of guys) are just like him—fanatics, obsessives, Rotisserie League wheeler-dealers, couch potatoes who get cable and satellite dishes in order to watch coaches' shows, kids who would rather fail math than forget a stat, grown men who clog the lines of call-in radio shows and never tire of talking, talking, talking about sports. They are nerds, of course, sports nerds—and Kiper is both their guru and their apotheosis.