Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Undrafted Legends: Taking the Night Train to the Moon

Today’s post was inspired by the story of Alex Tanney, quarterback from Monmouth College (a Division III school) who was not drafted in last month’s NFL draft.  Tanney has become a bit of an Internet sensation because of a five-minute YouTube video (below) showing him perform all sorts of trick shots throwing a football.  These feats of accuracy may have been the deciding point in convincing Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey to invite him for the team’s rookie minicamp. 

Whether Alex Tanney will make the Bills squad (which, incidentally includes recently-signed QB Vince Young, a former NFL golden boy), only time will tell.  But, his story reminded me that there have been a lot of player’s in Alex’s shoes—undrafted free agents (UFAs)—who have overcome the odds and managed to stand out from the literally thousands of undrafted players in the country to earn roster spots.  One current UFA who has made the most of his opportunity is Arian Foster (right), the versatile running back for the Houston Texans who won the league rushing title in 2010, his second year in the pros. 

Our look at some more stand-out UFA examples throughout NFL history will span two posts—today, we examine players from earlier days.  With both posts, one player from each period in history is profiled, and others from the same era, if any (with the year they went undrafted noted), are also listed.


Los Angeles Rams, 1952-1953
Chicago Cardinals, 1954-1960
Detroit Lions, 1960-1965

Regular Naptime Huddle readers should remember Dick “Night Train” Lane from the “Reading Huddle” selection Paper Lion, which chronicled author George Plimpton’s “participatory journalism” experience as the “last-string” quarterback for the Detroit Lions.  Plimpton was the recipient of a great deal of advice and anecdotes from Lane, who was often playing records of his then-wife Dinah Washington.  Music wasn’t only an influence in Lane’s personal life; he earned the nickname “Night Train” from a hit record by Jimmy Forest in 1952, the year he began his NFL career.

After serving in the U.S. Army, Dick Lane tried out as a wide receiver for the Los Angeles Rams when he became dissatisfied with his job at an aircraft factory.  He made the team, but because the Rams were stacked with talent at wide receiver, he was converted to a defensive back.  This turned out to be a masterful stroke of fate—in his rookie season, Lane set the record for most interceptions in a single season, at 14.  That record still stands, which is remarkable because there were the seasons consisted of only 12 games at the time.  Over his 14-year career, Lane caught 69 interceptions for 1,207 yards and five touchdowns; he was selected to seven Pro Bowls and named an All-Pro six times. 

His ability to pick off so many quarterbacks may have been due to receivers’ fears of being hit by him--that, and his ability to play off receivers so that they looked open.  Lane was known for his devastatingly hard hits, which you can see in the below clip from the NFL’s “Top Ten Most Feared Tacklers” piece (of course, most of these hits would probably get you a fine and/or suspension today).  Night Train Lane was enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame in 1974; he died of a heart attack in January 2002 at the age of 74.

Other Notable UFAs of the 1940s-1960s: 

Marion Motley, Running Back and Linebacker, Cleveland Browns (1946-1953) (right)

Larry Little, Guard, San Diego Chargers (1967-1968) and Miami Dolphins (1969-1980)


Edmonton Eskimos, 1978-1983
Houston Oilers, 1984-1993
Minnesota Vikings, 1994-1996
Seattle Seahawks, 1997-1998
Kansas City Chiefs, 1999-2000

Warren Moon's career is one that makes you scratch your head and wonder if the NFL Draft is more a product of luck than in-depth analysis of athletic skill.  Moon had an average career at the University of Washington until his senior year--undoubtedly the best time for a college athlete to peak--when he led the Huskies to a victory in the 1978 Rose Bowl over the highly-favored Michigan Wolverines. 

Most teams wanted to convert Moon to tight end, a typical response to a black quarterback at the time, but he refused to change positions; this may have been the main reason that he went undrafted in 1978.  However, he was able to hone his QB skills further in the Canadian Football League, and he played for the Edmonton Eskimos from 1978 through the 1983 season, leading the team to an incredible 5 consecutive league championships (known as the Grey Cup in the CFL).

When Moon decided it was time to move south of the border to the NFL, he found a home way south, in Houston, where he played for the Oilers for ten years.  While with the Oilers, he won 70 games, a team record that stood for over ten years, won multiple passing titles and set several passing related-records.  His biggest career moment may have been when he engineered the biggest comeback in NFL history to that point.  In the first round of the AFC Playoffs at the end of the 1992 season, he led the Oilers to overtime over the Buffalo Bills, after they had trailed the Bills 28-3 at halftime.  The Bills ended up winning on a Steve Christie field goal in overtime, but the game has since been known as The Comeback.

Warren’s time with the Oilers would be his longest tenure with any team; he later played for the Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks and the Kansas City Chiefs.  Over his NFL career, Moon was named to nine Pro Bowls and his records for passing yards (combined with the CFL and NFL careers), most passing touchdowns and pass completions were held until 2006 and 2007.  Moon is only one of two people to be enshrined in both the Canadian Hall of Fame (in 2001) and the Pro Football Hall of Fame (in 2006).

Stay tuned to this space for some more stories about these “who woulda thought” personalities in the NFL…

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