Senior Bowl Superstars

Success in Mobile’s college all-star game propelled Bradshaw, others to NFL greatness

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Chuck Noll had to see for himself.

Coming off a dismal 1-13 mark in his first season in the Steel City and with the top pick in the 1970 NFL Draft in hand, Noll wanted a first-hand look at the prospects who could be bought with football’s version of a gold bar. In particular he wanted to see a strapping 6-foot-3, 220-pound blonde hayseed of a quarterback from Louisiana Tech University named Terry Bradshaw.

So Noll headed to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, the NFL’s annual meat market of top college prospects, and what he saw on that January 1970 Saturday in the South convinced him Bradshaw was his guy.

Though the two teams played to a 37-37 tie in Ladd-Peebles Stadium, Bradshaw threw for 267 yards for his South squad and earned game MVP honors. Exactly 17 days later, the Steelers did indeed take him first in the draft, which was held January 27-28, 1970, at the Belmont Plaza Hotel in New York City.

Even Dan Marino took part in Senior Bowl festivities | Photo courtesy the Senior Bowl

Under the headline “Scout Noll: Terry Mobile in Mobile” and the subhead “Bradshaw’s Play in Senior Bowl Selling Point,” in the January 28 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Noll explained what he had seen in Bradshaw.

Terry is an extremely accurate drop back passer and he can take off and run with the ball if necessary,” Noll told the Post-Gazette reporter. “You have to get closeups to judge accurately. Terry convinced me that he was the most valuable piece of property in the college ranks.”

In an era before iPads, the internet and Instagram, Noll relied on good, old-fashioned instinct to make his choice—and oh what a choice it was. The guy Noll had to see to be sure went on to a Hall of Fame career, throwing for 27,989 yards and 212 touchdowns over 14 seasons. He did throw 210 interceptions, but that was more than offset by the four Super Bowl titles he guided Pittsburgh to in 1975, 1976, 1979 and 1980.

For the Steelers, that 1970 draft was perhaps the best ever conducted by any sports franchise in any sports league and the measuring stick for all other NFL drafts since. Besides Bradshaw, over 17 rounds the Steelers chose cornerback Mel Blount, linebacker Jack Ham, running back Franco Harris, wide receiver Lynn Swann, linebacker Jack Lambert, wide receiver John Stallworth and center Mike Webster, a total of eight future Hall of Famers in all. But it was Bradshaw, the franchise QB teams are always looking for, that was the bell cow.

Steelers Vice President Dan Rooney shared an interesting tidbit about Bradshaw with the Post-Gazette as well.

“We had numerous trade offers for the No. 1 pick but most of them were for a lot of junk,” Rooney said. “But three or four were legitimate and we considered them carefully. However, we felt none offered us enough talent to equal the worth of Bradshaw.”

It was the best trade Rooney and the Steelers never made.

What follows are a few other notable Senior Bowl performances in which players stated their case or strengthened their prospects for playing at the next level.

Offerdahl offering a big hit | Photo courtesy the Senior Bowl

BO OVER THE TOP…NOT

By the time the prospects gathered in Alabama’s Port City for the 1986 Senior Bowl, even the most casual of college football fans knew who Auburn standout and Heisman Trophy winner Vincent “Bo” Jackson was, but few outside of Kalamazoo, Michigan, had probably ever heard of linebacker John Offerdahl.

The 6-3, 230-pound Offerdahl from Western Michigan set WMU school records for tackles and fumble recoveries and was a three-time All Mid-American Conference first-team selection. But that was a far cry from playing in the Southeastern Conference like Bo had, right?

Offerdahl seized the opportunity afforded him that week and set the gathered scouts and player personnel types abuzz with his workouts and practices. He sealed it with a performance in the game as good as any player from any level could turn in, leading a defensive effort for the North squad that held Jackson to 48 yards rushing in a 31-17 win.

Three times in the first half the South squad went to Jackson in short-yardage situations, and three times Offerdahl stopped him short. The first came on a fourth-and-short situation in the first quarter and the second saw him stop Jackson twice at the goal line, the final time in classic one-on-one fashion.

In a play that certainly brought back memories for Alabama and Auburn fans watching the game, Jackson tried the “Bo Over the Top” leap he had used to beat Bama in the 1982 Iron Bowl, and Offerdahl met him head-on and denied him the end zone, just as Barry Krause did Penn State’s Mike Guman in the 1979 Sugar Bowl.

It was enough to convince the Miami Dolphins, who had one of the NFL’s weakest defenses at the time, that Offerdahl was their man. They took him with their second-round choice, No. 52 overall, which may not sound all that great until you know the Dolphins did not have a first-round pick that year. So technically Offerdahl was their first choice that year, and he certainly played like a first-rounder in an eight-year career.

Offerdahl was named Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1986, was a two-time All Pro selection (1986, 1990) and was voted to five Pro Bowls. Offerdahl eventually earned a place in the Dolphins’ Ring of Honor and in the hearts of Miami fans everywhere as one of the greatest ever to wear the white, orange and teal.

Not bad for a guy nobody knew.

Christian Okoye | Photo courtesy the Senior Bowl

THE NIGERIAN NIGHTMARE

When Christian Okoye showed up at the 1987 Senior Bowl game, he was perhaps more of a novelty act than a legitimate NFL prospect. At 6-1 and 260, the running back from Enugu, Nigeria, via Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California, actually came to the U.S. to pursue a track-and-field career throwing the shot put, discus and hammer.

It was said that he found the first game of American football he ever watched boring and, down the road, he found the roughness of the game distasteful and that friends had to convince him to keep playing. The folks at Azusa Pacific, the Senior Bowl and the Kansas City Chiefs are certainly glad they did.

In 42-38 shootout that set a record for most combined points scored in the game, Okoye rushed for four TDs to lead his South squad to a 42-38 win so thrilling that usually stoic Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula said, “Even I got excited.”

Okoye scored on three 1-yard runs and a 6-yard run and finished with 47 yards on 13 carries. He did not win the media vote for MVP, however. That went to Mississippi State running back Don Smith based 113 yards of total offense.

Okoye, who rushed for 1,680 yards and 21 TDs as a college senior, was still pleased with his performance and rightfully so.

“Coming from the NAIA to the Senior Bowl, I had a lot to learn,” Okoye said. “I thought I did what I had to do to impress the scouts.”

The Chiefs were certainly sold, and they made him their second-round pick in 1987, the 35th choice overall. Over the next six seasons, he rewrote the Chiefs’ rushing record book, recording 4,897 yards and 40 rushing TDs.

Okoye’s best season came in 1989 when he led the league with 370 attempts and became the first Chief ever to lead the NFL in rushing with 1,480 yards. His 12 rushing TDs were also a league high that year.

He added one more 1,000-yard season (1,031 in 1991) but a nagging knee injury began to slow him, and after one more season in 1992 (448 yards rushing and 6 TDs) Okoye hung it up. Just as any player would like to end their career for sure, his last NFL carry was an 8-yard touchdown.

Okoye was named AFC Offensive Player of the Year and first-team All-Pro in 1989. He retired as the Chiefs’ all-time leading rusher, though his records have since been surpassed by several, and he is a member of the Chiefs’ Hall of Fame.

Now you know why they called him “The Nigerian Nightmare.”

Walter Payton | Photo courtesy the Senior Bowl

HONORABLE MENTION

Walter Payton’s 73 yards rushing in a 17-17 tie in the 1975 convinced the Chicago Bears to take the Jackson State running back fourth overall in that year’s NFL Draft….Philip Rivers was named MVP of the 2004 game after throwing for 213 yards and 2 touchdowns….In only one quarter of play, Dak Prescott earned MVP honors for the 2016 game on 7 of 10 passing for 61 yards and a touchdown and 14 yards rushing on three carries. H&A

 

Cover photo: Terry Bradshaw | Courtesy the Senior Bowl 

 

Jimmy Creed

Jimmy Creed

Jimmy Creed is the former award-winning sports editor of The Anniston (Alabama) Star and editor of Saints Digest, the official team publication of the New Orleans Saints. He is a two-time winner of the Alabama Sports Writers Association Herby Kirby Award for the best sports story in the state of Alabama and has received numerous writing awards from the Associated Press Sports Editors, the National Motorsports Press Association. and the Alabama Press Association. He is also the author of NASCAR legend Donnie Allison's biography "Donnie Allison: As I Recall."
Jimmy Creed

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