Spagnola: Like Allen, Having To Start Somewhere To Find Your Anywhere

CALIFORNIA – With the NFL Draft fast approaching while traipsing through this state documenting the improbable flight of Larry Allen's nomadic upbringing that somehow landed him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, this reminder kept flashing before me:

         The NFL Draft is not all about the first round.

         Larry Allen was a second-round pick in 1994.

Forty-five players were taken before him, including Cowboys first-rounder Shante Carver because they just needed a defensive end. None of those 45 finished their careers as possibly the all-time best at their positions as Larry did at his. Nine offensive linemen were taken before him.

Now there is a draft to mock.

Why, the majority of those 45 came from the likes of Ohio State and Alabama and Notre Dame and Auburn and Nebraska and Michigan State and Arizona State and Florida State and LSU. High profile. The fast lane.

         Larry? From Sonoma State, via Butte College and four different high schools, a bumpy road for sure.

         But as his former Butte College head coach Craig Rigsbee told us this week, "Butte College's moniker for the whole school is Start Here, Go Anywhere."

         And in LA's case, while he's likely the exceptional exception, no kidding. He just didn't go anywhere he went somewhere very special.

         So the point here is, over these next few weeks don't get all hung up over the Cowboys' first-round pick. And I know, we all do it, and especially this year since Dallas has the fourth pick in the draft, highest since selecting Russell Maryland with the first pick in 1991, though they didn't earn such a high pick that year (they traded up) as they so ignominiously did this year.

         Also this occurred to me: Of the 13 players the Cowboys have sent to Canton, Ohio, six of those Hall of Famers were drafted in Rounds 2 through 10: DB Mel Renfro, 2nd, 1964; WR Bob Hayes, 7th, 1964; QB Roger Staubach 10th, 1964; OT Rayfield Wright, 7th, 1967; DE Charles Haley (by San Francisco) 4th, 1986; and of course Allen. And I suppose we should put an asterisk next to Staubach, since the Heisman Trophy winner's five-year commitment to the Navy made him a draft day after-thought for nearly every other team.

         Still, not exactly an exact science this draft stuff.

         Now, maybe a tad biased, though just possibly smarter than all the rest since they had been witnessing his mayhem for four seasons, Larry's college coaches, including Rigsbee, along with former Sonoma State head coaches Tim Walsh and Frank Scalercio, they knew. They knew this guy pancaking his way through junior college and Division II was something special.

         So did Cowboys scout Tom Ciskowski, really the guy who sort of unearthed Allen at Sonoma State, Scalercio, telling the story of how Ciskowski, now a Cowboys senior personnel executive, initially feigned nonchalant interest in Larry, and then when all the other team scouts left the facility the day he worked out, doubled back to dig deeper into his past and potential talent.

         Another reason why you don't believe everything – possibly anything – these NFL folks are saying prior to the draft.

         "We say that all the time, we talk about it to kids all the time, and we use Larry's example," Rigsbee said, emphasizing it doesn't matter where you start, if you are good, they will come find you. "Just like when I recruited Aaron, I sat at his house and said, 'Listen we've had guys from the NFL come here, we've had guys do this. If this is what you want to do …'"

         Uh, that's Aaron, as in Aaron Rodgers, coming out of high school just up the road from the Oroville, Calif., campus in Chico, a big-arm but kind of scrawny kid few D-1 schools weren't interested in who made his way through Butte eventually to Cal. Yep, him, too, a proud Butte Roadrunner, just like Larry.

         To this day, says Rigsbee, who has been at Butte as both head coach and athletic director for 32 years, Allen and Rodgers have never forgotten their Butte roots, returning to do fundraising favors for Rigsbee. Imagine that if Allen or Rodgers go strolling across campus these days.

         Hey, we all have to start somewhere, me, too, and probably many of you.

         And look, I understand the hullabaloo these days is all about the possibility of the Cowboys selecting a quarterback with that fourth pick. And who knows, depending on how the cards fall, they might. Or with such close proximity to the first round with that second pick (34th overall), they still might.

         But know this if historical odds mean anything to you: Going back all the way to their first draft (1961) the Cowboys have used only three first-round picks – two knowingly – on quarterbacks. That would be Craig Morton back in 1965 and, of course, Troy Aikman in 1989. Morton was taken with the fifth pick, right after the Chicago Bears, with consecutive picks, hit the Decade Double – maybe Century Double – selecting Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers back to back. Had the Bears not done that, how the course of history might have changed.

         As for Aikman, after a lot of Cowboys bluffing going on, he was taken with the first pick in the draft. Then again, how utterly fortunate were the Cowboys. Tom Landry handed off his 3-13 team from 1988, bequeathing Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson the first pick in the 1989 draft. Danny White's wrist was shot. He was done. Johnson didn't much like Steve Pelluer's moxie, or really, anything else about him. And there was Aikman, the landslide best quarterback in the draft for the taking, a head-on collision of need and availability.

You and me could have made that pick, because the next quarterback was not taken until the second round, Mike Elkin. Who, that's right? After that, uh Billy Joe Tolliver, followed by Anthony Dilweg in the third. Want me to go on?[embeddedad0]

Then Johnson a few months later doubled-down, using their 1990 first-round pick to grab his University of Miami quarterback Steve Walsh in the blind-bid supplemental draft, never dreaming in a million years his Cowboys would be worse than the 3-13 he inherited. They were, lots, going 1-15, the worst record in the NFL again, so having forfeited what would have been the first pick in the 1990 draft.

But in hindsight, had the Cowboys owned that first pick, who knows if Emmitt Smith ever would have been a Cowboy. Probably would have taken either The U's defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy or linebacker Junior Seau. They certainly didn't need quarterback Jeff George, the No. 1 pick, and Jimmy wasn't a fan of running back Blair Thomas, who went No. 2, and the only running back selected prior to Emmitt at No. 17.

Once again, the course of history could have changed.

Over the next two weeks the Cowboys will begin pinpointing just what they might do on April 28 in the first round. Just remember there are six more rounds over the next two days. Important rounds. And with a lot of time to daydream these past six days while driving up and down the West Coast, here is another second- or third-day guy that occurred to me if the Cowboys don't go running back with the fourth pick, depending who is left.

Kenyan Drake, A.K.A. Alabama's other running back. This, too, must have occurred to the Cowboys, Drake listed among the Cowboys' 30 visits over this week. Now, it's not as if he's emerging from some Sonoma State or anything. Roll Tide, here. But this has been a guy, not without talent, in the woods at Alabama after breaking his leg midway through the 2014 season and then a forearm trying to make a special teams tackle in 2015.

There weren't many carries to get playing behind Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry. But the guy, what few carries he got at Alabama, averaged 6.4 yards a carry. Scored 18 rushing touchdowns. He also returns kickoffs, averaging 26.6 yards his senior year. Had a 95-yard touchdown return to break open the national title game. He's fast, 4.45 in the 40. Maybe even a larger Lance Dunbar, 6-1, 210. Fresh legs, too.

Might be one of those gems to unearth.

"I've been doing that my entire career," Drake said of having to play behind Henry this past season. "You know, Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry, you know, the list goes on. So that's nothing new."

And no problem?

"That's not a problem, regardless" giving the impression he never thought of himself as a backup. "We just all go out there as teammates, having fun. When he does good I support him, when we do good we support each other."

Didn't seem to lose his enthusiasm as a rotation guy, if you know what I mean.

In some ways, sort of like Larry. He never lost his enthusiasm to dominate, to improve, to get better, even if he was tucked away at Butte and wasn't playing at a flashy D-I school, and still wasn't when he finished out at Sonoma State.

But as Larry would continue to say, his low-profile motivated him to work even harder, play even harder. Same with Rodgers, Coach Rigsbee would say.

Just the route they had to go to find their anywhere.

"And that's what we tell the kids all the time," Rigsbee said of making the best of *your *route. "I was saying that at a fundraiser the other day, well, except for myself. I started here, and I'm still here. I started here 32 years ago, and I didn't go anywhere. I didn't go a damn place."

         Yeah, well, except to Larry's Hall of Fame induction in Canton, Ohio, at Larry's request, payback for all Rigsbee had done for him, and figures someday, he'll get there again with Rodgers.

         Making the best of his road, too.

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