After ruling, expected deluge yields only a shallow pool

Inaugural early entrants in NFL draft limited to 2 stars, 7 question marks

Pro Football

March 13, 2004|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

When the NFL was forced in February to throw open its annual draft to all comers, regardless of age, it shuddered at the prospect of a flood of under-exposed, over-ambitious youngsters lining up for the equivalent of a football lottery ticket.

What the league got was a trickle of dreamers. After Maurice Clarett of Ohio State and Mike Williams of Southern California - two legitimate candidates applying for early entry into the NFL - the league's list of draft eligibles included one junior college cornerback and six players of suspect high school experience.

"I think this is just mockery," said Gil Brandt, who spent 29 years in personnel with the Dallas Cowboys. "Total mockery."

At the very least, it stretches the bounds of credulity for NFL prospects.

Two of the stretches reside in Maryland. They are both running backs without portfolio: Ethan Mitchell, 19, a semi-pro player and high school dropout, and Joe Banks, who listed New Directions Academy - a Baltimore alternative school with no football program - as his high school on the draft application.

Beyond Clarett and Williams, the early-outs are not expected to provide the NFL with any draft choices in late April. The scenario reminds Brandt of a series of annual tryouts he held for the Cowboys in the 1960s after being deluged with requests.

"We set one day for the tryout and we set guidelines," said Brandt, who evaluates the draft for NFL.com. "We'd still have 1,500 guys. A guy would run 5.61 [in the 40-yard dash] and say, `Last week, I was timed in 4.95.'

"On field goals, we said if you can't kick 45 yards, it's not going to be worth your while to come. And we had guys who could hardly make an extra point.

"The point is, I don't know if they did it to say they had a tryout with the Cowboys. But it's the same with these players. You've got a group of players that don't really belong there because they haven't even finished high school football."

Mitchell didn't make it through 10th grade in 2001 at Charles H. Flowers High School in Prince George's County.

"He was on the JV team and had a problem showing up," Flowers coach Mike Mayo remembered. "He missed games that year and the next year didn't come back at all."

Mitchell, who lives in Springdale with his cousin Rodney McKoy, said that when he showed up one day, a faculty member told him he'd been withdrawn. He didn't go back.

What he did, he said, was attend a community college for one semester. But he couldn't afford the tuition, so he dropped out again. "College ain't for everybody," he said.

Instead, he has played semi-pro ball the past two springs with the PG Headhunters. Depending on who shows up, Headhunters coach Derrick Scott said Mitchell plays running back, quarterback or wide receiver.

"If he can make it, I'm all for him going," Scott said. "He's a good player, [but] I've seen better players going to the NFL."

Mitchell said he is 5 feet 9 and 195 pounds.

He tempers his confidence ("I can do what anybody else can do on a football field, maybe even better,") with a touch of realism ("I ain't really getting my hopes up.")

Mayo said he was surprised to learn Mitchell had applied for the draft. But the more he thought about it, the less surprised he was.

"He was always kind of unrealistic," Mayo said. "He'd be a kid who'd think he could do this."

It is uncertain if Banks has played organized football. Pat Bixler, executive director of the Chesapeake Treatment Centers on the Eastern Shore, would not confirm whether Banks was a student at New Directions Academy because of confidentiality laws.

Patrick Johnson, corporate director of education for CTC, said his company is the parent corporation that owns New Directions Academy.

"The only thing I can say is it's an approved, nonpublic school in the state of Maryland, grades nine through 12," Johnson said.

New Directions Academy is a member of the Maryland Association of Nonpublic Special Education Facilities, and a brochure on the MANSEF web site says the facility has a capacity of 26 for ages 14 through 21.

Disabilities treated include emotional disturbance, specific learning disability and sex offenders, the brochure said.

New Directions Academy is located on the grounds of the Charles Hickey School, although it's not affiliated with Hickey, according to Bixler.

The NFL had a long-standing entry rule that banned players who are not three years removed from their high school graduation. But in February, a lawsuit filed on behalf of Clarett struck down the rule and opened the draft door to all ages.

The NFL has asked the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for a suspension of the federal court order and will appeal the verdict. The draft is April 24-25.

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