Packers Top Rookie: 2000

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Despite missing out on his top choice for the Packers’ first round selection in 2000, this draft is the one Ron Wolf should have gone out on. According to Andrew Brandt at Bleacher Report, Wolf had targeted pass rusher John Abraham in 2000, but the Jets selected him one slot ahead of Green Bay. Instead, Wolf looked at the legal and physical troubles of tight end Mark Chmura and drafted Miami’s massive tight end Bubba Franks with the 14th pick in the draft. Although never a great player, Franks was solid and made several Pro Bowls on his knack for catching touchdown passes in the Red Zone.

After Franks, Wolf was on a hot streak, with nine of his 12 selections playing for the Packers in 2000. Wolf drafted Tennessee tackle Chad Clifton in round two, Nebraska defensive tackle Steve Warren in round three, Ohio State linebacker Na’il Diggs in round four along with his defensive back teammate Gerry Berry, San Diego State pass rusher Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila in round five, Wisconsin tackle Mark Tauscher in round seven, as well as Central Florida wide receiver Charles Lee and Florida linebacker Eugene McCaslin also in round seven.

Warren, Berry, Lee and McCaslin never worked out, but the other five all became long-time starters in Green Bay.

Rounding out the 2000 rookie class were punter Josh Bidwell who had been drafted in 1999, but missed that season fighting cancer, an undrafted runner from Graceland University named Herbert Goodman, and waiver wire linebacker Chris Gizzi from Air Force. While Gizzi spent two years as a Packer, his most memorable moment was leading the team onto the field in the first game after 911 while carrying the American flag. He is now a strength and conditioning assistant with the Pack. Bidwell also became a regular.

KGB took a year of seasoning before becoming a contributor, but Franks, Clifton, Diggs and Tauscher all moved right into the starting lineup. In particular, Clifton and Tauscher proved to be naturals. It’s hard to pick between them, but I go with Mark Tauscher, the seventh round perfectionist, as the Packers’ top rookie for 2000.

Bootin’ Ben Agajanian

August 28, 2016 is kicker Ben Agajanian’s 97th birthday. Agajanian, who lost four toes on his right foot in an accident while in college, was signed by the Eagles in 1945 and later that year acquired by the Steelers for whom he scored his first NFL points. Over the next 20 years, Ben would kick for eight teams in three leagues during 13 seasons and score 655 points.

One of those teams was the 1961 Packers. Agajanian had kicked for the Giants when Vince Lombardi was the team’s offensive coach in the mid-1950s. With Paul Hornung in the Army Reserves and Jerry Kramer hurt, Vince was searching for a kicker in mid-November. On November 14, the Associated Press reported that the Dallas Texans of the American Football League had passed Agajanian through AFL waivers with the expectation of acquiring Green Bay taxi squad quarterback Val Keckin in return, despite the fact the two leagues were at war. Officially, the NFL considered Agajanian a free agent. Keckin, however, refused to report.

The 42-year old Agajanian had only made three of nine field goals with the Texans in 1961, but one was for 51 yards the week before against Buffalo. Bud Lea reported on November 18 that the Packers had signed Ben after he passed through waivers, with no mention of compensation. And there is no mention of compensation when Stram discusses the “trade” in his book, They’re Playing My Game.” Cliff Christl talked to Agajanian in 2002 and quoted him saying that after the Buffalo game, “Then I flew home and got a call from one of Lombardi’s assistants, and he says, ‘The deal is off. They won’t let you come.’ I said, ‘They already traded me.’ So I called Hank Stram and told him, ‘I’m going to Green Bay. I don’t care what you say.” He said, ‘Good luck.’”

Agajanian officially appeared in three games for the Packers, but only scored in two. On November 19, he kicked five extra points against the Rams. A month later in the season finale on December 17, he kicked a field goal and three extra points again against the Rams. Other than that, he was insurance in case Hornung couldn’t get leave from the reserves.

Ben went to training camp with the Packers in 1962, but was cut on September 4. Two years later, he turned up again in Green Bay as a kicking coach trying to straighten out a slumping Hornung. Agajanian also had a kicking school for many years and tutored many NFL kickers. Ben’s son Larry was drafted in the seventh round of the 1969 draft by the Packers but failed to make the team as a defensive lineman, instead spending the season on the taxi squad.

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Ten Essential Packer Books: #4

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The History of the Green Bay Packers. By Larry Names (Angel Press, 1987, 1989, 1990, 1995)

Let’s make that “Ten Essential Packer Titles,” since this entry is a four-volume set published over an eight-year period. Twenty years later, it is still the most thorough history of the team, at least through 1958 when the final volume concludes. Names meticulously went through the original source material of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, the team’s founding organization, to uncover the true story of the team.

In the process, he debunks myths and apocrypha, provides extensive details on the team’s series of financial crises, depicts Curly Lambeau with all his flaws and foibles and uncovers proof of little known facts, such as Joe Hoeffel being the Packers’ real first head coach. Names is the go-to monographic source for the first 40 years of the Green Bay Packers.

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Colorized custom card in 1926 Spaulding style.

 

Packers Top Rookie: 1999

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After the Packers’ defense got torched by rookie Randy Moss twice in 1998, Ron Wolf focused on that side of the ball in the draft to try to revive a team that seemed to be slipping. Under new coach Ray Rhodes, 17 rookies made the squad, but the class was a decidedly mixed bag.

In the draft, Wolf went for cornerbacks with his first three picks, but nearly struck out. Clemson’s Antwan Edwards came in round one, Iowa’s Fred Vinson in round two and Memphis’ Mike McKenzie in round three. The Packers then drafted Kentucky State defensive lineman Cletidus Hunt in round three, Oklahoma runner De’Mond Parker in round five, Missouri guard Craig Heimburger also in round five, Montana tackle Scott Curry in round six and Alcorn State receiver Donald Driver in round seven.

Other drafted rookies included defensive tackle Antonio Dingle, a seventh round pick of the Steelers, defensive back Tyrone Bell, a sixth round pick of the Chargers, and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, drafted by Green Bay a year earlier in round six. Dingle appeared in six games and Bell one for the Packers. Hasselbeck would be traded to Seattle two years later.

Six undrafted free agents also made the 1999 roster: fullback Matt Snider, runner Basil Mitchell, tight end Lamont Hall, punter Chris Hanson and defensive backs Tod McBride and Rodney Artmore. McBride was the only one to stick for several seasons, but none ever started.

The top two draft picks did not pan out. Edwards lasted five years in Green Bay but only became a starter the final year, as a safety; a banged-up Vinson was traded after one year for Ahman Green. Three other picks did make an impact. Cletidus Hunt started 60 games in his six years as a Packer, but was known mostly for inconsistency. Donald Driver slowly developed into a Pro Bowl receiver who caught more passes than any other Packer. McKenzie, though, paid off from the start. He became a regular as a rookie and picked off six passes as a solid, physical corner; Mike McKenzie was the Packers’ top rookie in 1999.

Ten Essential Packer Books: #5

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Packer Legends in Facts: Stats, Rosters, Team History and All Team Photos of the Green Bay Packers. By Eric Goska (Tech/Data, 1993)

Pictured above is a copy of the second edition that came out two years after Goska’s first foray. A later edition, retitled Green Bay Packers: A Measure of Greatness, was published in 2003. The initial edition of this book was published in the same year that Mosaic, the first graphical web browser, was introduced to provide access to the nascent world wide web and spur its growth as an information source. So, well before the WWW made ready access to data widely available, this book was a godsend to Packer fans.

Painstakingly researched and compiled by Goska, this book brought together annual team stats, rosters, uniform numbers and photos, as well as seasonal write-ups to form an essential history of the team. Appendices included career and postseason stats and much more. What’s more, with Goska, you were getting accurate information.

Today, with sites like Pro Football Reference and Pro Football Archives on the web, so much is easily accessible, yet I still find myself continuing to pick up this volume to thumb through or to look up information on a particular season. Sometimes it’s just easier to look through a book, and this one is pure gold.

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Custom card in Mayo Cut Plug style and features a colorized image of Curly striking a statuesque pose.

Packers Top Rookie: 1998

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With Reggie White showing signs of age, Ron Wolf attempted to find his successor with the 19th pick of the 1998 draft, North Carolina defensive end Vonnie Holliday. Wolf then gave up his second round pick to grab guard Mike Wahle after he was bounced from the Navy for steroid use. The rest of the 1998 draft was not so successful. Tennessee defensive end Jonathan Brown came in round three, Morris Brown defensive back Roosevelt Blackmon in round four, Jackson State receiver Bradford in round five and New Mexico safety Scott McGarrahan in round six. Brown appeared in four Packer games and Blackmon three. Bradford was speedy, but never fulfilled his potential. McGarrahan was just a guy.

Two other drafted players joined the 1998 rookie class in Green Bay. Center Mike Flanagan, a third round pick from 1996, recovered from his leg injuries to make the team at last, and defensive back Kerry Cook, the Viking fifth round pick in 1998, spent nine games with Green Bay.

Undrafted free agents included defensive lineman Billy Lyon, guard Joe Andruzzi , linebacker Jude Waddy and runner Michael Blair. Lyon would prove to be a useful reserve for several seasons.

In the long run, Wahle and Flanagan became anchors of a very solid Packer line in the new millennium, but were not much of a factor as rookies. Vonnie Holliday would start for five years in Green Bay and last 15 years in the NFL, eventually playing for six teams. Always stout and steady, he never became a star and never went to a Pro Bowl. However, his eight sacks as a rookie playing opposite Reggie White would prove to be a career high; Vonnie Holliday was the Packers’ top rookie in 1998.

Boyd Dowler’s Scout

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In the Packer Hall of Fame, they have the above scouting report on college quarterback Boyd Dowler posted in an exhibit. As you can read, it’s a rave review, “their best passer…best receiver…thin but athletic…a #1 draft choice for someone.” Although the Packers drafted Dowler in round three, this scout’s evaluation proved to be dead on.

What really caught my eye, though, was the name of the scout, Clive Rush, a man who had perhaps the saddest and most bizarre head coaching tenure in NFL history. Born in De Graff, Ohio, Rush played end for Woody Hayes in-state at Miami University through 1952 and then spent one season with Green Bay where he caught 14 passes and was the team’s regular punter .

In 1954, he began his coaching career at Dayton before moving on to Ohio State as Hayes’ top assistant for three years. Subsequently, Clive coached under Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma in 1958 (when he wrote the assessment of Dowler) and then returned to OSU in 1959 until getting his shot as a head coach at Toledo in 1960. Posting a meager 8-20 record at Toledo through 1962, Rush left in 1963 to become Weeb Ewbank’s offensive coach with the Jets. Clive played a key role in developing Joe Namath as a professional quarterback, and Joe said in the aftermath of New York’s triumph in Super Bowl III, “I hope [Clive] doesn’t take the job with the Patriots. He’s too damn good a football coach for us to lose. I want him to stay with the Jets as long as I’m here.”

The Patriots did hire Clive, however, in 1969. The first omen that things were not going to work out well for the Pats came at Clive’s opening press conference in Boston when he was electrocuted by a loose microphone wire. His first comment after getting over the shock was, “I heard the Boston press are tough, but I didn’t think they were this tough.”

What was really tough, though, was winning just five of his 21 games as Boston’s head coach. Instead, his tenure was known for a series of odd incidents:

  • He insisted the team’s bus driver drive the wrong way up a one-way road.
  • He tried to call Commissioner Pete Rozelle from the field telephone during one game.
  • Suspicious of the team’s locker room being bugged, he announced in a loud voice new position assignments to “confuse” the imagined eavesdroppers.
  • He fired quarterback Tom Sherman for his negative comments to the press.
  • He instituted the Black Power Defense in one game by putting 11 black players on defense at one time, but had to employ some offensive players to fill out the scheme since the Patriots didn’t have 11 black defensive players.

After the 1969 season, Rush checked into Massachusetts General Hospital suffering from nervous exhaustion. As the 1970 season was about to begin, he cut two defensive backs and had the PA announcer at Harvard Stadium intone, “Will Bob Gladieux please report to the locker room.” Gladieux, who had been cut from the team earlier, happened to be in the stands and was rehired on the spot to play that day. Center Jon Morris told Baker and Corbett for The Most Memorable Games in Patriots History, “Clive Rush had some serious problems. He suffered from depression. He was an alcoholic. He had this idea in mind that because he worked for Paul Brown in Ohio, he was the next great coach coming down the line. He didn’t have a clue. He couldn’t deal with his demons, and we as players and fans suffered for it.”

Clive resigned in November 1970, and George Allen hired Rush for his Redskins’ staff in March 1971, but Rush resigned six weeks later. He got out of football and sold insurance, but concluded, “I tried to fall in love with insurance, but I couldn’t.” He returned to coaching in 1976 with the Merchant Marine Academy. Although Rush led the school to an 8-1 record that year, he was fired at season’s end because of player unrest. Subsequently, Clive ran a car dealership and became the regional director for Groliers, the company that published the Encyclopedia Americana. He died from a sudden heart attack at age 49 in 1980.

(Rush material adapted from NFL Head Coaches: A Biographical Dictionary, 1920-2011.)

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Custom cards are colorized.