JJ Birden: My NFL Draft Story

Time and again when you read about an NFL players draft story, it sounds somewhat familiar. It’s fair to believe a good number of NFL players dreamed of the day they would play in the NFL. Everything they did in high school and college was all in preparation of accomplishing that goal. So as soon as draft day came along it was a mere formality. However that wasn’t the case for me.

Competing in the NFL was one of the farthest thoughts from my mind. I think the first time I heard my name and the NFL mentioned in the same sentence was my senior year at Lakeridge high school in Lake Oswego Oregon. My Uncle Sonny, following one of my games, said I would be playing in the NFL sooner or later. His opinion was so strong that he even had me pledge to give him my first touchdown ball. I immediately told him he was nuts!

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I had the privilege of attending the University of Oregon on a Track & Field scholarship. Hence track was my main focus. Even though I had a spectacular high school football career, no Division I schools recruited me to play football. I took that personally and it inspired me to prove them wrong. As I was being recruited by the various Division I colleges for track and field, I always asked the track coaches what they thought about me playing football too. All the major schools said not a chance! There were a few smaller Division II schools that were acceptable to it but I had my heart locked in on Division I. To my surprise the University of Oregon was the only school that did not baulk at the idea of me playing football. The agreement was if I participated in track the first year, the track coaches would do all they could to get me a chance to walk on the football team. For me, that was all I wanted, an opportunity.

The following year I had to beg the Oregon’s head coach Rich Brooks for a chance to play. He ultimately came around and agreed. When he said yes, all I could think about was “opportunity is knocking” and I was about to blast threw the door! Once more my motivation was not to play in the NFL, it was just to prove everyone wrong. I might have been diminutive in build but I knew I could unquestionably play with the big boys.

Fast-forward to the 1988. At this point I played four years of football and also ran track for the Ducks. Throughout those years, I did not have the most impressive college football career. I experience two serious injuries’ which caused me to play only half of the season of my junior and senior years. In spite of these difficulties, I still got invited to the NFL combine. This is where they assess the top 300 college football prospects to see if they are NFL ready and what rounds they should be drafted in. I heard I was actually one of the last to be invited. The thoughts about me circulating were that I was an unknown track athlete who could in fact catch the ball. That view point did not trouble me given that I was all about “seizing this opportunity.”

As soon as the combine ended, it was time to focus on my senior year in track and field. I was truly looking forward to my senior year in track. I was the defending champion in the Pac-10 for the long jump, I made it to the NCAA’s Track and Field Championship the preceding year and place 8th in the long jump. This qualified me for the All-American track team in the long jump. I was planning on a BIG senior year. Yet what took place on April 25th 1988 changed all that.

April 24th, was the first day of the 1988 NFL draft. By this time I had an agent Frank Bauer of Sunwest Sports. Frank believed I had a small possibility of being drafted on the first day of the NFL draft. However I did not have the same belief as him. Consequently I did not pay attention to day one of the NFL draft and went to class. Even though I attended the combine and did quite well, I still was not convinced I would be drafted into the NFL. I remember observing the other great wide receivers like Tim Brown, Michael Irvin, Sterling Sharp and Anthony Miller there. While I was the little unknown WR at 5’10 and 155 lbs, who wasn’t sure he belonged there.

The second day of the NFL draft, I had the same plans of going to class. After going backward and forward with my agent once more on whether or not I should stay in my apartment or to go to class, my roommate Rod Green (the other starting Oregon wide receiver) persuaded me to pay attention to my agent. Rod said, “You know it’s possible that he’s right you could possibly get drafted. He knows these things that’s why you hired him as your agent.” I listened to him and remained in my room and patiently waited. At some point after that the moment started to become unreal mainly because I received calls from two NFL teams, the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Both mainly told me if I’m not drafted they would like me to sign with them as a free agent. I remember thinking to myself this is really going to come about; I will be in the NFL. The thought was still odd to me but it was obvious something was about to occur. I can’t recall the precise time but I remember lying on my single bed and I abruptly received a phone call that totally blew me away. I picked up the phone and the voice on the other side said, “Is this JJ Birden?” “Yes” I responded. “This is Marty Schottenheimer.” I fired back, “Who is this?” “Marty Schottenheimer head coach of the Cleveland Browns.” I asked, “Is this a joke?” “No it isn’t and we just drafted you kid and we are excited for you to join the Cleveland Browns family. I answered, “oh so this is for real? I guess my agent was right.” Marty said, “What?” “Never mind” I answered. Next I spent the next ten minutes speaking to him about what I was doing and when I would be in Cleveland. My heart was beating like crazy during the whole discussion. I just kept announcing to myself, “I am going to the NFL, now way!” Once we concluded our conversation, Frank calls me and right away said, “8th round Cleveland Browns!” (Clink the link if you would like to see the re-enactment of the conversation between Marty)

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Soon as Frank and I completed talking, someone called on the other line. When I clicked over to respond, it was the General Manager of the Washington Redskins Bobby Bethard. He was contacting my roommate Rod. He ended up signing with them as a free agent.

As you can imagine, this was a awesome day for us in our little apartment house in Eugene Oregon. A moment I will always treasure. What I am most pleased of is the simple fact I was the 216 pick in 8th round of the 1988 NFL draft. They don’t even have 8 rounds any longer. At 5’10 157 lbs, I went on to play 9 years in the NFL. Which was much longer than a lot of players who were drafted ahead of me. I would say I proved the doubters were incorrect.

This weblog is a small example of what I will be sharing in my upcoming book When Opportunity Knocks, 8 Surefire Ways to Take Advantage! In it I continue to talk about various memories from my NFL career and connect them to eight principles to aid you to “seize your opportunities” in life. To learn more go to www.jjbirden.com

See JJ’s NFL highlight film at www.jjbirden.ws

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