He stood there and sort of rubbed his chin, thinking deeply.
I could see by the look in his eyes how competitive he was. Extremely competitive. To some, it was just a trivia question. But to Gil Brandt, it was more than that. It was history. It was his life. And the answer to this trivia question was a player that he signed.
I gave him a hint. I didn’t know that he wanted one, but I couldn’t bare his frustration anymore. Finally, the light bulb clicked on over his head.
“Margene Adkins!”, he blurted out confidently.
I smiled. “That’s right,” I said.
He had the look on his face of a dad who had just won a giant stuffed animal for his kid at the state fair.
It was the first time I had met Gil Brandt. I knew all about him and had heard him on the radio several times. He was at the Super Bowl Fan Fest doing some media work and I knew he loved trivia. I was working for Collector’s Edge at the time, and he was wandering through the fan fest to take it all in and stopped to look at our booth. I figured a really good trivia question that he had never heard before that involved a player he had once signed might be a good ice breaker.
Margene Adkins, by the way, was the first player to win a Grey Cup ring and a Super Bowl ring. He signed in the CFL with Ottawa as a wide receiver as a 19-year-old and won two Grey Cups as a wide receiver, then signed with Dallas when he was old enough to be in the NFL Draft. The Cowboys selected Adkins, a native of Fort Worth who had played at Henderson County Junior College before going to Canada.
“That’s kind of a trick question,” Brandt said. “We used Margene mainly as a returner because we had Lance Alworth and Bob Hayes as receivers, but he was injured in 1971 and then put on the taxi-squad, so he didn’t get to play in the Super Bowl that year, even though he got a ring and all the bonuses. We ended up trading him to New Orleans and he did very well as a returner there, but he had a lot of injury problems throughout his career.”
One of my jobs at Collector’s Edge was to pick all of the players and write the card backs for our football card sets. It blew my mind that we had an entire team of people plus freelance writers on contract doing that work at my previous employer, Pinnacle. Gil Brandt was, at least for the few minutes he was at our booth, interested in football cards. How do we pick our players? How do we know which rookies to use? How do we get our photos? He had questions.
I told him that, ironically, the hard work was done from February to April, leading up to the draft. Everyone who worked in the football card industry buried themselves in scouting reports and read material and watched interviews. People like Mel Kiper Jr., John Clayton and, yes, Gil Brandt, became people we paid close attention to. We watched every interview on ESPN, we read ever NFL Draft Preview magazine, and we listened to sports radio constantly.
“I can honestly tell you, Mr. Brandt, that you had a hand in every set of NFL cards we made this year,” I told him. “Every interview you gave and every list of prospects you had that went out publicly influenced us.”
In 2000, it wasn’t much different that it is now. Everyone knows who the top 10 or 15 players in each draft are and the top five or six quarterback prospects. But if we had to put 50 rookies in a football card set, we had to go deep into the players who weren’t on everyone’s radar. An example of that was how we had just decided to put Tom Brady into our first Collector’s Edge set of the 2000 season, which came out around the same time as the draft. Brady was projected to be a mid-round to late-round pick. He was not expected to make it to the NFL, but the Montreal Expos had drafted him as a catcher and had projected him to be their best catcher since Gary Carter. The expectation for Brady was that he would not make the NFL, then report to the Expos.
Brady proved everyone but himself wrong. Brandt was the one who was basically responsible for the creation and growth of the NFL Combine. It was that very combine where Brady’s athleticism was rated as questionable. The scouts said the same thing about Joe Montana as well.
Brandt had a history of turning longshots into stars and finding players under rocks that no other scouts would bother turning over. He built the Dallas Cowboys with several players from small colleges and unknown programs. He also had a habit of scouting basketball players as closely as he scouted football players. Ed “Too Tall” Jones went to Tennessee State on a basketball scholarship before switching to football full time as a junior. Cornell Green was a basketball star at Utah State before Brandt turned him into a five-time Pro Bowl safety. Everson Walls grew up in Dallas and was an undrafted free agent out of Grambling State who became a four-time Pro Bowler. Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson was drafted out of NAIA school Langston. Six-time Pro Bowler Cliff Harris was signed as an undrafted free agent from Ouachita Baptist University, an NAIA school in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.
We talked about how there was a lot of hype for the top rookies to enter the draft – players like Peyton Manning. But the true gems in the hobby were the players like Kurt Warner, who seemingly came out of nowhere to become stars. Brandt was a fan of Warner, and said how there are a lot of potentially great players who never get the chance to show what they can do. Warner worked hard, had the right coaches in head coach Dick Vermeil and offensive co-ordinator Mike Martz, and took advantage of the chance he was given.
We also chatted about Jeff Garcia. I showed him the first Collector’s Edge Jeff Garcia card that we had made, and that the photo we used was of Garcia playing for the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL. I told him that I had followed the CFL very closely, and that when San Fransisco signed him to be the back-up for concussion-prone Steve Young, it was a no-brainer that Garcia would be a star in the NFL.
“Everyone thinks of Warren Moon when they think of the CFL,” Brandt said. “But there are a lot of very good players up there who could easily be playing in the NFL. Sometimes players have to go up there and prove themselves before they come back down – players like Mervyn Fernandez and Doug Flutie, and Jeff Garcia as well.”
I crossed paths at NFL events with Brandt a couple more times. I doubt that he remembered me and I didn’t interrupt him for another trivia question. But I was always a fan of his and always listened to him on NFL Network Radio. I thought about him as I listened to different people in the media talk fondly about him after his passing last week.
I don’t think Gil Brandt was ever a collector and I assumed that whatever interest in the hobby he had was casual at best. But for a guy who paid no attention to the hobby and wasn’t a collector, he probably had as much influence on the checklists of NFL sets over the last quarter century than anyone.