Revisiting and Appreciating ESPN's Broadcast of the Legendary 1983 NFL Draft


This month marks the 40th anniversary of arguably the best NFL Draft class of all time. For whatever reason, someone recorded the entire first round of the draft in 1983 on VHS and it made its way to YouTube back in 2020. The videos are embedded below, along with some notes from a recent viewing.

The '83 Draft took place at the New York Sheraton where it was held from 1980 to 1985. While Pete Rozelle was the commissioner at the time, Don Weiss, the league's executive director who was also in charge of gameday operations for the Super Bowl for many years, announced the picks. Those picks included eight future Hall of Famers, including Richard Dent, the latest drafted Hall of Famer of the Super Bowl era. There were also a few quarterbacks involved.

ESPN's coverage was led in the Sheraton Ballroom by George Grande, who was joined by Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman (Dr. Z) and Howard Balzer of The Sporting News. Sal Marchiano was there to work as the sideline reporter interviewing the commissioner and random people throughout the day. Rozelle says the draft, which was 12 ROUNDS, would hopefully finish around midnight.

The broadcast begins with the small panel discussing the teams that the Baltimore Colts are trying to trade the No. 1 pick to because Stanford's John Elway has told them he would not play in Baltimore. They did it anyway. Despite reports of multiple teams trying to trade for the pick, Elway would not be traded until May 2nd. In that time his father Jack said that he would never play for "Irsay or Coach Kush." Irsay would move the team to Indianapolis in the middle of the night less than a year later.

Leandra Riley, who also (at least) covered NASCAR for ESPN, and would eventually do play-by-play for the Nets but does not have a Wikipedia page, was on location at some place called Lord Jim's in Hawthorne, New Jersey. She was there to interview Tommy Vigorito of the Miami Dolphins, a fifth-round draft pick in the 1991 NFL Draft. Vigorito, who had rushed for a total of 215 yards in his first two seasons, was asked if he had any advice about making the transition from college to the NFL for future three-time Pro Bowler Curt Warner and Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson. His advice? Don't expect to set the world on fire right away. Dickerson and Warner would finish first and third in the NFL in rushing as rookies.

As you continue to watch the draft coverage, they repeatedly throw it back to Lord Jim's, which does not appear to exist anymore. Multiple football people were there. I guess at the time you just followed Tommy Vigorito wherever he went and let the magic unfold.

Back in Bristol, Bob Ley is anchoring the coverage with Bud Wilkinson, who had coached Oklahoma in the 40's, 50's and 60's, and Chris Berman. Ley and Berman look like absolute babies. Even with the VHS quality video. Talk about going back, back, back in time. Christopher Berman, then 27, would marry a Connecticut elementary school teacher named Katherine Alexinski approximately three months later according to the New York Times announcement.

The draft went 12 rounds, meaning Mr. Irrelevant, John Tuggle, a running back out of Cal, was picked with the 335th overall pick. Tuggle died from cancer in 1986 and inspired a 30 For 30 short called The Irrelevant Giant.

The player taken before Tuggle at pick 334 was Anthony Carter, who was Michigan's all-time leader in receptions, touchdowns and a bunch of other stuff at the time. Carter was drafted by the Miami Dolphins, but like Jim Kelly, chose to play the first couple years of his professional career in the USFL before he returned to the NFL and became a three-time Pro Bowler for the Minnesota Vikings.

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Forty-eight seconds into part two they throw to Greg Wyatt who has what would have to qualify as the kind of scoop an NFL insider would murder someone to get in 2023: John Elway, who was picked first in the draft like an hour ago, was going to go play baseball for George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees rather than be the quarterback for the Baltimore Colts. After the report Bob Ley simply said, "We'll see what happens," and they moved on with the broadcast. Simpler times!

Todd Blackledge was selected a few minutes later. He was the second quarterback taken and didn't have a great NFL career, but he went on to be a broadcaster for ESPN for years. In fact, he will call the Big Ten Saturday Night Game in 2023 with Noah Eagle, who was born 14 years after Blackledge was drafted.

After Blackledge, the Eagles selected Mississippi State's Michael Haddix, a running back. Obviously, they felt good about him. Though, not as good as the Houston Oilers felt about Bruce Matthews as they had the commissioner back up on stage announcing that pick in less than a minute. Or at least that's how it looks on the tape. Just perfectly placed confidence as Matthews played nearly two decades with the Oilers and made the Hall of Fame.

In the third clip we are introduced to Brian Walsh and Kevin Walsh who are in the ballroom representing the Buffalo Bills. This duo is in charge of, eventually, picking Jim Kelly, one of the most important players in franchise history. It is revealed that they do not work fulltime for the Bills. And apparently that is the case for most of the people in attendance. "They are friends of friends. That kind of situation. I think they stay in this room year-round." This means that the people handing in the official picks in the room were whoever the teams knew who could make it to New York that day.

While waiting for the Kelly pick, the Detroit Lions took Florida fullback James Jones at No. 13. I repeat: the Detroit Lions took a fullback at No. 13. One pick ahead of Jim Kelly, who would call into ESPN on a landline later in the broadcast.

Early in this clip Ley asks Boomer to project the next pick. Berman, without using a single nickname or sound effect, goes on to correctly predict the next three picks. That's some good insider work.

Ley then notes that there have been no trades yet, which is amazing since three of the first five picks were traded before the draft and the first and fourth pick would be swapped within the next two weeks.

In part five we're just in the middle of the draft. Talking potential Elway trades and wondering what the Steelers are going to do. There's so little going on that I'm not even going to embed it!

Finally, over two hours into the telecast they send Marchiano upstairs to talk to the people in the balcony. Apparently known as "the draftniks," they are there to see how their own draft predictions pan and there are prizes for who gets the most picks right, including a trip to the Super Bowl. One woman has predicted 20 of 22 players while nailing eight of the correct teams. This actually sounds impressive.

Marchiano interviews two Jets fans. They both agree they should take Dan Marino because they could use some depth at quarterback behind Richard Todd. A few minutes later the Jets wasted no time handing in their pick: Ken O'Brien. The boos start. They are still going today.

Berman breaks down the O'Brien selection saying the Jets can sit him for a few years to learn behind Todd. Richard Todd would start all 16 games for the Jets in 1983, throwing for 18 touchdowns and 26 interceptions. Ley notes that the Jets are "the one team of any team that has no pressing need at any position." This team that was in such a great position and just building depth would go 7-9 each of the next two seasons. We have been laughing at the Jets for 40 years! It's amazing!

With the Raiders pick coming up they air an interview with Raiders coach Tom Flores who has the thickest, blackest head of hair you have ever seen.

Another NFL legend finally makes an appearance.

Jimmy the Greek
Jimmy the Greek /

Tommy Vigorito is back and predicts the Dolphins, coming off a trip to the Super Bowl, will pick a defensive lineman or defensive back. They end up taking Dan Marino, who was coming off an awful season at Pitt. Dr. Z really doesn't understand it. "I don't know who is going to work with him down there? Where is the great quarterback coaching genius?" Balzer also appears to dislike the pick.

With Darrell Green going to Washington with the 28th pick the first round comes to a close. Seven of the final 10 picks in the first round ended up making Pro Bowls, with the last two selections of the round going to the Hall of Fame. That's pretty good work.

Overall the first round took three hours and 15 minutes. It was both simple and sprawling. They had two three-man crews, which included some legendary football media members, one person wandering the floor and another reporter on location with some random football players in New Jersey. Multiple draft picks called in during the broadcast. Dr. Z and Berman sounded just as plugged in to the league as any insider today and they didn't have the benefits of sending quick texts, e-mails or DM's. They were collecting all this information over the phone in an era when people actually wanted to talk.

Considering this was four decades ago and the Draft wasn't even televised a few years earlier, this was a pretty ambitious broadcast and they really pulled it off. There aren't really that many major differences between this primitive Draft broadcast and what you'll see on ESPN next week. It obviously looks a lot better and the sets are bigger and fancier, but the formula holds up. They have bigger panels and more people spread out around the country to break news and do interviews, but it's really the same thing they were doing in ESPN's infancy. If nothing else, looking back it's impressive how quickly they figured some of this stuff out.