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Labriola on history of signing No. 1 picks

Ready or not, here it comes:

• Once upon a time, or to be more precise, the time in the NFL before the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement was ratified, signing draft choices, particularly first-round draft choices, often descended into a long, drawn out, frustrating process, and often with a bizarre twist or two to the story along the way. And the higher the pick, the more frustrating and bizarre the negotiations could become.

• Since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, the Steelers have earned a pick in the top 10 of an NFL Draft only six times: 1970, 1971, 1986, 1987, 1989, and 2000. In this most recent draft, the Steelers began with the 20th overall selection but made a trade with the Denver Broncos to move up to 10th overall.

• The selections of quarterback Terry Bradshaw first overall in 1970 and wide receiver Frank Lewis eighth overall in 1971 came before the explosion in the amounts of contracts paid to unproven rookies, and the signing of those two players didn’t move the frustrating/weird needle at all. But the 1980s were a decidedly different story.

• During that decade, the Steelers had three picks in the top 10 of NFL Drafts. In 1986, they used the ninth overall pick to select Temple guard John Rienstra; in 1987, it was the 10th overall pick, and the player was Purdue cornerback Rod Woodson; and in 1989, it was the seventh overall pick, and the player was Georgia running back Tim Worley.

• To say none of those three contract negotiations went smoothly is an understatement. We begin with Rienstra, whose signing came 24 days after the Steelers were to report to Saint Vincent College – in other words, almost a month late – and the team’s top rookie that year barely arrived in Latrobe in enough time to break camp with the rest of the team.

• In the interim, Rienstra was a regular topic of Chuck Noll’s daily press briefing, and after a couple of weeks of facing the same questions, Noll blew a gasket. Looking back, it was typical coachspeak about the importance of training camp and how a player who was missing so much training camp likely would be of no use whatsoever to the team during his rookie season.

• Maybe coachspeak to civilians, but when Noll delivered it with a look that could turn a 300-pound man into a massive bowl of jello, it made an impact. Even in that pre-internet, pre-cellphone era, news of Noll’s ire soon reached Rienstra in Colorado Springs, where he was living at the time, and the message had the impact of a cattle prod.

• Rienstra, admittedly high-strung with some anxiety issues coming into all of this, immediately packed up his belongings and started driving from Colorado to Latrobe even though he was still unsigned. The one-man journey took two-and-a-half days, and to break things up, Rienstra would stop at rest areas along the interstate and run sets of 40-yard sprints in the grassy areas where other travelers might be sitting at picnic tables enjoying lunch with their children. What a visual that must have been.

• The following spring, the Steelers had the 10th overall pick based on their 6-10 finish in 1986, and some draft day luck allowed them to end up with Woodson, the best cornerback prospect that year. But all of the feel-good that resulted from being able to select Woodson soon dissolved once contract negotiations began.

• During his time at Purdue, Woodson also ran track – his event was the 110-meter hurdles – and so with the 1988 Summer Olympics set to begin the following September in Seoul, South Korea, his negotiating team let the Steelers know that if their contract proposal was judged inadequate the client was perfectly happy turning his attention to the pursuit of an Olympic gold medal.

• The United States track stars of that era were Edwin Moses and Carl Lewis, and so initially Woodson’s threats seemed to ring hollow. But then shortly after committing himself to training for the 110-meter hurdles, and with only two weeks of serious work, Woodson posted a time of 13.29 seconds, which was a personal best, the third-best time recorded by an American that year, and tied for the fourth-best time in the world that year.

• All of a sudden, track and the pursuit of a gold medal didn’t sound like a hollow threat. In a story that appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Steelers spokesman Joe Gordon was quoted as saying, “Cornerback is our weakest position. Prior to the draft, we knew (Woodson) had some potential as a track man. At that time, he did not appear as hot a prospect as he is now. Realistically, we have to feel now, track is a possibility.”

• Back in those days, another weapon at the teams’ disposal during stalled negotiations was to threaten to force the player to re-enter the draft the following season and roll the dice as to whether he’d get picked as high, and consequently get paid as much. But this tactic didn’t seem as though it would work with Woodson, because he had run a 4.29 in the 40-yard dash and had made himself into a world class hurdler with just a month worth of serious training. An athlete, and a cornerback at that, with those credentials certainly would get picked in the first round of the next NFL Draft.

• It still took time, but the sides eventually agreed to terms and Woodson signed his rookie contract on Oct. 28. He made his first appearance with the Steelers on Nov. 8 in a victory over Kansas City, and then two weeks after that, he had his first professional pick-six in a victory over Cincinnati.

• In 1989, the Steelers used the seventh overall pick in the draft on Georgia running back Tim Worley, and his agent offered the most ludicrous threat of all when contract talks stalled. When Worley’s agent, Harold “Doc” Daniels, became frustrated with the pace and progress of the negotiations, he told reporters his client had options outside of football.

• That option? Selling insurance. That’s right, Daniels said Worley was going to take a pre-licensing training course, which typically requires only a few days to complete and covers topics that appear on the state licensing examination. Students in pre-licensing courses learn about insurance ethics, different types of insurance policies, and their state’s laws as they apply to the type of insurance they want to sell.

• Once Worley took the course and passed the test, which Daniels made clear was a formality, it was going to be good-bye to football and hello to selling insurance.

• The Steelers ultimately ended this charade and concluded the negotiations when they sent Worley a facsimile of a check made out to him in the amount of $1 million, which was the amount of the signing bonus contained in their most recent proposal. Maybe it was that visual that broke the stalemate – imagine the impact of a check, even a facsimile, made out to you in the amount of $1 million – and Worley signed on Aug. 20, one month and one day after training camp had opened at Saint Vincent College.

• The Steelers’ most recent top 10 draft pick prior to the trade with the Broncos that netted Devin Bush came in 2000 when Plaxico Burress joined the Steelers as the eighth pick of that draft. Because Burress arrived in the NFL after the league had gone to a system of free agency tied to a salary cap, there were significant limitations in place to prevent the kind of nonsense that was rampant in the late 1980s and into the 1990s.

• With Burress, the theater came in the final run-up to the contract being signed, and then the announcement of the signed contract.

• Once it got close to the time for the Steelers to report to training camp in 2000, Burress traveled to Pittsburgh and hid out in a Downtown hotel under an assumed name while final details of his rookie contract were hammered out between agent Leigh Steinberg and Art Rooney II.

• Then when it came time to hold a news conference to announce Burress’ signing – and with the team already a few days into training camp – it took place in the Saint Vincent Gallery in Kennedy Hall on campus, a large room with ornate furnishings and with millions of dollars worth of artwork hanging on the walls.

• When it was his turn to speak, Burress said, “I want to make an impact right away, come in and put myself in position to be productive ... catch touchdowns ..... and lead this team to the playoffs. I've always been a confident guy in my talents.”

• And shortly after that, Burress was up and gone, down several flights of stairs, from a room filled with paintings on the wall to the lower level of the same building with lockers lining the walls. A quick change of clothes later, and Plaxico Burress was on the field for his first practice in pads as a professional football player, having missed only the run-test and the first three days of on-field work.

• On May 12, 2019, a date that was before the end of a three-day rookie minicamp, before the start of OTAs, a little more than four weeks before mandatory minicamp, and more than three months before the anticipated date of the start of training camp, the Steelers issued a press release that began with the following: “PITTSBURGH – The Steelers have signed their first-round selection, linebacker Devin Bush, from the 2019 NFL Draft. Financial terms of the four-year deal were not disclosed.”

• No holdout. No threats. Bush didn’t jet off to Europe to train for the Olympics, and his agent wasn’t suggesting he might give up football for a fulfilling career as an insurance salesman. Sometimes when things change, it can be for the better.

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