NEW YORK — As legend has it, Bobby Layne, the most successful quarterback in Detroit Lions history, placed a curse upon his team after being traded. Angry that he had been dealt following three NFL titles, Layne predicted the Lions wouldn’t win again for 50 years.
A half-century later, the lowly Lions, with just one playoff victory since the curse began and fresh off an 0-16 season, held the first overall pick in the NFL draft. They selected Matthew Stafford, who graduated from the same high school as Layne, with hopes he could return the cursed franchise to heights not seen since their former quarterback made that dramatic prediction.
It was fate.
Actually, the legend of Layne’s curse is apocryphal at best, but it still makes for an excellent story. And whether it was by destiny or design, the truth is that Stafford had been preparing for this moment, when his name was signed on a lucrative contract then announced at a podium at Radio City Music Hall by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, for a long time.
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From the state championship he won in high school to the hype surrounding his recruitment at Georgia to the moment that he stood alongside Goodell on stage holding a Lions jersey with his name stitched across the back, Stafford was born to be an NFL quarterback.
“I love football, I love talking ball,” Stafford said. “I’m excited about figuring out playcalling and learning a new offense.”
Another bit of intriguing trivia that simply underscores Stafford’s date with destiny at the 2009 draft: The former Georgia quarterback was joined by Texas Tech wide receiver Michael Crabtree and Baylor offensive lineman Jason Smith as top-10 selections. All three grew up within a few miles of each other in Dallas. Even as a kid, Stafford was playing against great players.
Everything about Stafford’s journey to the NFL seems magical.
At Highland Park High School, where Layne once roamed the halls, the program had employed a run-first mantra on offense for years. Stafford joked that he expected to end up a fullback or a tight end. As it turned out, a coaching change just before Stafford’s arrival led to a more vertical offense, and the legend of Stafford took root on those high school fields.
As a junior in high school, Stafford was called a sure-fire pro and potential top draft pick by ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper.
When he arrived at Georgia, Stafford was already a legend — an All-American and the Bulldogs’ most highly touted recruit since Herschel Walker.
As a sophomore, Stafford led Georgia to a Sugar Bowl win and a No. 2 national ranking, and the talk of an early trip to the pros had already begun.
A year later, it was official.
“I’ve been through a lot in my football career,” Stafford said. “I’ve played in a lot of football games, and I know what it takes to win, and I’m excited about learning what it takes to win in the NFL.”
There are numerous lessons Stafford will learn in the NFL, but he still wants to step in and start immediately. After all, he’s been preparing for the pros nearly his entire life.
It’s not just about the cannon arm or the wealth of big-game experience. Stafford’s whole attitude looks the part of a pro.
He talks about his run-ins with NFL stars as if they were old friends.
Troy Aikman has been a great guy to have around. “We just go out there and talk, and we don’t even talk about football sometimes,” Stafford said.
Oh, and he just happened to bump into Drew Brees at the Super Bowl.
“He just said to stay confident,” Stafford said. “To hear it from that guy meant a lot.”
Throughout the past weeks leading up the draft, Stafford has been far more of a celebrity than a prospect.
His name was bandied about by Kiper and Todd McShay on ESPN’s football shows. “Those guys are geniuses,” Stafford joked.
He made guest appearances on CBS’s morning show and a late-night NBC show, throwing footballs at targets for the amusement of the crowd.
He tried to avoid the spotlight on his trip to New York for the draft, choosing to fly coach. The pilots came back to ask for an autograph.
It might seem overwhelming for a 21-year-old, but it’s old hat for Stafford.
“That’s something I got a taste of at Georgia,” he said. “It’s the same old stuff, and it’s fun. How can you complain about that?”
A natural pro
The days leading up to the draft were frenzied for Stafford’s agent. Detroit wanted a deal in place before making its selection. Backroom negotiations were ongoing for three full days between the Lions and Tom Condon, who represents the quarterback.
Stafford wanted no part of it. Let the lawyers and agents figure it out, he said. He was no good at math anyway.
Stafford was out to dinner at Bar Americain, a trendy New York restaurant owned by famous chef Bobby Flay, late Friday night with his former roommates at Georgia, Shaun Chapas, Fred Munzenmaier and Kris Durham.
The quarterback had been delayed by numerous events planned by the NFL and had arrived late to eat. It was nearly midnight before the group was finishing up their meals. Stafford’s roommates hounded him for contract details all night, but he answered truthfully that he didn’t know a thing.
“We actually thought he was keeping us in the dark,” Chapas said. “We thought it was already done and he was just keeping us in the dark.”
Eventually, Stafford’s phone rang. Condon was on the other end, informing Stafford that he was now a rich man, the proud owner of a six-year, $78-million contract, complete with the honor of being the first player selected in Saturday’s draft.
Stafford’s reaction was reserved, as usual.
“When he got the call, it just came over his face,” Chapas said. “He really didn’t say much; we all could just see it.”
It’s the same way he has handled the entire process, from his early days as a high school star to his new role as the savior of a franchise. He’s a pro.
“That’s the thing I respect about him the most is how mature he is and how he handles stuff,” Munzenmaier said. “I know if I were in his shoes today, I couldn’t have handled it the way he did.”
It’s been a whirlwind, to be sure. Not just the past few weeks, although those have kept Stafford as busy as he’s ever been, but all of it.
As Stafford was rushing out of his house in Athens to head to New York, Chapas pointed out an award hanging on the wall. It read “2006 Parade High School All-American.”
Three years, Chapas said. It was hard to believe so much had happened in so little time.
“It’s been a crazy ride,” Stafford said. “It’s happened quick but I’m excited for the next step.”
He should be. The NFL has been waiting for his arrival for a long time, and the Lions have been waiting for their savior even longer.