- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 17, 2003

In the NFL bylaws of old, it was known as Article VIII, Section 14.

“Any player whose class has graduated shall be eligible to play in the National Football League,” it read. “Graduation means four years after he matriculates in any college.”

This was the NFL’s way of making nice with college football, which operates — free of charge — a farm system for the pros. It was also the NFL’s way of saying, to quote the immortal words of Sam Huff, “this is a man’s game.”

The pace of life was quickening, though — witness the Concorde and the drive-through window — and soon even the NFL had to make allowances for it. And so in 1989, it bowed to the forces of modernity and began allowing underclassmen to enter the league. But only if they had spent three years on a college campus.

This still put the NFL way ahead of baseball, basketball and hockey, all of which signed players right out of high school (or, in the case of certain Latin ballplayers, right out of the maternity ward). Of course, football is different. It’s a collision sport, an animal game, and requires the strongest of constitutions. As Huff — yes, him again — so memorably put it, “We try to hurt everybody.”

Maurice Clarett may well challenge the NFL’s policy and, if he does, it could be an interesting fight. Clarett is the Running Back Without a Team, the kid who starred for national champion Ohio State last year as a freshman before running afoul of the law — NCAA and Columbus PD. Some people think he could play pro ball right now. Others think he should stay in school another year before tangling with the likes of Ray Lewis.

One thing is certain, though: Defending itself on this issue might prove more difficult for the NFL than, say, defending the college draft (which has been assailed in the past). With the draft, the league can use the “competitive balance” argument. It can tell a judge and/or jury: “We need this to level the playing field for the smaller market teams, to give everybody an equal chance to win.”

But the Clarett case wouldn’t be about the economic well being of the NFL. It would be about something else, something more nebulous. It would be about what a group of adults has decided — somewhat arbitrarily, you could argue — is the appropriate age for launching a pro football career.

The NFL, moreover, has more than a few skeletons rattling around in its closet. Every now and then in its history, a player would wind up on a roster who didn’t exactly meet the league’s criteria. Ever heard of Andy Livingston? He was a 19-year-old running back who signed with the Bears in 1964 after just a season of junior college ball. Seems George Halas cared less about Livingston’s age than about his 6-foot-1, 235-pound size and 9.5 speed in the 100-yard dash.

“Actually,” says Livingston, who lives in the Phoenix area now, “I was first contacted when I was 18 by the Baltimore Colts. Don Kellett was the general manager’s name. But he couldn’t get clearance from the league to sign me. See, I’d gotten married right out of high school and had to support a family, and it messed up my plans to go to Arizona State.

“Later on I’m talking to Wilford ‘Whizzer’ White, who played for the Bears [and Arizona State], and he says, ‘Well, how about Chicago? I could talk to Halas.’ When I spoke to Halas I told him about my situation, how [Pete] Rozelle had ruled me ineligible until my college class graduated, and he said, ‘I don’t care what the commissioner said because I put him in office.’ And Halas got Rozelle on the phone and fixed it all up.”

As a rookie, Livingston returned a kickoff 86 yards for a touchdown against the Vikings. The following year he averaged 5.8 yards on 63 rushing attempts. After moving on to New Orleans — the Bears had drafted a fellow named Gale Sayers — he led the Saints with 761 yards rushing in ‘69 and made the Pro Bowl. In other words, joining the NFL at 19 didn’t ruin his life. He wishes the pay had been better but, heck, so does just about everybody else in that era.

Livingston never felt overmatched in his first season — at least not physically. “Maybe psychologically, though,” he says. “The Bears had just won the championship. These guys were my heroes. But I knew right off the bat I could compete with them.”

Clarett will be 20 going on 21 next season — about the same age Jamal Lewis, Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis and Barry Sanders were when they joined the NFL after their junior year. Think they’ve managed all right in the pros?

Yup, it should be a fascinating court case, if it ever comes to that. How young is too young for the NFL? And should the age limit for a running back, who plays a largely instinctive position, be the same for a quarterback, who plays a position that requires a lot of learning?

“It’s difficult to put myself in his position,” Livingston says of Clarett. “He obviously has all the natural talent you need. But what you don’t know, of course, is how much heart he has, how hungry he is. I just hope he goes to a team that will do some blocking for him — and that he can get some financial security.”

The latter isn’t likely to be a problem. As for the former, don’t the great ones run their own interference?

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