by | Apr 23, 2002 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Matt Millen frowned. His voice was less than peppy. He answered a question with a slightly sarcastic response.

On any other morning, this might describe Millen before his first cup of coffee. But because it happened Saturday, NFL draft day — a high holy day for certain need-a-life football types — it became an item. Then an issue. Then a rumor. Then a . . . story!

And pretty soon, there were reports of civil war in the Lions’ front offices.

“Laughable,” snorted Millen on Monday.

“Funny,” said Marty Mornhinweg.

“It makes you laugh,” said Bill Ford Jr.

What’s so amusing? The conspiracy theory that somehow, on draft day, Millen wanted Texas cornerback Quentin Jammer with the Lions’ first pick but was overruled by his coach, Mornhinweg, who wanted quarterback Joey Harrington to run his offense, and by his owners, the Fords, who wanted Harrington to sell tickets to their new stadium. I believe this happened on a grassy knoll.

“Completely untrue,” Ford Jr. said when I spoke with him late Monday afternoon. “In all my years and my father’s years at the draft, we’ve never interfered like that.

“We were all on board with the pick. Matt’s the one who made the call. Besides, it makes no sense for us to overrule him. For one thing, it would be like me telling one of our style people at Ford that they should make the Mustang four inches higher. That’s not my job. That’s why I hire someone to do it.

“Secondly, let’s say I told Matt to pick Harrington when he didn’t want to. That kid would be doomed from that day forward. It’s a recipe for disaster.”

Ah, but it makes good copy.

Millen sought a trade

“Did I have a lack of enthusiasm in my voice Saturday?” Millen said, calling from Pennsylvania. “Yeah, I did. But it wasn’t because I didn’t like our pick.

“I knew we had to make that pick. It solidifies the most important position in football, maybe in all of sports. Harrington’s gonna be great.

“But I also knew if I could have traded that pick for three other first-round picks, I could have improved my team immediately at three positions and addressed more of our needs. I thought that might happen. But guess how many teams called? None. NONE! Ah, we had one, but it was so low down it wouldn’t have helped.

“So I took the quarterback, which is a great move for the franchise. You can’t pass him up with that pick.”

Both Ford and Millen said the Lions entered Saturday’s draft with Harrington as their top pick — if they kept it. It was not some last-minute decision. He might take a while to develop, “which puts more pressure on my coaching staff,” Millen lamented.

But, he added, there was little choice. “A kid this good may only come along once every three or four years.”

As for someone overruling his decision?

“Are you kidding me?” Millen said.

Millen said he would not have taken Jammer with the No. 3 pick — despite what certain folks insisted.

“There’s no question the owner intervened,” Shawn Roberts, Jammer’s agent, told the Washington Post. “They’ve got a new stadium, they’ve got to sell tickets, and that’s a lot easier to do with a quarterback.”

The key words in that paragraph are: “Jammer’s agent.”

Who was also on the grassy knoll.

Lions were united on Harrington

“We were united on the Harrington pick,” Mornhinweg said Monday night. “We were united on every pick. I don’t know why Joey sounded so surprised when we picked him Saturday. On Friday, we all had a long talk with his agent and gave him a pretty good idea we would take him.

“What they’re saying” — referring to rumors — “is funny. But that’s the draft. Everyone knew who the first two picks were going to be, so the rumors and innuendo came our way.”

Then again, the Lions unwittingly send a lot of signals. The Fords, when visible, are ready to be quoted. Millen is quoted more than any other president in the league.

Most teams, the only face you see, the only voice you hear, is the head coach. You can’t compare his enthusiasm with someone else’s.

The Lions are different. They make good fodder, especially on draft day, when you have a small army of football reporters phoning one another in a mad rush, repeating rumors, trading info, and sometimes, whispering down the wrong lane.

How did this all get started? Someone asked Millen if he had been “a Harrington guy all the way.”

“No,” he said. “But I am now.”

From that — to civil war?

Amazing. But that’s draft day, a monument to too much time on our hands. If all this started from Millen looking a little blue, next time he might heed something an old coach used to tell me:

Grin. It makes people wonder.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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