By David Fong
Regional Sports Content Manager
Tom Myers sat in a tiny restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown, picking over what was left of the fried rice on his plate.
Across from him sat a representative of the National Football League. The two had spent the entire day together, waiting for a phone call Myers wasn’t sure was ever going to come. Their vigil had began that Saturday morning on Nov. 28, 1964 in a San Francisco hotel room. For hours they had sat, afraid to venture too far away from the lines of communication.
It was two days after Thanksgiving, and Myers — then a senior at Northwestern University — had gone home for the holidays, then flown out to the West Coast in hopes of meeting up with his older brother, Mike, who was serving in the armed forces and was set to ship out for Korea.
Just as his brother’s life was about to change dramatically, so too was the younger Myers’ life. As the minutes crawled into hours, he had hoped to hear word that he had been drafted to play professional football.
“Things were a lot different back then,” said Myers, a Troy High School graduate who had gone on to earn All-American honors as a quarterback at Northwestern. “Obviously it wasn’t televised. And back then, it was before the leagues had merged, so there was an NFL draft and an AFL draft. Basically, the NFL had assigned me a babysitter — someone who would go wherever I went that weekend. They wanted to make sure that after I was drafted, I signed with the NFL and not the AFL.”
Meanwhile, across the country, Tom Vaughn found himself in a similar situation. The NFL had flown Vaughn — the receiver with whom Myers had set nearly every passing record at Troy in the late 1950s — into Pittsburgh to watch the Steelers play that weekend. He was in his hotel room awaiting word on his football future.
“I honestly didn’t even know the draft was that weekend until the day before,” Vaughn said. “I really didn’t know what to expect. Nobody had really talked to me about it or prepared me for it. I knew the draft was coming, but I didn’t have any idea what to expect. I didn’t have an agent or anything like that.”
My, how things have changed.
This Thursday, the 2014 NFL draft — which has become the second-biggest event on the National Football League calendar, behind only the Super Bowl — will kick off a three-day spectacle in New York City. The top prospects in the draft all have procured agents and high-dollar designer suits. The top collegiate prospects will be in New York for the draft, while those who don’t make the trip to the Big Apple will be sitting at home, surrounded by friends and family, waiting for their cell phones to ring.
All of the draft prospects’ draft ups and downs will be broadcast by ESPN to millions of ravenous NFL fans who seemingly can’t get enough of the three-day circus.
“Things are so much different today,” Vaughn said. “These days, all the kids have agents and people around them telling them what to do. The biggest decision they have to make is whether to wear a bow tie, a regular tie or no tie. They all have golden spoons in their mouths. I didn’t even know if I was going to be drafted. I had no clue what was going on.”
Myers and Vaughn had been inextricably linked throughout their high school careers — and remain so in the Troy record books, more than 50 years later. Myers still holds every passing record in school history, while Vaughn holds nearly every receiving record in school history.
After high school, however, the two went their separate ways — Myers would go on to earn All-American honors at Northwestern, while Vaughn would earn All-American honors playing both ways at offensive and defensive halfback at Iowa State University.
On that November night in 1964, however, the two were about to be reunited — twice.
After waiting for the phone to ring all day in the hotel room, Myers and his NFL representative decided to grab a late dinner in San Francisco. Because there were no cell phones, the NFL rep was charged with calling the league office and leaving a phone number where they could be reached — there were, of course, no cell phones in those days — wherever they went.
Long after they had finished eating, a pay phone in the restaurant rang to life.
“It turned out to be about midnight or 1 a.m. (Pacific time) when a pay phone in the restaurant started ringing,” Myers said. “It was the Detroit Lions calling.”
The Lions had drafted Myers with the fourth pick of the fourth round — the 46th overall pick — of the NFL draft. Right there in the middle of the Chinese restaurant, Myers — with no agent, no friends and no family anywhere in sight — agreed to a deal over the phone.
“I told them I would play for them and then as soon as I hung up the phone, the NFL representative had me sign some papers and that was it,” Myers said. “That’s really all there was.”
Myers was the fourth quarterback selected in that year’s draft, behind Craig Morton, Bob Timberlake and a quarterback from the University of Alabama who actually drafted by the NFL’s Saint Louis Cardinals, but spurned the NFL and instead signed with the AFL team that had drafted him, the New York Jets.
That quarterback’s name? Joe Namath.
Namath was one of four players selected ahead of of Myers and Vaughn who would go on to earn a spot in the National Football League Hall of Fame — linebacker Dick Butkus and halfback Gale Sayers both were drafted by the Chicago Bears in the NFL draft, while Namath and receiver Fred Biletnikoff both would sign AFL deals before the two leagues merged.
Myers still remembers the details of his NFL contract.
“I got a $10,000 signing bonus and a car,” Myers said. “And I got $25,000 a year to play — that was pretty good money back then. The guys like Namath and Butkus got like $300,000 or $400,000, which was obviously really good money. But I was still pretty happy with the money I got.”
Not longer after Myers’ got his phone call welcoming him to the NFL, Vaughn got his in his hotel room in Pittsburgh. Just 11 picks after the Lions had drafted Myers, they had drafted his high school teammates, Vaughn, with the first pick of the fifth round.
“My first call actually came from the Chicago Bears,” Vaughn said. “They said they would be interested in drafting me and asked if I would be interested in playing for them. I said, ‘Let me think about it.’ I guess that must have scared them off, because the next phone call I got was from the Detroit Lions, telling me they had drafted me.
“They gave me a $5,000 bonus and paid me $15,000 a year.”
At the time — with the draft not being televised — it would be several days before the two former Troy teammates knew they were about to be reunited. There was another thing they didn’t realize that night — and something Vaughn wouldn’t become aware until he was interviewed earlier this week.
Had Vaughn and Myers spurned the NFL to go to the AFL like Namath and Biletnikoff, they would have been reunited anyway.
On the same night they both were drafted by the NFL’s Detroit Lions, both also were drafted by the AFL’s Denver Broncos. The Broncos took Vaughn with the first pick of the 11th round (81st overall) and Myers with the first pick of the 12th round (89th overall).
“Really? I did not know that,” Vaughn said. “I had no idea the Broncos drafted Tom Myers, too. I did not know that until just now. Sounds like you’ve got a heck of a story on your hands now, don’t you? That’s pretty interesting.”
Since the NFL and AFL drafts took place over Thanksgiving weekend — the NFL would eventually move its draft to April and, this year, to May — both Myers and Vaughn had to finish out their senior years. Once they signed to play for the Lions soon after being drafted, both were released from their college scholarships.
Although they both lacked agents, both Troy graduates were able to negotiate to have the Lions pay for the rest of their schooling and graduated from Northwestern and Iowa State the following spring before leaving for training camp that summer.
“I was really happy to be back together with Tom,” Myers said. “He became a starter right away and I was a back-up, so we never got back together on the field again, but it was fun. It was nice to have a familiar face on the same NFL team. It was kind of neat that two high school teammates got drafted by the same team. It almost seemed like fate.”
Myers’ career in the NFL was brief, as he played in only two games in two seasons before becoming a successful commercial airline pilot. Vaughn, meanwhile, would play eight seasons in the NFL — all with Detroit — recording nine interceptions and nine fumble recoveries. He still ranks in the Lions top-10 in both kickoff and punt returns. In a poll published in 2003, he was voted as one of the top-100 players in Detroit Lions history.
Myers says he can hardly believe this November will mark the 50th anniversary of the night he was drafted into the NFL and said he still watches the draft every year.
“Oh yeah, I watch it,” he said. “In fact, I was in Cleveland recently for a wedding and we all went and saw the movie ‘Draft Day’ with Kevin Costner about the NFL draft. It’s a good movie.”
Vaughn, meanwhile, said he pays little attention to the current NFL draft, which now differs so greatly from his own draft experience.
“I do not follow it,” Vaughn said. “It’s all just speculation.”
Contact David Fong at (937) 440-5228 or firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @thefong.