Isaac Curtis jets to New York this week to announce the Bengals picks on the second day of the draft Friday night along with other star-studded alumni. And so it's time to wonder what might have been if someone was calling Curtis's name instead.
Put the Isaac Fisher Curtis of 1973 into the 2012 draft and where would he go?
"First of all," says his former teammate and fellow Bengals Super Bowl receiver Cris Collinsworth, "there's no receiver in this draft close to him. Not even close. I would think someone would take him ahead of one of these top two quarterbacks. Everybody is desperate for a guy to take the top off the defense. Everybody is. And he was the best at that."
Here's a 6-1, 192-pound guy that had hands softer than George McGovern's support in 1972 and Gold Medal legs. Running a career-best 9.3 seconds in the 100-yard dash while at the University of California, at one time or another Curtis beat all three guys that made the 1972 100-meter Olympic team: Robert Taylor, Rey Robinson and Cal teammate Eddie Hart.
"I was a football player that ran track," Curtis says. "Although I guess you could also say I was a track guy that played football. But I always considered myself a football player first."
Anyone who saw him play couldn't help but agree. Former teammate Dave Lapham, who leads the league in Ike stories, remembers Curtis catching a TD bomb one-handed down the sideline against the Browns in the first half and catching another down the other sideline with the other hand in the second half.
He is "Sir Isaac" royalty from another age. Always classy. Always humble. It has been nearly 28 years after his 416th and last catch and he's still gliding. Still lean and elegant at age 61.
"I see him every summer out at a golf tournament," says NFL.com's Gil Brandt. "What a great guy."
Curtis has lived in the North Avondale section of Cincinnati for better than 20 years, but he knows his way around the woods as an avid hunter. Kind of like how he used to get rookie defensive backs in his sights.
"I saw him at the end," says Collinsworth, who played with Curtis in the four final years of the dozen he played. "And he could do two or three things that no other human being could do."
The reason Curtis didn't run in the '72 Olympics trials is because of football. He transferred to San Diego State and so it was left to Robinson and Hart to suffer the heartbreak of missing their Olympic qualifying heat in the 100 meters because of a scheduling snafu.
Not enough Cincinnati school kids know it, but Curtis is a major reason the game is played the way it is today. He and his coach, Bengals founder Paul Brown. In a very real way Curtis was the first of the 21st-century receivers born out of place, an NFL rookie in the first year of Richard Nixon's second term.
"He changed the game," Collinsworth says. "There's no question because no one could keep up with him. They put in the five-yard bump rules and all that crazy stuff that it all eventually became."
Before Curtis, DBs could engage receivers all the way down the field, as long as the receiver didn't get past them. And so it was open season on wideouts. Cutting at the legs in the middle of routes. Shots to the head down the sideline.
They called it "The Mel Blount Rule" because of the way the Steelers Hall of Fame cornerback mauled receivers, but it was the spring after Curtis's rookie year that Brown pushed the elimination of roll-blocking and cutting of wide receivers as well as restrictions of downfield contact.
That's what you do when you've got a rookie receiver that averages 18.7 per his 45 catches for nine touchdowns. In 14 games.
Forty-five catches? Bengals rookie A.J. Green did that last year in his first two months. Indeed, Curtis never caught more than 47 balls in a season.
A different game? How about holding the first round on Jan. 30? How about Curtis being the first receiver taken at No. 15? How about two tight ends, three running backs, and a fullback (Sam Cunningham) going in front of him?
Curtis remembers no NFL scout ever timing him in the 40-yard dash, a prerequisite for a pro prospect these days right there with digestion, breathing and the other musts of living organisms.
"I don't ever remember a scout coming out to practice," Curtis says, knowing how crazy that all sounds now. "We ran 40s among ourselves and I ran some 4.3s."
Curtis laughs. Is that all?
"I had long legs," he says. "I didn't have the great starts. I was just starting to run at 40 yards."
How crazy? Curtis doesn't even remember talking to anybody from an NFL team before the draft. There was no draft day party. His parents were home. He was at San Diego State. On Draft Day he sat by his phone. When it rang, a man saying he was Bill Walsh told him the Cincinnati Bengals had just drafted him.
"I had never spoken to Bill Walsh," says Curtis of his new receivers coach. "I didn't know who Bill Walsh was. I said, 'OK.' "
How different? In the last few seasons Curtis was putting the finishing touches on his 17.1-yards per catch career, he began working at the Blue Ash, Ohio hotel management and development company Winegardner & Hammons Inc. After retiring he became the company's long-time national sales director, and became so good at it he is now a consultant. He's off the road, but on his laptop from home when he's needed to consult. He's looking forward to this trip to make the call in New York.
"It's an honor," says Curtis, who has remained a devout Bengals fan, sees most of the home games, and thinks Green is already one of the best in the game. "Of course, I'm biased. I'd like to see them take a wide receiver. That would be fun to announce. I know there's a little bit of uncertainty there with Jerome (Simpson), but whatever they think they need. It's a thrill and I'm looking forward to it."
Collinsworth may catch Curtis up on the podium and when he sees him, he'll be thinking of "Moving Day." That would be the day late in his career, late in training camp. Curtis would wink and nod at his mates and Collinsworth knew what that meant.
"Watch this," Collinsworth says. "At that point, all about he had left was for Sundays but there would be days, I guess you'd call them 'Make-the-team-days,' and he'd put on a show. When he unleashed it, it was ridiculous. I would watch it on tape and I would try to do it and I could not physically make the moves that he would.
"If you ran a crossing route, you would lean inside, fake to the flag and then come back inside. He could lean inside, fake to the flag, fake to the corner, go back to the flag and you would see the defensive back sprinting back. Meanwhile, Isaac was shooting in the other direction. It was what you called a "Wooow route" because everybody was yelling, "Woow.' Then he'd come back and say, 'I guess I made the team.'"
Curtis laughs when he hears the story. "Oh yeah," he says. "That was, 'Taking The Rookies To School Day.' ''
There are no second thoughts here. Curtis isn't going to put himself in this year's rookie class. Or last year, when Green went No. 4. Or in an offense that would throw him 100 balls a year.
"I have no regrets playing in my era," he says. "I loved playing in it. I wouldn't trade it."
Neither would those that watched him.