Lap Returns To Mobile To Find Another World

Dave Lapham, right, interviews new linebackers coach Al Golden.
Dave Lapham, right, interviews new linebackers coach Al Golden.

MOBILE, Ala. - Dave Lapham flung open the door of his Senior Bowl hotel room all those years ago and found himself face-to-face with a pro sports' first Super Agent.

In January of 1974 Jerry Kapstein was known more for representing baseball players on the cusp of free agency, but he was young and on the make just like the emerging modern pro football culture . It was natural he would go to the room of a fellow New Englander to see if he was open for business.

"I was dumbfounded," Lapham recalled during a break this week in "Lap's Return to Mobile." "He was a real high profile guy."

Kapstein was just one of about four agents Lapham remembers that came knocking that week and that just tells you how long ago it was. You can't get to a future third-round pick's room this week without having a hotel key and his cell phone number.

And if Lapham had come to this year's game as Syracuse's massive guard, legendary head coach Ben Schwartzwalder's last captain and a highly-regarded enough student on campus to be on the search committee to find his successor, he would have been signed, sealed and delivered to an agent long before Mobile.

Instead, Lapham opted for one of his high school coaches also a lawyer. There would be no agent grabbing a percentage. His friend simply charged Lapham by the hour.

"It's a lot more Hollywood, no question about it," said Lapham, an ageless 67 returning to the Senior Bowl as a senior. "But when you boil it all down, it's the same thing. If you're playing this game and you're not trying to prove yourself, you're not playing the game for the right reason."

Lapham, the most versatile offensive lineman in Bengals history heading into his 35th season as their radio analyst, spent this Senior Bowl week in daily videos breaking down the practices before Saturday's (2:30 p.m.-NFL Network) college all-star game.

To get one of his interview subjects, he had to fight through a double team of other reporters to reach ESPN's Louis Riddick, part of a phalanx of daily coverage beaming live bits on two networks. By the time the Bengals coaches get on the plane home Saturday night after the game, they'll have the tape on their iPads so they can get a head start on their scouting reports.

"They didn't even film the practices," Lapham said of his Senior week. "It was 16 millimeter film. They were only filming the game. They (the scouts) were all over you down there during the practices."

When the linemen did their one-on-one pass drills, there would be a ring 10 deep of scouts and coaches on a grass high school field. Before the whistle they usually had to tell somebody to get back. This week when Lapham observed the work from the turf end zone of Ladd Peebles Stadium, he did it with a pass around his neck with former Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander walking back and forth doing live hits with NFL radio.

Now when Lapham walks through the Senior Bowl hotel headquarters each night, every team in the league has set up interviews with every player and it rotates nightly. In order to get as many as they can, scouts grab players on the run as they go from meetings to their rooms during the day so they can get out of here Wednesday night or Thursday morning. At the latest, after the Thursday practice. One North player this week was half-an-hour late for a meeting after dealing with some scouts.

But back in '74, Lapham never spoke to an NFL team at his Senior Bowl. Looking back on it, Lapham said, "That was dumb. Why not find out as much as you can?"

Some things never change, though. Lapham immediately picked up on the week's best defender in South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw. Which is kind of funny because the MVP of the '74 game was Lapham's once and future North teammate, Montana defensive tackle Bill Kollar, the man that would be the Bengals' No. 1 pick.

Lapham got to know Kollar some in Mobile and he recognized that MVP blue Dodge Charger when Kollar pulled into Wilmington College for the start of training camp. They ended up roommates and life-long friends. Not long after Mobile, Dave and Lynne Lapham were asked to be in his wedding.

"He had so much quickness," Lapham said. "Quick. They were looking to replace Mike Reid and he had that kind of quickness."

Imagine how well Kollar played that day. The North won, 16-13, and the way Lapham remembers it Kansas quarterback David Jaynes threw a late touchdown pass to future Hall-of-Famer Lynn Swann of USC to win it. Also playing for the North was Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti, the bruising Penn State running back.

"Penn State was our big rival and I really didn't want to like them," Lapham said. "He was hanging around with a Penn State offensive lineman and I figured I'd try to get to know them. It was easy to get to know Cappelletti. You won't meet a better human being. You have one view of a guy when you play against him and another when you get to know him."

On the other side was another future Hall of Fame receiver, Alabama A&M's John Stallworth. Future Dallas Cowboy Pro Bowler Ed "Too Tall," Jones of Tennessee State loomed over Lapham on the South defensive front. Joining him on the North offensive line was future Hall of Fame center Mike Webster out of Wisconsin.

Lapham was just as impressed with Jones' Tennessee State teammate, linebacker Waymond Bryant. Bryant always had a toothpick in his mouth. Never a mouth guard. Man, these guys are tough down here, Lapham thought.

"I don't know if anybody ever turned down the Senior Bowl," Lapham said. "Only because of an injury. An agent advising you not to play because you might get hurt? I never heard of that."

There's a good group here this week, no doubt about it. But unlike '74, there are about 115 juniors eligible for this draft but not this game. Also unlike '74, this was Lapham's last stop on an exhausting all-star game tour.

A lot is being made this week about the LSU kids playing an NFL 16th game this week. How about in '74 when Lapham went on the road for a Wild Card Super Bowl team's four games?

Lapham hit all four major all-star games. The Blue-Gray Game in Christmas Week. Then the Hula Bowl. The East-West Game. The Senior Bowl. He was gone for five weeks and needed to write a paper in the hotel rooms for one of his classes at Syracuse.

"Ben came to me and said, 'I think you're going to play in all of 'em,'" said Lapham in Schwartzwalder's voice that sounded like cleats scraping against gravel. "I said, 'Great. I'm ready.'"

So a lot of it runs together. In one of the games Lapham played with Too Tall and had to practice against him. In another game, he had to go against him on Saturday. He can't remember if it was a practice or a game when this happened:"

"I had never played against a guy with that physical stature, 6-8 and mammoth," Lapham said. "We tried to double team him and I'm going to post him right in the middle of his chest and I fired out to hit him and he puts one hand on my shoulder and one hand on the tight end's shoulder and does a leap frog over both of us. I looked over at the tight end and said, 'That ever happen to you before?' He said, 'Never.'

"We're not in Kansas anymore. It's a little different up here … It was a toss and the tight end got to the linebacker level, but if there had been any one in the backfield, he would have flattened the fullback. Unbelievable."

It may not have been Kansas, but Jaynes came from Lawrence to throw what turned out to be a $1,500 touchdown pass to the future Steeler Swann. This is back when the winners got paid and on this day each player on the North got $1,500.

"That was a lot of jawing in 1974. We really wanted to win that sucker," Lapham said. "I loved Lynn Swann. Then I hated Lynn Swann."

Lapham also loved his scholarship. So he called the Syracuse athletic department to make sure he didn't forfeit the rest of it by taking the money.

"This was before the NCAA started coming down on everything," Lapham said, "so they said it was OK."

Lapham made his real money showing the scouts he could pass block. He was coming out of the Cuse's unbalanced line as a feared, straight-ahead run blocker, but he wanted to show them he was athletic enough to pull and protect.

He got his shot in Mobile against Indiana's Carl Barzilauskas, a guy that went to the Jets with the sixth pick in the draft.

"When I was able to do pretty well against a guy like Barzilauskas, that was a huge thing to show I just wasn't an unbalanced lineman that came out of a team that always ran it," Lapham said.

Bengals president Mike Brown, then the assistant general manager, was on the 265-pound Lapham for almost a month before Mobile after first seeing him getting his ankles taped on a Blue-Gray Game training table.

"They weren't as insistent on weight training. He just came out of the can big," Brown recalled. "I was impressed how he played in the Blue-Gray game. He looked the part. Back then you went by feel by golly more than by all the detail we have today."

In the end, really, it may not be all that different as Lapham scanned a practice 46 years later.

"It's true today as it was true back then," Lapham said, "If you decide to do it, you have to treat every practice like I'm out there validating myself or eliminating myself. Every day I'm saying, 'I belong,' or 'I'm not good enough.' If you feel like you didn't have a good day, you say you can't let that happen again. If you have a good day, stack them. That's how I thought about it. Validating or eliminating."

Then he was off, looking for his camera operator and his microphone.