Next-to-Last Man Standing 

Andre King, the 245th player taken in the NFL draft, goes pro.

King has an absence of fear familiar to football players and sociopaths. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • King has an absence of fear familiar to football players and sociopaths.
The last day of training camp lures the faithful to the Browns' practice complex in Berea. These are not Dawg Pounders, but parents and children who fall into mute reverence as players jog onto the field. They stare, hypnotized by the sheer real-lifeness of Tim Couch and Courtney Brown, whose jerseys are mandatory attire in the bleachers.

No fan wears No. 18. It's the jersey of a bona-fide Nobody: rookie receiver Andre King, the 245th -- or next-to-last -- player taken in the NFL draft in April. Which explains why no one pays him much mind during the team's morning drills.

They miss a poetic display of asymmetry. The offense splits into two squads, and King lines up at cornerback, as befits his second-team status. He first defends against the team's highly touted second-round draft pick, Quincy Morgan. A few minutes later, he shadows Kevin Johnson, the team's leading receiver last year.

The symbolism is acute: Johnson, receiver of the present. Morgan, receiver of the future. King, receiver of the doomed. The odds are not lost on the last-round long shot, who spent his entire career at the University of Miami as a backup.

"You have to be aware of that kind of thing," King says after practice. "You're trying to make an impression, and you're trying to get the coaches to notice you. That's part of trying to make the team."

Despite a sub-zero chance of hooking on with the Browns, King may be the happiest player in camp. A rookie older than most veterans -- at 27, he's AARP vintage by football standards -- he came to Cleveland best known as a washed-up minor-league baseball player.

His career ended in 1997, four years after the Atlanta Braves drafted him. But after four years at Miami, King hoped to relive the baptismal euphoria of being drafted when the NFL draft began on April 21. He almost didn't get the chance.

It was Sunday, deep into Day 2 of the draft. He and his wife, Jessica, parents of a five-month-old daughter, had invited family and friends to their Miami town house for a second straight day.

The mood was funereal. Everyone figured that King, who scored high in pre-draft workouts for NFL scouts, would be selected on Saturday during the first three rounds. When his name wasn't called, hopes bobbed back to the surface for Day 2.

But by late afternoon, only two picks remained. Jessica had recoiled from the living room an hour before to watch the bitter end on the bedroom TV with the sound off. The others lingered as ESPN's Chris Berman and Mel Kiper Jr. yammered away.

King, anticipating the worst, called his agent to find out what teams would invite him to training camp as a free agent. He didn't realize that the Browns, who earlier in the seventh round took Boston College guard Paul Zukauskas, held another pick.

Then King's name squawked out of the TV. Cue the Hallmark moment.

"I was crying, my wife was crying, the baby was crying," King says, smiling. "Tears were everywhere."

Elation mingled with relief as the King family embraced for a group snuffle. On paper, given his age and ho-hum college career, King looks like a player who at best would ride pine in the Arena League. Or who would tuck away his sports dreams and shuffle into the real world to make use of his business management degree. But the Browns offered a chance -- one made more poignant by King's awareness that, save for a single what-if, he might already be a four-year NFL veteran.

In early 1993, nine years after he arrived in Fort Lauderdale with his parents from their native Jamaica, King signed a letter of intent to play football at the University of Michigan. An all-state split end in high school, he planned to bleed blue in Ann Arbor for the next four years -- until the Braves selected him that summer in the second round of the amateur draft.

Rare is the person of any age who can resist a $450,000 signing bonus. An 18-year-old King bit hard when the Braves dangled the money, and its taste never soured. The deal left him "retirement rich," he says, and enabled him to care for his mother.

"She wanted a Toyota Camry," he says, laughing. "So that's what I got her. Those were the cars to get, back in 1993."

Signing with Atlanta also kept him closer to Fort Lauderdale and Jessica Vogel, whom he met in high school and who would become Mrs. King in 1997. "The way I see it, going into baseball gave me my family," he says. "If I had gone to Michigan, it would have been harder for us to stay together. And if we hadn't stayed together, I wouldn't have my daughter."

His on-field bounty proved less plentiful. King, a solid center fielder and an average hitter, suffered the nomadic rigors of the minor leagues. He ascended no higher than Double-A while playing for affiliates of the Braves, Cincinnati Reds, and Tampa Bay Devil Rays, drifting from Chattanooga to Durham to Wherever. By 1997, he heard his athletic clock ticking.

"I gave myself a timetable of four years to make it to the majors," he says. "I'd seen guys who would get called up to the show for a week or two at the end of a season, and that's all they ever got. I didn't want to be like that."

Nor did he want to be "one of those guys who goes back to real life and drives a UPS truck." So King stopped wandering baseball's back roads to walk on at Miami, which had courted him as a high schooler. He would earn a degree, if not an NFL career.

Initially, the decision could not have seemed worse. He soon learned after arriving that a pair of fellow freshmen, Santana Moss and Reggie Wayne, were the team's preordained stars at receiver. Next to two teenagers, the then-23-year-old King resembled a new baby-sitter.

He resisted the knee-jerk urge to transfer to another school, instead becoming a mentor to his teammates in general and an older brother to Moss and Wayne in particular. In the end, King says, playing behind two All-Americans benefited him more than if he had posted 60 catches a season for, say, Troy State.

"I wouldn't trade the experience at Miami. Yeah, I might have been a starter somewhere else, I might have had better numbers. But I got to play with two of the best."

King flourished on special teams and backed up Moss and Wayne, pulling down 64 catches and three touchdowns over four years. Nice numbers to brag about around the office water cooler one day, but nowhere near the stats that set NFL scouts to purring. Those were posted by Moss and Wayne, both of whom were first-round choices in April.

The selection of two teammates and pals might have been as close as King got to the draft, if not for the Browns' hiring of head coach Butch Davis in January. Davis had coached King at Miami for four years, rewarding him with a three-year scholarship after he walked on. When the time came for the Browns' last pick, Davis remembered the receiver everyone else forgot.

A final-round NFL draft choice can be likened to the playground runt picked last for kickball. While he's on the team, almost nothing is expected of him, and sooner or later -- probably sooner -- he gets the ax. Some football insiders considered King a sympathy pick, a coach's way of saying thanks to a loyal soldier with no real shot at the NFL. Davis felt otherwise.

"To some extent," he says, "Andre was in an unfortunate situation, playing with Reggie Wayne and Santana Moss. He probably could have started at any other school in the country and had 40 or 50 catches a year."

But never mind numbers. "You couldn't ask for a finer person," Davis adds. "He's a terrific guy. I compare him to Ernie Banks -- he wants to play a doubleheader every day."

Few plateaus in professional sports are easier to reach than that of "terrific guy." Stay off the police blotter, don't spit on fans, refrain from referring to yourself in the third person -- that's all it takes. Yet King qualifies without lowered expectations, a truth vouched for by coaches and teammates.

"He's one outstanding individual," Curtis Johnson says. "They don't make 'em any better."

Johnson, Miami's receivers coach, can tick off from memory King's lunch-pail efforts in college: a lunging catch over the middle for a first down, a downfield block that sprang Moss for a score. It's recalling his off-field manner, however, that brings Johnson to full gush.

He remembers how King always arrived before practice to study game film and stayed late to rehash strategy. Or how King, a self-avowed "aquarium freak," took time to fix the fish tank of Johnson's 11-year-old son. Or how he responded when coaches paired veteran players with newcomers to smooth their transition to college.

King inherited the hardest-headed freshmen -- the high-school phenoms too cool and callow to listen to coaches or attend class. He broke them down as he would an upcoming opponent, exposing holes in their approach to life. In time, King helped bring the young men to heel.

"The Browns got a steal with that kid," Johnson says.

King validates the appraisal in person. He shows disarming patience in answering questions he's heard countless times before. He smiles easily -- evidence that, in contrast to too many other athletes, he recognizes there are actually worse plights than dealing with reporters. When he recalls his shyness at meeting Reds shortstop Barry Larkin a few years back, he becomes sheepish all over again. His eyes drop to the floor as he paws at a jersey hanging in his locker.

None of which is evident between the sidelines, where King morphs into an adrenal gland with legs. Nice guys finish last, after all, even when they're drafted higher than 245th.

"A guy in my spot -- a seventh-rounder -- they don't make a lot of teams," he says. "You got to have a knack. You have to be a demon on special teams. You have to be the guy who makes the diving catch."

A muscular 5-feet-11 and 195 pounds, King relies on strength more than quickness. His power, combined with an absence of fear familiar to football players and sociopaths, makes him an ideal possession receiver and return man.

"I like to see a player who sticks it up in there, instead of doing a lot of jukes and jives," Browns special-teams coach Jerry Rosburg says of kickoff and punt returners. "Not a lot of wideouts are strong enough to do that, and he's showing that he is."

If King's preseason performance caused some eyebrows to spike, rookie running back James Jackson didn't share in the surprise. "He can play," says Jackson, another ex-Hurricane drafted by Davis. "He was right there with Reggie and Santana in college. He's older, too, so he has that maturity."

His composure may be what appealed to the Browns, given that self-control is often a stranger to pro athletes. It's also fair to suggest that Davis saw in him a chance to plant one of "his guys" in the locker room: someone who genuinely believes that players must "Train Like Champions," the Jazzercise-tinged motto plastered on a sign in the Browns' weight room.

Still, for everything that makes King an atypical last-round rookie -- his age, his baseball career, his website (www.andreking.net) -- he obeys the rookie's code. The twin principles, he says, are to "know the system and keep your mouth shut." King applied the credo in the Browns' final preseason game. Wearing his old college number, 84, which he took after the Browns released another player, he returned a kickoff for a touchdown.

Two days later, the Nobody made the team.

More by Martin Kuz


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