INDIANAPOLIS — I've attended every Combine since 1994 and have written more than a few times the last few years about the interview sessions with NFL head coaches and general managers that have developed into an annual attraction in the last decade or so.
Every year, the NFL talking heads at the Combine grow in number, and this year, after only the first day of interviews, it appears the process has pretty much gone through the Lucas Oil Stadium roof.
Beginning at 10 a.m. sharp Thursday morning, no fewer than 24 prominent NFL figures paraded up to the podium, one after another, in 15-minute intervals. Today, another 16 are scheduled to speak.
While there rarely is much substance emanating from these powwows, I always find them extremely interesting, particularly the chats with the guys who are taking on new gigs.
Guys like Ryan Grigson, the freshly minted GM of the Indianapolis Colts, who was the day's 22nd speaker, preceding new Colts head coach Chuck Pagano.
To say Grigson seemed uncomfortable being asked ad nauseum about the future of Peyton Manning would be an understatement of major proportions. And when his 15 minutes behind the mike ran their course, he couldn't get out of the interview area fast enough.
I was among the media masses hoping to get a better feel for Grigson in his new capacity. But while I'm just as interested as anyone in finding out what exactly the Colts have in mind for Manning, there was another person I was more interested in talking about with Grigson.
The late, great Joel Buchsbaum.
Grigson, you see, made a point of letting everybody at his introductory press conference know that he considered Buchsbaum, Pro Football Weekly's draft expert for 24 years until his untimely death at the age of 48, a major influence in his life.
After he spoke on Thursday and was walking briskly in the lobby to his next destination, I trotted after him in the hope that he might briefly elaborate on his feelings toward Buchsbaum, who to this day remains in a league of his own as the most astute draft tracker who ever lived.
When I caught up to the new Colts GM and introduced myself, his smile spoke volumes when I mentioned Joel — a far cry from the uneasy demeanor that was on display just a few minutes earlier.
"What I really admired about Joel was his passion," Grigson said. "I was fortunate enough to have met him at the Meadowlands with Jim Garrett (an assistant head coach with three different NFL teams) way back in the day. Talk about two of the stalwarts in the business, two class acts, two passionate football men!
"Just the eloquence of his reports, his style of writing, led me to model my own reports after him. There was no other way for a commoner to look at a scouting report. I used to love reading his stuff. He was one of the great ones that I really looked up to because he really was a genius.
"I remember checking off the names at offensive tackle the year I was drafted (1995), and he was only off one player in his book before I was picked.
"That just goes to show you that he really knew what he was doing."
I walked away from our brief exchange, smiling the same way Grigson had been smiling, remembering the fair amount of editing I did on that particular book as well as my own relationship with Joel, which was solid but not always harmonious, as we both had a tendency for being a little rough around the edges when the spirit moved us.
And then I was suddenly struck by the memory of a very special and powerful occasion nine years ago to the day right here in Indy — an early-morning tribute to Joel that was held at the Westin Hotel just about two months after his sudden death on Dec. 29, 2002.
Longtime Houston-based pro football writer and PFW correspondent John McClain could certainly relate.
"To see so many general managers, personnel directors and media people there was pretty unbelievable," McClain recollected in a late-afternoon stroll down memory lane with yours truly. "I remember the first speaker was Bill Belichick (a reflection that was also mentioned by my brother, Hub, in his excellent pre-Super Bowl column on Belichick a few weeks ago). He had his hoodie on. He was wearing it then before he ever wore it on the sideline.
"I was in awe to hear him say that he twice tried to hire Joel when he was with the Browns and Patriots, and that Joel always turned him down. I know that the Oilers also tried to hire him when Ladd Herzeg was the GM in the early '80s. They offered him $60,000. I don't know what y'all at PFW were paying him, but I know it wasn't that much. But Joel said he felt like he'd rather work for the league and serve everybody.
"There are young draftniks today that know the name Buchsbaum but don't know what he actually contributed. And when I hear stories about how Grigson felt about Joel, it makes me wonder just how many other future GMs there might be out there who could spread the word. It's too bad his parents are not around anymore to hear that sort of praise. Joel, of course, would be embarrassed, thinking that he was not deserving.
"But no matter how big the draft gets or how much pre-draft hype and coverage the Combine and draft get, it's never been the same without Joel. I feel like Nolan (PFW's current draft expert Nolan Nawrocki) is replacing John Wooden, Red Auerbach and Casey Stengel rolled into one.
"There will never be another Joel."
I couldn't agree more, Mr. McClain. You, I, Ryan Grigson and so many others should thank our lucky stars for having been fortunate enough to have been touched by his brilliance, back in a kinder, gentler NFL, when the quirky character from Brooklyn ruled the roost in his own inimitable style.