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LOCAL ATHLETES SELECTED IN THE NFL DRAFT

Player: Duke Iverson

Position: B

High School: Petaluma

Year: 1947

NFL Team: NY Giants

Round: 7

___

Player: Bob Celeri

Position: QB

High School: Fort Bragg

Year: 1950

NFL Team: San Francisco

Round: 10

___

Player: Tom Louderback

Position: LB

High School: Petaluma

Year: 1955

NFL Team: Washington

Round: 10

___

Player: Mel Gray

Position: WR

High School: Montgomery

Year: 1971

NFL Team: St. Louis

Round: 6

___

Player: Len Gotshalk

Position: OL

High School: Clear Lake

Year: 1971

NFL Team: Philadelphia

Round: 8

___

Player: Louie Giammona

Position: RB

High School: Calistoga

Year: 1976

NFL Team: NY Jets

Round: 8

___

Player: Jerry Robinson

Position: LB

High School: Cardinal Newman

Year: 1979

NFL Team: Philadelphia

Round: 1

___

Player: James Thornton

Position: TE

High School: Analy

Year: 1988

NFL Team: Chicago

Round: 4

___

Player: Ben Lynch

Position: C

High School: Analy

Year: 1996

NFL Team: Kansas City

Round: 7

___

Player: Tony Moll

Position: T

High School: Sonoma Valley

Year: 2006

NFL Team: Green Bay

Round: 5

___

Player: Koa Misi

Position: LB

High School: Montgomery

Year: 2010

NFL Team: Miami

Round: 2


Jerry Robinson got embarrassed by his mother. Tony Moll was awakened from a nap and didn’t know if he was dreaming — twice. Mel Gray had to read it in the newspaper. Their experiences were very different, but each of them vividly remembers the day he became an NFL player.

Now Philip Wright III — affectionately known as “Scooby” — is hoping to join them. Wright, who played linebacker at Cardinal Newman High School and then at the University of Arizona, is expected to be selected in this year’s NFL draft, which begins Thursday evening with the first round and continues through Friday and Saturday.

If so, he will be the 12th Redwood Empire athlete to be drafted by an NFL team and also to play in the league. It’s a small procession that began with Petaluma High’s Duke Iverson in 1947 and most recently included Montgomery’s Koa Misi in 2010.

“I was like a kid in a candy store,” Gray said, remembering when the St. Louis Cardinals made him a sixth-round draft choice in 1971. “I said golly, I’ve never made that much money. I can help my wife, help my family. But it was not as much money as it is today.”

Indeed, Gray made $17,000 his first year with the Cardinals — after owner Bill Bidwill had promised him $21,000 in a handshake agreement.

Ready to go fishing

The landscape had changed dramatically by 2006. The NFL draft wasn’t a primetime show yet, but it had grown into a true media colossus, with wall-to-wall TV coverage, miles of action footage and Mel Kiper Jr. blabbering endlessly.

And yet Moll, who attended Sonoma Valley High, had little idea of his prospects. He had mostly played tight end at the University of Nevada, but switched to offensive tackle for his senior season. He was not invited to the NFL scouting combine, though his athleticism had made a few teams take notice.

Moll knew he had no chance to be drafted in the first three rounds, so he didn’t pay much attention on Day 1. He had trouble sleeping that night, though, knowing Day 2 was a possibility. Moll woke up to the buzzing of his cell phone. Dallas Cowboys offensive line coach Tony Sparano was calling.

“He started talking really fast, like, ‘We’re gonna take you right away!’ ” Moll said. “A surge of emotion came over me. Is this a dream? What’s going on?”

Sparano asked Moll what he was doing up so early, and the big lineman, still half-asleep, repeated the first idea that popped into his mind: He was getting ready to go fishing.

“It was the only thing I could think of,” said Moll, 32, who is back in Sonoma and working as a mortgage banker with Pinnacle Capital Mortgage. “Now am I a football player who’s more interested in fishing than the draft?”

Whatever the reason, the Cowboys did not draft Moll in the fourth round. Or the fifth. He sat in his parents’ home in Sonoma and waited.

“Nate Burleson, who was a standout wide receiver at Nevada, I remember talking to him previously,” Moll recounted. “He said, ‘I fell asleep on the couch.’ For some reason, I had that stuck in my head. All day long I was glued to the TV, trying to figure out, ‘OK, they’re taking an O-lineman,’ or whatever. Of course, I fell asleep on the couch.”

LOCAL ATHLETES SELECTED IN THE NFL DRAFT

Player: Duke Iverson

Position: B

High School: Petaluma

Year: 1947

NFL Team: NY Giants

Round: 7

___

Player: Bob Celeri

Position: QB

High School: Fort Bragg

Year: 1950

NFL Team: San Francisco

Round: 10

___

Player: Tom Louderback

Position: LB

High School: Petaluma

Year: 1955

NFL Team: Washington

Round: 10

___

Player: Mel Gray

Position: WR

High School: Montgomery

Year: 1971

NFL Team: St. Louis

Round: 6

___

Player: Len Gotshalk

Position: OL

High School: Clear Lake

Year: 1971

NFL Team: Philadelphia

Round: 8

___

Player: Louie Giammona

Position: RB

High School: Calistoga

Year: 1976

NFL Team: NY Jets

Round: 8

___

Player: Jerry Robinson

Position: LB

High School: Cardinal Newman

Year: 1979

NFL Team: Philadelphia

Round: 1

___

Player: James Thornton

Position: TE

High School: Analy

Year: 1988

NFL Team: Chicago

Round: 4

___

Player: Ben Lynch

Position: C

High School: Analy

Year: 1996

NFL Team: Kansas City

Round: 7

___

Player: Tony Moll

Position: T

High School: Sonoma Valley

Year: 2006

NFL Team: Green Bay

Round: 5

___

Player: Koa Misi

Position: LB

High School: Montgomery

Year: 2010

NFL Team: Miami

Round: 2

Again Moll was rousted in a fog. This time it was Packers offensive line coach Joe Philbin on the line. The next thing Moll knew, he was talking to Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy and watching his name crawl across the bottom of the screen.

“Then my whole life changed,” Moll said.

He would make the Green Bay roster as a low fifth-round pick, start 10 games and block for Brett Favre as a rookie, and play six seasons with the Packers, Ravens and Chargers.

A nerve-wracking day

Robinson was much more of a household name. After playing at Cardinal Newman, he was a three-time consensus All-America linebacker at UCLA. He seemed worthy of a first-round pick, though solid projections were hard to come by in 1979.

All along, Robinson figured he was headed to New Orleans. The Saints had flown him to town, showed him around their facilities, wined and dined him. They took him to see Pete Maravich play for the New Orleans Jazz at the Louisiana Superdome.

“Then I heard, ‘With the 11th pick in the 1979 draft, the New Orleans Saints pick Russell Erxleben, punter from the University of Texas,’ ” Robinson said. “At that point I got a little nervous.”

Robinson was at the Beverly Hills office of his agent, Marvin Demoff. Also crowded into the workspace was Jim Hill, a legendary Los Angeles sportscaster who is still on the job, and his crew from the local CBS affiliate. Hill wanted to capture the moment Robinson became an NFL player. It all added to what Robinson calls “one of the most nerve-wracking days of my life.”

“After the Saints took the punter, then it got to pick 12, 13, 14, 15. Then all of a sudden the phone rang,” recalled Robinson, who lives in Santa Rosa again. “Jim says, ‘Roll the camera.’ I’m looking at the camera, nervous. I pick up that phone and say hello. Then I said, ‘Hi, Mom. No, they haven’t called yet. I love you, but we need this phone so I’ll have to call you back.’ Jim Hill probably still has that tape.”

Robinson turned his attention to the Los Angeles Rams at pick No. 19. They also had expressed interest. But the Rams not only snubbed him, they took another linebacker who happened to be a close friend of his, Nebraska’s George Andrews.

The call finally came at pick No. 21, and the voice on the other end was a familiar one. Dick Vermeil had coached Robinson during his freshman year at UCLA. Now he was head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Robinson would go on to play 13 seasons and start 147 games for the Eagles and Los Angeles Raiders.

The NFL, not the Army

Unlike Robinson, Gray never really expected to play pro football. He was known as much for track and field as catching passes. Gray had set a CIF state high school record in the 100 meters while at Montgomery High, and set school records in the 60, 100 and 220 at the University of Missouri. At 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, he figured he was too small for the NFL.

So after playing in the East-West Shrine Game at the Oakland Coliseum on Jan. 2, Gray stuck around the Bay Area. He planned to work at a bookstore on Fillmore Street in San Francisco. One day in late January, an acquaintance was reading the paper and said, “Hey, Mel, you got drafted.”

“I’m not going,” Gray shot back.

“Automatically I thought I got drafted to go to the Army,” Gray, 67, said from his home in Rockford, Ill. “Honestly.”

But no, the Cardinals had selected him in the sixth round of a 17-round draft. He would play 12 seasons for them and make four consecutive Pro Bowls. The speedy Gray averaged 18.9 yards on his 351 career receptions.

From Petaluma to D.C.

The oldest living Redwood Empire draftee is Tom Louderback, who graduated from Petaluma High and went to the University of San Francisco just in time to see the school mothball its football program.

Louderback wound up playing at San Jose State. Like Robinson, he had an inkling of where he was headed, and it turned out to be wrong.

“I thought I’d go to the 49ers because they had invited me up several times to get acquainted with the staff and players,” Louderback, 83, said from his home in Reno. “Lo and behold, along comes Coach Kuharich again, and I was drafted by the ’Skins. I was excited, but by the same token I was shocked.”

Joe Kuharich had been Louderback’s coach at USF for about three weeks. Now he was running the team in D.C.

Louderback would never play a game for Washington, though. Kuharich put him on waivers after 3½ weeks of training camp. The Cleveland Browns picked him up, but Louderback tore up his ankle. He then spent two years in the Navy. He finally played two seasons with the Eagles in 1958-59, two more with the fledgling Oakland Raiders in 1960-61 (living in Petaluma at the time), and a final couple games with the Buffalo Bills.

Louderback remains interested in the NFL. “Now tell me about this kid from Cardinal Newman,” he said over the phone. “What are his height and weight? How fast is he?”

Pulling for Scooby

Alas, those measurable are not what will get Scooby Wright drafted. At 6-0, 239 pounds, he’s a bit undersized for an NFL linebacker. He isn’t particularly fast, either. Wright battled through injuries as a junior last fall. But he had a remarkable sophomore season, winning the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and the Lombardi Award and finishing ninth in Heisman Trophy balloting.

Wright’s NFL stock is unclear. Draft projections have him going anywhere from the second round to the sixth.

Robinson, Wright’s ancestral Cardinal Newman linebacker, has more than a passing interest. He has been close to Scooby’s family for years, and is pulling hard for the young man. Robinson, 59, plans to spend Saturday at the Wrights’ home in Windsor.

“I told Scooby, you gave me a reason to start watching college football again,” Robinson said. “Seriously, he’s the reason I started watching Pac-12 Channel. … If I had to get up early on Saturday to watch, my ass was up.”

But really, it isn’t just the personal connection that has Robinson fired up.

“I just happen to have a closer relationship with Scooby and his family,” Robinson said. “But it’s that thing, I’m pulling for anybody who comes out of this county to have that dream come true. I lived it in 1979. So I’m pulling for others to live it, too.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.