Draftnik Joel Buchsbaum tribute
By JULIET MACUR
For those that remember Joel Buchsbaum..His draft coverage for PFW was the best. The article is from 2003.
For draft week, a nice Joel Buchsbaum tribute
Legendary NFL draftnik steeped in mystery
Dallas Morning News
NEW YORK – Neighbors thought the little man was strange.
They didn't know who he was or what he did for a living.
They knew only that he spent most days holed up in his apartment, a small one-bedroom on the fourth floor. And that he got loads of mail. His mailbox in the building's lobby bulged with letters and magazines. Many days, stacks of envelopes were bundled with twine on the floor. The superintendent, who often signed for the packages, couldn't stand it.
"I said no more, please no more," the super said. "Too much mail."
But the deluge kept coming, all bound for Apartment 4L, where things went in but hardly anything went out, including the man who lived there.
The tenant, a quiet guy who never married, left Brooklyn once, maybe twice a year. He left his building only a few hours a day. He walked his dog, visited his mother in the building next door or went to the gym.
He always looked the same: Bed-head hair. Baggy sweatshirt or sweater. Windbreaker. Long pants, even in the sticky heat of summer. His Jack Russell terrier scampered behind him, leaving puddles.
Neighbors said the man was likable and polite, a gentleman. Friends called him caring and honest. A real sweetheart.
But strangers rushed past him and kids stared.
He was so thin, he seemed to drown in his clothes. His eyes were sunken, his fingers thin as pencils. In his 40s, he looked 80.
His name was Joel Buchsbaum. And in the confines of his apartment, he became a football savant.
Buchsbaum could tell you anything about football, anything about players – even from 10 years ago. Heights. Forty-yard dash times. Injuries. If a guy sprained an ankle, he knew which ankle.
About his personal life, though, he didn't say much. It seemed he loved football more than life itself.
Obsessive and passionate about the game, yet absent-minded in life. That was Joel.
The name on Buchsbaum's apartment buzzer was J. Buchabaum. He lived there 17 years but never bothered to correct it.
He never managed to put enough postage on envelopes, just slapping on stamps. He was a menace on the road, driving his used Mazda sedan 20 mph in the fast lane. And his health? It was far down his list of important things.
"He was always too busy to eat, so he never ate," said his mother, Fran Buchsbaum. "With him, it was football, football, football. He thought it was all he needed."
Buchsbaum's fixation with work was overwhelming. He once said: "When it comes my time to go, I hope I'm 90, and I've just finished another draft. Yeah, that's the way I want to go."
He didn't make it.
On the morning of Dec. 29, 2002, in his nondescript building on Avenue I in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, Buchsbaum died at age 48, alone in the apartment where he lived a secluded life between peeling, cracking walls.
He was 5-8 and less than 100 pounds when his heart gave out. He fell to his bedroom floor, and there he lay, surrounded by the world he created – a place where quirky college dropout Joel Stephen Buchsbaum became an NFL legend.
A radio cult figure
Officially, Buchsbaum's job was contributing editor for Pro Football Weekly. He wrote columns for the magazine and produced books about the 600 to 800 college players available for the NFL draft.
In his yearly book, he detailed players' strengths, weaknesses and personal information. He threw out one-liners, too: "Looks like Tarzan but plays like Jane." "It's a $20 cab ride to get around him."
Though this year's draft book has his name on it, for the first time in 25 years, next weekend's event will go on without him.
Buchsbaum also had weekly radio shows in Houston and St. Louis. Over the airwaves, he became a cult figure. His nasal, Brooklyn monotone – not a booming broadcasting voice – was his trademark.
Unofficially, Buchsbaum was one of the best evaluators of football talent. He called himself "a glorified information gatherer" because he consulted many sources to produce what NFL bigwigs say was the definitive draft guide. He didn't have to ask teams what they were going to do. He knew.
His analysis was so good that NFL coaches, owners and personnel people sought his advice.
"I tried to hire him as a scout with the [Cleveland] Browns every year," said New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "But he always said he'd rather work for all 32 teams.
"There's a thousand people out there that write draft books, and they aren't worth the paper they're written on. But Joel? He was something special."
'24 hours a day'
While NFL scouts were traveling to colleges to check out players, Buchsbaum was perched in front of his TVs, studying videotapes of games and workouts. That was his advantage.
"He knew the players better than any scout for any team," Belichick said. "Studying film is crucial, and that's why he was so good. He did it 24 hours a day."
Buchsbaum saw tapes he wasn't supposed to. Practice sessions. Private workouts. He had connections at every NFL team.
Belichick considered him a close friend, calling on the morning of the draft, then that night to talk about different scenarios. Buchsbaum was good at keeping secrets.
Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis was a buddy. So were New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi and Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo. And NFL front office people. And agents.
"He had a network in the NFL better than I've ever heard of," said Bobby Beathard, Atlanta Falcons senior adviser and former Washington Redskins general manager.
Accorsi said: "There weren't a lot of people who influenced all these top people in the league like Joel did."
Part of his mystery
Of all the people who knew Buchsbaum, most knew him only by phone.
"It certainly was out of the ordinary," Belichick said. "It was like having an affair."
It was part of his mystery.
A St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist in the 1980s joked that Buchsbaum was fictional because no one had ever seen him. Was he short? Blond? Fat? Alive?
"I was never in his presence. That puts me in the same category as 99 percent of people that knew him," said NBC sportscaster Bob Costas, who hosted a St. Louis radio show with Buchsbaum in the late 1970s. "A sighting of him was like a sighting of Bigfoot.
"A portion of our audience thought he was a put-on. His voice was almost as if you invented a sports brainiac cartoon character."
In 1978, Buchsbaum started his radio career on St. Louis' KMOX. His name, usually pronounced Bucks-baum, was mispronounced Bush-bomb. He didn't care. He was happy to sit in his raggedy recliner and talk football to listeners many miles away. He was happy to be just a voice.
He avoided cameras. As part of an agreement, his column in Pro Football Weekly ran without his mug shot.
A picture would've captured this: a pale, angular face. Teeth too big for his mouth. Ears popping out. Outdated, outsized glasses with thick lenses.
Eventually, his photo made it into newspapers, when stories came out about this new breed of person called a draftnik, someone obsessed with the NFL draft.
Now there is Mel Kiper Jr., the ESPN personality identified by his distinct hair styling. But first there was Buchsbaum, the guy no one could identify.
Avoided the public
Unlike Kiper and other draftniks, Buchsbaum preferred to avoid the public. Most of his social interaction was at the gym.
His NFL friends couldn't understand. He had many offers to go to lunch or to nearby games. But Buchsbaum declined, saying he was busy. Or his dog was sick. Or he was on a diet.
Occasionally he went to the Kickoff Classic at Giants Stadium at the start of the college season. Other than that, he watched games from his apartment, a space so messy that his mother vowed never to visit. Only his editors and best friend visited regularly – a few times a year.
"Getting into his apartment was like getting onto Gilligan's Island," one NFL executive said. "We all wondered what it was like."
There was plenty to see beneath the dust. Every cranny was filled with magazines, newspapers and thousands of videotapes from games and workouts, each labeled. Texas A&M v. Texas 1998. Notre Dame Work Out '93.
Rickety bookshelves threatened to crush him. Books, binders and spiral notebooks filled his closets. They hid stains on his worn-out carpet. They elbowed dust bunnies from beneath his bed. The bathtub was a book bin.
In the clutter of his living room were his lifelines: the phone; three TVs of varying size, only one hooked up to cable; three VCRs, some so old their buttons were held on by dry, yellowing Scotch tape. He often watched and taped three games at once.
There he worked 80 to 90 hours a week, 52 weeks a year.
"He gambled his entire well-being for the sport, and he didn't want anything in return," said Accorsi, who lives in Manhattan but met Buchsbaum only once. "His compensation was our respect. That was more important to him than any kind of money."
Money was never a concern. Pro Football Weekly paid him well and covered his phone bills, as high as $1,500 a month. He didn't need much to live on anyway.
In love with sports
He was an only child who resided with his parents until he was 31. His father, who died in 1999, was first assistant corporation counsel for New York City. His mother, a buyer for a local clothing store, eventually made her son and his junk move to the building next door.
Stanley Buchsbaum hoped his son would become a lawyer, but Joel had other ideas. He introduced his son to sports, and Joel fell in love.
They went to Mets and Jets games. They talked about football and hockey. But they loved baseball the most. To protest the Dodgers' leaving Brooklyn in 1957, the Buchsbaums were Baltimore Orioles fans. Joel named every dog he ever had Brooks or Miss Brooks, after his favorite player, third baseman Brooks Robinson.
He boasted about the "O's" to his friends. Back then, he was gregarious, one of the gang. Despite his insistence that he was "never any good," he played stickball in the streets until dusk, football in the schoolyards. He was pudgy but coordinated.
"There are a lot of misconceptions about Joel: He wasn't always thin, and he wasn't spastic," said Andrew Kulak, a boyhood friend. "He was a great pitcher and a great quarterback."
Buchsbaum once was obsessed with becoming a major league pitcher, just as he was obsessed with perfection in everything he did. In third grade, his mother said, he began memorizing box scores. As friends played Stratomatic, a baseball board game, he kept statistics.
His love for statistics soon became his only connection to athletics. When puberty hit, he stopped playing team sports. He developed a serious case of acne and withdrew from his friends.
One autumn, he returned to high school much thinner.
"He was obsessed with getting into shape because he wanted to be an athlete so badly, but he obviously went too far," said Paul Helman, a longtime friend. "Looking back, maybe it was anorexia or something. He just worked out all the time."
His mother said Buchsbaum lost weight because he developed food allergies. He went to State University of New York at Albany but came home after one semester, due in part, she said, to his eating problems.
In 1974, after giving Brooklyn College a one-month trial, he gave up on college. He was 19 when he began thinking up his own career. One that didn't exist.
A collector's item
Growing up, Buchsbaum was fascinated by Pro Football Weekly's draft coverage. So he tried it himself. For hours, he sat in a local kosher pizza parlor, scribbling notes about college players.
At age 20, he wrote his first draft report. His mother typed it and took it to the copy shop. He sent it to 120 newspapers and magazines. The next year, the Football News hired him, and his first draft analysis was published in 1975.
He moved to Pro Football Weekly in 1978, when his early draft reports were 50 pages. His last report was nearly 200 pages.
"This year's book is going to be a collector's item," Accorsi said. "You look at it and you think, 'Oh, Joel – I really miss him.' "
When Buchsbaum started out, the draft was a small affair, held at a Manhattan hotel. Now it's broadcast live on ESPN from Madison Square Garden. Thousands of people attend. Millions watch.
It was the one day of the year, guaranteed, that Buchsbaum left Brooklyn. And one day, guaranteed, that people could see the man who lived a hermit's life. It was his domain: While other reporters were sequestered in the media section, he was allowed near the team tables.
"He had a presence at the draft," said Joel Bussert, NFL senior director of player personnel. "He had an identity there. He was an important man there. I don't think he ever realized how important he was in football."
Special to DMN NFL draft expert Joel Buchsbaum spent most of his time at the computer, on the phone, and watching video of college players.
As the draft grew, Buchsbaum's methods stayed the same.
He wrote his reports in notebooks with No. 2 pencils. Pro Football Weekly editors sent him a computer, but it stayed in the box for months.
When the magazine sent him to a typing class, he resisted. Only last year did he agree to use e-mail.
Not a jokester
Buchsbaum had his routine.
Every night, he visited his mother at 11:30. Every day, he went to the gym, wearing a fanny pack that held a notebook and pencils. He changed his NFL cap daily so he wouldn't show a particular allegiance.
He worked out with his best friend, Marty Fox. Buchsbaum climbed onto a bike in front of the TVs and barely pedaled. Or he lifted the lightest plate on the weight machines. He said he didn't want to waste calories; he just wanted to keep his parts moving. As usual, he was serious.
"You never joked around with Joel because he just wasn't that hip," Fox said. "You just had to accept him for what he was."
Many people didn't know what to think. They wondered why he insisted on commandeering the TV sets. They didn't find out who he was until he was featured in The New York Times two weeks before his death.
"People here loved him because he was as nice as can be, but some people thought he had AIDS or something," gym sales manager Michael Carlin said.
Buchsbaum had health problems for years, but never complained, and few people inquired.
Even his friends weren't sure what was wrong. Fox thought Buchsbaum had Crohn's disease, a gastrointestinal disorder. Others thought Buchsbaum was struggling with diabetes or cancer.
The death certificate cites natural causes. His mother said he died of a heart attack.
"It was terrible," she said. "You can't just live on lettuce."
'He had demons'
His NFL contacts understood his passion for the game and respected him for his hard work. Though they knew he was thin, they didn't know why.
"He had demons inside of him," an NFL executive said.
"Because he was always afraid of failure. He was scared because he said he wasn't trained for anything else."
His mother said she tried to get him to relax, maybe have a family. Even when his father died in 1999 and friends worried about how it affected him, he kept working.
"After his dad died, he was really down. I thought, 'God, what is this guy going to do now? This poor guy doesn't have a life,' " Beathard said. "I always hoped he'd get a job at the NFL office, so he could get out of Brooklyn and do other things. I always wondered, 'Is this what he wants?' because I really cared about him and liked what was inside of him."
Many of Buchsbaum's contacts turned into friends, including Scott Pioli, the New England Patriots' vice president of player personnel. They talked about things other than football. Buchsbaum often chatted with Pioli's wife, Dallas, whose father is Bill Parcells, coach of the Dallas Cowboys.
They never saw him in person, but the Piolis loved their phone friend. It was mutual.
Months after the Piolis' wedding in 1999, Buchsbaum sent them a gift in brown wrinkly paper, probably a former supermarket bag. Inside, there was a wooden sailboat with a note saying, "Along the seas of life may your ship always sail smoothly."
Several weeks later, they spied the same ship at a supermarket. It was $18.99.
"We both started laughing," Pioli said. "It said a lot about the man. It was simple and thoughtful, and not in a derogatory way, it was him. It was something he felt in his heart, and even if it was a cheap old boat from Shop Rite, he wanted to get it for us."
On New Year's Eve, Pioli and Belichick drove from Massachusetts to New Jersey for Buchsbaum's funeral. Only about a dozen people showed up. His mother. His editor. A couple of cousins. A few friends from the gym. Accorsi. Bussert.
In February, about 30 people went to a memorial service at the annual scouting combine, where NFL teams evaluate prospective players. Pro Football Weekly staffers handed out tribute books filled with stories and notes about Buchsbaum. More than 300 e-mails from all over the world were posted on the magazine's Web site about him.
Pile of mail
Fran Buchsbaum didn't know that her son was famous, or that he influenced so many people.
At 84, she is a whisper of a woman. Most days you can find her in the same spot, sitting in her neat beige living room.
These days, she listens to a tape of the St. Louis radio show dedicated to her son. He's described as "the only man who knows and who cares who is the third-string quarterback from Alcorn State."
There's a pile of mail on the desk in her foyer, sent by her son's admirers, but she hasn't had the strength to read it, even months after his death. Instead, she holds the tribute book. A chain smoker, she exhales and smoke floats through the room like a thin veil.
"Such adoration, such adulation," she said, wiping a tear. "I had no idea. Every one of these people says he was a genius. I've never heard of these men, but look here, an NFL general manager said he was a legend. I guess he would know."
Pictures of her son line her bookcase. In one, he's a tan teenager with meaty arms, sitting on a couch with a dog. Another shows him as a high schooler with longish, wavy hair and a broad face.
Her son's TVs are in her living room, each bound for another household. They sit next to two wooden sailboats he gave her.
In the building next door, Apartment 4L is empty.
After Buchsbaum's funeral, his editor went into the apartment to collect material for the latest draft book. He took about a dozen small boxes. The building's superintendent threw away the rest.
In the cupboards, the super found 500 cans of mushrooms, 100 bottles of Diet Sprite, some popcorn and dozens of ice cube trays filled with soda. The gas to the oven was off. No one cooked there. The air conditioner had been broken for years.
Now Buchsbaum's dog, Miss Brooks, taken in by a cousin, is living in the suburbs. The floor is bare. The rooms echo.
Next door, Fran Buchsbaum is alone.
Nearly three months after her son's death, she received a call from a reporter looking for Joel. He needed insight about the draft.
"I can't give you any information," she said. She covered her eyes. Then, "He's dead. That's it. It's over."