The Sweeney clan, led by a scrabbling high school coach from Montana, was almost always a fixture at the Dallas Cowboys’ training camp.
The Cowboys were pretty good about this kind of courtesy. Visiting coaches wandered about the compound freely. The stay-at-home wives got Dallas pins in the mail. Kids on their summer vacation stood head-to-elbow with Roger Staubach in the cafeteria line.
Gil Brandt, the team’s personnel director, remembers this Sweeney clan, the youngest one in particular. “Since he was about 2,” he says. “So small he couldn’t even carry his own tray.”
It was a cute family, and Brandt, who developed a friendship with the patriarch over the years, enjoyed seeing the family gain some success, Jim eventually emerging from the Montana outposts to head a thriving program at Fresno State, the kids enjoying nice athletic careers of their own.
Still, Brandt couldn’t have guessed that one day he would be drafting that 2-year-old.
These days, that 2-year-old, Kevin, is 23 and a seventh-round pick from Fresno State working with the other rookies in the Dallas camp, trying to make it as the No. 3 quarterback. He has come a long way, is how Brandt sees it.
It will be a cute story if it develops any further, and Brandt says that’s the way to bet. When the Cowboys pulled Sweeney in, they were doing more than a favor to the family. Professional courtesy extends just so far, after all. They were looking at a quarterback.
You may know this particular quarterback by his National Collegiate Athletic Assn. career passing record, 10,623 yards in his four years at Fresno State. Or maybe you know him for playing for Dad Sweeney. The two things together made for a nice publicity packet there, and he gained fame well beyond what anybody had enjoyed at Fresno State before him.
But that isn’t what qualifies him for the NFL. Pro scouts do not swoon at the sight of numbers or otherwise fall for novelty acts. (Coach romances recruit’s mom, promises car). The Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. is a nice little league and all that, but a statistical yard mark there does not qualify one for induction at Canton.
Anyway, Sweeney is a Lilliputian 6 feet short. In a basketball game he may be able to post up Doug Flutie, whose passing record he broke, but in a football game they’ll look like two guys in search of Snow White.
That said, what is it about this kid that Brandt liked? How about, for want of a better word, personality.
“What’s special about him is that great personality,” Brandt said. “Like Roger Staubach. For him, the game was never over, time just ran out. For example, Kevin’s team is behind San Jose State, 24-0. He gets them in position, makes up the 24, and would have won except for an onside kick. He’s a guy that just exudes confidence.”
Brandt agrees that Sweeney is not the tallest quarterback in the world but counters that he has a nice arm and, after 23 years of doing X’s and O’s with Dad at the breakfast table, is certainly well schooled in the game.
Still, Brandt argues, there is that winning quality, maybe a cliche at some positions, but a real factor at quarterback. And that he was born with.
“The dad is, uh, a highly competitive person,” Brandt said. “He’s the kind of guy you wouldn’t want to play golf with, although I do. The other day, we’re playing, in fact, when we get to the last hole. I’m in, he blasts out of a bunker about 40 feet away in the rough. This is the easiest $5 I’ll ever earn. Then he chips it within eight feet and knocks it in. Anybody else hands you $5 and goes looking for their ball.”
Kevin is proud of his own grit, which is considerable. He never once mentioned his passing record, which might be offered as credential to a doubting press. Rather, he came back to his durability. In fact, that’s what he thinks the record proves, more guts than arm.
“Forty-six games and I only missed one half,” he said. “That was my freshman year when I got knocked out. I came back to play in the second half.”
He had a chance to demonstrate toughness last year when his left shoulder was dislocated. It wasn’t his throwing arm but, still, quarterbacks like to have all their limbs available. He found he couldn’t even hand the ball off by the last game.
“By the end of the year, I was just holding (the left arm) in,” he said.
Toughness, his experience with a pro-type system will stand him in good stead, although how high it stands him is the question. There’s always the thing about size.
When reminiscing about those early camps, Sweeney let slip that those Cowboys “were always so much bigger.” Someone asked if they weren’t still bigger. “Oh, OK,” said Sweeney laughing.
“I think I maybe proved myself about this size thing, although this is a higher level,” he said. “But I’m not that short. I especially hate it when I’m compared to Doug Flutie. C’mon. He’s 5-9 1/2. Also, there are some 6-footers out there. Jim McMahon’s only about a quarter-inch taller. Guys like Pat Haden did fine. It’s only that recent quarterbacks have come in so big--Bernie Kosar, John Elway, Vinny Testaverde. These are big people.”
Just big enough, is the NFL thinking, meaning that there is a decided bias against guys like Sweeney. But Brandt, who has already watched Sweeney grow over the years, thinks the kid will measure up.
“He’s just got the personality for it, that positive attitude,” he said. “I’ll tell you, Kevin doesn’t have any changes of mood. He’s always up. He could throw three interceptions out there today but he wouldn’t be sulking like somebody else might. He knows there’s only three hours to the next practice.”
In between, of course, is lunch. At least Sweeney knows his way around the cafeteria. And at least now he’s big enough to carry his own tray.