The National Football League never had heard of Don Beebe until three years ago, when a scout pressed the stem of his stopwatch and then looked disbelievingly at the time.
"Son," said Bill Giles, a field representatives for the National Football Scouting combine, "who are you?"
Minutes earlier, Beebe had appeared at the Western Illinois University track in Macomb, Ill., for Giles' impromptu scouting session. A fifth-year senior who had yet to play a single down for WIU, Beebe made but one simple request:
"Coach, can I run the 40?"
An astounding 4.38 seconds later, everyone had the answer.
Beebe had turned in the fastest 40-yard-dash time recorded on that track. So impressed was Giles that he immediately asked for Beebe's jersey number and as many canisters of game film available of the wide receiver. That's when he learned the strange truth: There were none.
Instead, Giles had discovered a former aluminum siding salesman-installer who had spent the previous four years in and out of school. Now he was back, with a single season of National Collegiate Athletic Assn. eligibility remaining. But would it be enough?
Well, not exactly. His NCAA eligibility spent after the 1987 season, Beebe (pronounced, bee-bee) accepted a scholarship at tiny Chadron (Neb.) State, a member of the National Assn. of Intercollegiate Athletics. Under NAIA rules, Beebe could transfer to Chadron and play immediately.
A year later, here he is--in the NFL, on the Buffalo Bills' roster and out of the aluminum siding business. Come Monday night, Beebe's unlikely playing career may well take another step forward when the Bills play the Rams on national television at Rich Stadium.
Just last Sunday, Beebe, who is used in passing situations, had four receptions for 67 yards against the Indianapolis Colts. Even more memorable was the game against the New England Patriots a week before that. He ran past all-pro cornerback Raymond Clayborn on a pass pattern and as they jogged back to their respective huddles, Clayborn said, "Man, where did you get that kind of speed?"
It wasn't the first time this sort of thing had happened. To all of this, Beebe just smiles.
"It's quite a story, really," he said. "It doesn't really happen every day."
And with good reason. Beebe's journey began in 1983, when he enrolled at Western Illinois, went through fall football practice, but transferred to a junior college and played basketball because he was homesick and missed his girlfriend.
Then he quit school for the aluminum siding trade. After three years of that, he returned to Western, only to be told that he didn't have enough credits to transfer. He made his way back in 1987 with enough credits, but apparently not with enough eligibility to play football.
"I was packing my bags and I'm saying, 'What a waste of time. We're going home. I'm going to do siding.' Then the NCAA-regulations guy from Western Illinois called an hour before I was going to leave. Under rule something-or-other, he told me I was a re-entry student and I could play," Beebe said.
So he did and caught 29 passes for five touchdowns. Not bad, the NFL scouts said.
Then Beebe had a choice to make: He could declare himself eligible for the 1988 draft, in which he probably would be taken in the late rounds or ignored altogether. Or he could do as the scouts suggested, attend an NAIA school for a year.
Beebe chose Chadron, although, it still isn't entirely clear why. An NAIA school, which featured a pass-happy football team, was located 10 minutes from his home in Sugar Grove, Ill. But Beebe picked Chadron, which is in the far reaches of northwestern Nebraska, near the borders of South Dakota and Wyoming.
"I'd never been in the state of Nebraska before I went out there," he said.
His parents drove him to school that fall. As they neared the city, Beebe saw a sign that read, Chadron, pop. 6,000.
Beebe looked and saw nothing but a gas station and a steak house. He began to panic.
"Dad, where's the city?" he said. "I can't live here, I'm used to people. Where are the houses?"
Now when you ask Beebe about the Chadron experience, he can't say enough nice things. He loved the people. He loved the solitude. Best of all, he loved his season, a 49-reception, 13-touchdown year that earned him some Little All-American mention, to say nothing of the attention that NFL scouts were giving him. By the time it was over, 21 scouts had visited Chadron for a look at the 5-foot-10, 176-pound Beebe.
From there, he went to the scouting combine tryouts in Indianapolis last spring. He ran the 40 in 4.40 and 4.42. The average for wide receivers was 4.61. His vertical jump was more than 3 1/2 inches higher than the average. And his long jump of 9-7 was an inch more than the norm.
"According to our tables, he was very marginal on height and weight," said Duke Babb, director of National Football Scouting. "But he goes off the chart on speed."
That explains why personnel directors were telling Beebe to be ready on draft day. As best as anyone could predict, Beebe would go in the second, third or fourth round.
About 22 friends and family members crammed into his small, one-bedroom home that day. And when the announcement came--Buffalo, third round--Beebe couldn't have been happier.
"Hey, they were 12-4 the year before," he said. "Jim Kelly is their quarterback. And I wanted to come to Buffalo."
That's a first.
Already, Beebe is a crowd favorite. His semi-cult status can be traced to Game 3, when he caught a 63-yard touchdown pass against the Houston Oilers. As he dashed toward the end zone, the Oiler defensive back reached desperately for Beebe's jersey. The only thing he got was the middle E in Beebe's name. So for the rest of the game, the wide receiver's jersey read, Be be .
A Buffalo radio station noticed the spelling and immediately launched a search for the missing E. Someone wrote a song about the absent letter. It was all very silly and wonderful.
The E has since been replaced on his jersey and the touchdown ball, his first, is on its way back from team officials. As it was, Beebe almost lost the ball, too, when teammate Andre Reed joyfully tackled him after the scoring catch. The ball popped into the hands of an official, who refused to return it to the rookie.
Veteran tight end Pete Metzelaars intervened.
"Hey, that's his first ball," he said.
"So?" said the referee.
"His first touchdown ball."
"Oh, well, then take it."
So Beebe awaits his memento, which is being decorated with the appropriate date and team colors. No doubt it will occupy a prime spot on the mantle.
Now if he only could persuade Giles to hand over that special stopwatch, the one that started his career . . .