THE TWO THAT GOT AWAY
EL PASO, Texas., -- "You know who we almost got to come to Laramie?"
That's a statement that can make even the most casual of fans cringe, especially when it comes to a mid-major program like Wyoming. However, that is exactly the way former UW head football coach Dana Dimel started to explain a program-changing player who slipped away at the 11th hour back in 1997.
"I'm going to break your heart," Dimel announced. "This is a great story."
That last part is up for debate.
Let's just say CSU, BYU, Utah and Air Force fans might like this little tale.
"I'm at Kansas State and I'm recruiting a young man in Texas," Dimel continued. "He's got us and that's it. I take the Wyoming job and I'm (in Manhattan) on weekends. I came back to coach the Cotton Bowl at K-State, and the weekend he came, I was there and his recruiting coach was not there to protect him. He wasn't an impressive looking kid and he didn't get an offer (from K-State). He calls me and says, 'coach, I've got nothing now. Are you interested in me coming to Wyoming?' I said 'yes, we will bring you up (to Laramie) next weekend ...' The second to last week of recruiting I get a call, 'coach, I just got a late offer, so I am going to TCU.'
"Do you know who that player was?"
You guessed it: LaDainian Tomlinson.
The same LT that rushed for 5,387 yards and 56 touchdowns for the Horned Frogs in just 45 career games. The same LT that won the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation's top running back. The same LT that went on to be selected No. 5 overall in the 2001 NFL Draft by the San Diego Chargers, beginning a decade-long tenure in which Tomlinson rushed for 13,684 yards and 145 touchdowns.
Two summers ago, Tomlinson walked across the stage in Canton, Ohio, to receive a gold jacket as the newest member of the NFL Hall of Fame.
Yeah, that guy.
"We were that close to getting him," Dimel said. "He had no one else. Is that insane? That's exactly how that went down."
Instead, the Rosebud, Texas, native decided to stay close to home, a decision that turned out just fine for the 5-foot, 10-inch, 215-pound speedster.
But, Dimel couldn’t help but throw in the fact that his UW team did corral the all-conference running back and TCU in Ft. Worth on Halloween night in 1998. The Cowboys beat the Horned Frogs, 34-27. Tomlinson rushed the ball six times for 45 yards and a touchdown. His lone score was in garbage time, an 18-yard run with 1:44 remaining in the fourth.
Here's visual proof of LT's greatness. Just having a casual 400-plus yard, six touchdown record-breaking day against the UTEP team Dimel currently coaches:
There was another recruit that season who didn't quite fit the prototypical image of what a great quarterback should look like. He wasn't mobile and possessed an average arm. He was also overlooked in the Lone Star State. Former UW receiver, Marcus Harris, the 1996 Biletnekoff Trophy winner, broke this news.
“He said he wanted to be in a place where they throw 50 times a game,” Harris said. “He would’ve been where Joe Tiller is at. Period.”
Instead, Drew Brees followed Tiller right out the door to Purdue in the winter of 1996, where he became one of the best signal callers in Big Ten history. Brees amassed 11,792 yards passing and 90 touchdowns, while propelling the Boilermakers to uncharted territory. He was the point guard of Tiller's "basketball on grass" offense. He led Purdue to the 2001 Rose Bowl. It was only the Boilermakers’ second trip to Pasadena in school history.
“No one was looking for a 5-foot, 10-inch quarterback,” Harris chuckled. “Drew recreated himself in a lot of respects. He dug in and got busy. He was a very forward-thinking young man. He believed in himself.”
Harris said Brees approached him after a Purdue game in his hometown of Minneapolis. He told Harris he wanted to meet a guy who thrived in Tiller’s offense. He came to the right person. Harris amassed 4,518 yards receiving, then an NCAA record, and 38 touchdowns in only three seasons at UW. (His freshman season, Harris caught one pass for 14 yards.)
Brees’ Wikipedia page says only the University of Kentucky and Purdue sought out his services after a prolific career at Westlake High School in Austin where he was named the 5A State Player of the Year. Yet it wasn't until midway through the playoffs during his senior year that he fielded those offers.
In a documentary entitled 9 for No. 9: A champion's journey, Brees' high school teammate, Jonny Rogers, says that his friend was indeed offered a full-ride scholarship by UK -- and Wyoming.
Harris isn't surprised. And if Tiller stayed, he said, Brees would've been a Cowboy.
“He wanted to throw the ball,” Harris said. “He would've come there.”
It’s painful enough that neither landed in Laramie. What makes it worse is they would’ve played for the Pokes at the same time.
Can you imagine?
And can you imagine a gorgeous pass like this landing in the hands of, oh, let's say, Wendell Montgomery? Kofi Schuck?
Instead, the San Diego Chargers got that luxury. Brees was selected 32nd overall in the second round in that same 2001 NFL Draft as Tomlinson. Brees was named Super Bowl MVP in 2009 after leading the New Orleans Saints to a 31-17 win over Peyton Manning's Indianapolis Colts. He now leads the NFL in all-time passing yards (74,437), completions (6,586) and completion percentage (67.3), among others.
When Brees decides to hang them up, he will also one day don a gold jacket.
Oh, what could’ve been.
Contact Cody Tucker at Cody@7220sports.com or on Twitter at @Cody_7220sports