On March 14, 1967, Mel Kiper Jr. was 9 years old and many a moon from discovering the sorcery behind his power to hypnotize a nation from early February through late April.

Todd McShay? He wouldn’t be born for another 10 years. ESPN? Another 12 years away.

And yet the NFL still managed to select 445 college players over two days and 17 rounds. It was the 32nd annual draft and the first one following the merger with the AFL.

“We were aware that there was a draft that day,” said former Vikings receiver Gene Washington. “But other than that, we were completely in the dark.”

Washington was a two-time All-America on a Michigan State team that went undefeated while winning back-to-back national titles. The Spartans had four premier draft prospects in Washington, defensive tackle Bubba Smith, running back Clinton Jones and linebacker George Webster.

If these four were assembled on an unbeaten two-time champion in today’s world, there wouldn’t be enough room for all the reporters, cameras and film trucks that would overtake East Lansing.

“We knew we’d get drafted, but let’s just say no one made a big deal and flew us to New York,” Washington laughed. “They didn’t give us baseball caps to put on, and all that stuff.”

Washington and his teammates were busy trying to graduate as the draft unfolded at the Gotham Hotel in New York City. Back then, a degree was vital because the NFL was a good job, but not an only job or a last one.

“I played in the NFL for seven years,” said Washington. “I worked for 43 years.”

Like other players of his era, Washington worked a second job part-time during the season. He also got his master’s degree from Michigan State.

“I was working around the clock,” he said. “With the Vikings, we had Mondays off. So I was at 3M working all day in their college relations area. I was helping hire engineers and scientists for the company.

“Tuesday through Friday, I’d go to work at 7 in the morning until 11:30 or 12. Then go to practice.”

The Vikings had the second, eighth and 15th picks in 1967. Smith went first overall to Baltimore, while Jones went No. 2.

At that point, San Francisco had the choice of two quarterbacks: Heisman Trophy winner Steve Spurrier or Purdue’s Bob Griese.

The 49ers went with Spurrier. The Dolphins used the next pick on Griese, the first of eight Hall of Famers drafted that year.

The Houston Oilers took Webster fifth. Washington, the last of the top four Spartans, went to the Vikings at No. 8. And, oh yeah, seven picks later, Minnesota rolled the dice on some fella named Alan Page.

“Teams didn’t talk to guys before the draft, so we were clueless,” Washington said. “There was no combine. No interviews. I talked to nobody. No Vikings. No Cowboys. No nothing.”

Washington also ran track at Michigan State, winning six Big Ten titles and an NCAA championship as a hurdler. His 40-yard dash time would have made every football blog in North America, except there were no blogs and …

“I never ran a 40,” Washington said. “It wasn’t even thought of to ask a guy to run a 40. I’d have run one. I had good speed.”

As the Vikings were making the eighth overall pick, Washington was between classes at Michigan State. No, he wasn’t getting up-to-the-nanosecond updates on his iPhone.

“I stopped by the football facility and someone says, ‘Gene, you have a call from Minnesota,’ ” Washington said. “I pick up the phone and this guy says, ‘Gene Washington! I’m calling to let you know you’ve been drafted in the first round by the Minnesota Vikings! We’re so proud and happy to have you.’ ”

Was it Jim Finks, the general manager?

Not exactly.

“I say, ‘Sir, who am I talking to?’ ” Washington said. “And the guy says, ‘You’re talking to Sid Hartman.’ About a week later, Finks calls me. When you ask me how different the draft was back then, that’s my story.”

 

Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL

E-mail: mcraig@startribune.com