Here's a little-known fact about Charlie Sanders: Before ending up at the University of Minnesota, Sanders was the first African-American offered a football scholarship at Wake Forest… and his host for the recruiting trip was future Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo.
Sanders grew up in North Carolina and probably would have gone to college at Wake Forest or somewhere closer to home, but he was recruited to Minnesota by Lou Hudson, the great Gophers basketball player who, like Sanders, had attended Dudley High School in Greensboro, N.C. (as an aside, we drafted Hudson for the Cowboys in 1966, as a receiver, but he opted for a 13-year NBA career instead).
The Big Ten Conference didn't redshirt players in those days, so Sanders was on what they called the "hamburger squad" as a freshman and did not play at all. As a sophomore he was a backup safety and as a junior he was a part-time starter playing defensive end and linebacker. Not exactly the kind of college career you'd expect from a future Hall of Famer.
In the summer of 1967, head coach Murray Warmath moved senior-to-be Sanders to tight end. Lining up in a four-point stance, Sanders had the makings of a terrific blocking tight end. I saw him working out that summer and he looked pretty good, so I added him to the list of players I wanted the Dallas scouting department to check out.
To this day, Sanders will tell you that the Cowboys were the only team that knew how fast he was. We sent one of our part-time scouts, Charlie Smith, to work him out a little. Warmath, however, was taken aback when he caught wind of this. When he called me to ask about it, I told him it was just a coincidence - that Smith was up there on vacation and just happened to stop by.
"Really?" said Warmath. "Tell me, Gil, does Charlie always take a bathroom scale with him on his vacations?"
In any case, Sanders made the most of his one season as a college starter. Not only was he a great blocker, but he also led Minnesota with 30 receptions. We were pretty interested in him as perhaps a mid-round draft pick in 1968, but we never got a chance to get him because the Detroit Lions jumped on him in the third round.
Even then, an NFL career was no lock. Jim Morris, his agent, actually made a deal for him to sign with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. For their trip north to sign the contract, Sanders and Morris flew into Detroit. Before driving through the tunnel into Canada, they made one last stop at Lions headquarters - and Detroit general manager Russ Thomas made one final take-it-or-leave-it, two-year offer.
Sanders took it, and the rest is history.
Even though he was a rookie tight end still lining up in a four-point stance, he caught 40 passes - and he finished second in offensive rookie of the year voting, behind Lions receiver Earl McCullouch. It might be the only time that teammates finished one-two in the offensive rookie voting. Sanders averaged more than 12 yards per reception in each of his 10 NFL seasons and finished with a 14.3-yard average for his career.
Sanders is still fifth on Detroit's all-time receiving list (336) and he still works for the Lions in their pro personnel department.