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Manning Draft Still Special to Chargers GM

Not even 5 Pro Bowlers next week could top it

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    Somewhere inside the Chargers complex, an NFL draft staff meeting was missing its general manager, one week before the draft.

    A.J. Smith sat in a blue-padded office chair Thursday behind a wooden desk, a quarter-full water bottle in his left hand that he just couldn't seem to finish off for good.

    He'd raise the bottle to his mouth but lower it to speak more.

    He'd try again but retreat his arm to elaborate further.

    “You've got me fired up,” Smith said finally, about 10 minutes past the meeting's start.

    In five days, the Chargers will exercise their first of five draft picks in the opening three rounds, but the topic of conversation that kept Smith two days ago, the one that was more quenching than water, is what drives him forward.

    Smith, 62, considers it the greatest lesson in over 30 years of draft experience.

    He calls it the “2004 Eli Manning draft.”

    It was the draft when the top college prospect wanted any team but the Chargers to select him No. 1 overall.

    It was Smith's decision to take Manning anyway, wait, and then coolly place a long-distance phone call to New York, and as he says, "the rest is history."

    Those anybody-but-them Chargers went from eight years without a winning record to now seven years without a losing season — both tied as the longest such streaks in the franchise's 51-year history.

    “How we reacted, what we did and how we did it and how we handled it is my proudest moment as a Chargers general manager — bar none,” Smith said. “It wouldn’t even be trumped if the five picks inside the third round were selected and, hypothetically, they all went to Honolulu within two years as Pro Bowlers.

    “That would rank second to what I just told you because of the impact of what that meant during that very difficult time of what we were confronted with: ‘Do not select us. We do not want any part of your organization.’ Very impactful, and how it unfolded will never be trumped.”

    Then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue read Manning's name, and the soft-spoken Ole Miss quarterback sheepishly arose from backstage as if he'd just been forcibly rolled out of bed.

    With a forced smile, he shook Tagliabue's hand like he was at a party he didn't want to be at, meeting a group of people whose names he'd already chosen to forget.

    Not like this, he was surely thinking as the crowd hoarsened with boos while the cameras flashed and he nimbly held a jersey he had no intention of wearing.

    Anything but this.

    In San Diego, Smith was in a war room that was calm and collected, the side of a chessboard that knew what moves were coming next.

    Outside those white board-covered walls, before trading Manning to the New York Giants in a package that ultimately netted the team Pro Bowlers Philip Rivers, Shawne Merriman, Nate Kaeding and veteran tackle Roman Oben, Smith imagines a split reaction.

    “I don’t think the Mannings and (Manning’s agent) Tom Condon thought too much of me, or their circle of friends,” Smith said. “I was proud of it because it was best for us. It was my job and my duty as a general manager to (team president) Dean Spanos.

    “But I do recall that it energized and excited and bonded our community at that time. If I had to go back into time and think up a pulse, I believe I’m right on that, and I totally could understand that. It might have been a slight on the football team or whatever it was. I think this city took it deeply and were deeply involved in the decision.”

    And so was the precedent set with that draft, and at this point of Smith's career, it may even be his legacy.

    He knew what the player wanted. He knew what the agent wanted.

    He shoved those elements aside and did what he considered to be in the team's best interests.

    Roll the dice. Take a chance.

    Retired coach Jimmie Johnson "has a great saying," Smith said. "You can be safe and be good, and that's OK. Or do you want to take some risks to be great?"

    Smith turned his body to his right and stared at a clock hanging in the second-story office wall.

    He placed his still unempty water bottle on his desk and rose from his chair with a genuine smile that could only partly mask his adrenaline.

    “That was good," Smith said. "Now I can go to that meeting.”