Throwback Thursday: The time a rookie punter held out for a whole season
June 27, 2019 7:32 am ET
When most people think of holdouts they think of superstar skill-position players like Emmitt Smith, Eric Dickerson or Kam Chancellor. The fact is a punter doesn’t really come to mind, let alone a rookie punter. And it happened with the Browns.
The Cleveland Browns selected Ohio State’s Tom Skladany at No. 46 overall in the 1977 NFL Draft. Thanks to his hardheaded agent, Howard Slusher, Skladany never put on a Cleveland uniform.
Way back before the rookie wage scale, it was not completely unheard of for a rookie to sit out an entire season or never see a snap with the team that drafted him. Kelly Stouffer and Cornelius Bennett in 1987, both traded by their original teams halfway through their rookie seasons, are good examples. Even star Bo Jackson re-entered the 1987 draft after sitting out all of 1986. Even though the names above are extremely notable, the first rookie ever to sit out an entire season was Skladany.
Drafting a punter in the second round was high even for 1977, but Skladany was the first specialist in Big Ten history to be offered a scholarship. He left Ohio State with three All-America selections and the school record for longest field goal at 59 yards. So clearly he was worth the second round selection, but in classic Cleveland fashion, Browns owner Art Modell couldn’t get his name on the dotted line.
Skladany’s agent was another Ohio State graduate in Slusher, the man loathed by NFL owners because of his reputation of having his clients hold out. Modell once called Slusher the No. 1 thorn in pro football’s side. The Skladany holdout made an impact on how Cleveland handled the 1978 draft too. If a rookie is selected and never shows up, he is eligible to re-enter the next draft, and that forced Cleveland in a mad dash to try and find not only a trade partner but also a team willing to pay Skladany what he wanted.
Skladany had to be dealt by May 2 or he would have been eligible for the next draft and Modell apparently had a number of teams inquire. A deal was reportedly close with the Los Angeles Rams that would have given the Browns a pair of second-round selections, but they couldn’t swallow his giant price tag and that caused the Browns to scramble for a suitor deep into April. Eventually the Detroit Lions snagged Skladany for a much less-impressive third-round pick in 1978 and seventh-rounder in 1979. After this debacle, Modell swore to never draft a Slusher client again.
Not only did Cleveland lose out on a great punter, they went back to the well at that position during the 1978 draft. Cleveland selected punter Johnny Evans out of North Carolina State in the second round; yes, the Browns took another punter in the second round and he struggled, lasting three seasons as a Brown before moving on to the Canadian Football League.
Skladany ended up being a stud in Detroit, earning All-Pro honors four seasons in a row before he and Slusher decided to hold out again during the 1982 season. After that year, the Lions refused to budge and forced Skladany out. He only contributed in seven games that season with a noticeable drop in production. He was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1983; he injured his back, was released after the season and failed to land with an NFL team again. Most felt that the reason he failed to land anywhere else was Slusher being so tough to work with.
It is a situation that would happen only to the Browns, and Skladany’s career is a perfect example of how important and impactful having the right agent can be. After Skladany was released by the Eagles, Modell said it was a shame what happened and noted that he would have likely had a longer career had he signed with Cleveland after being drafted.