INDIANAPOLIS – In 1988, Rick Venturi was dispatched to Mississippi on a pre-draft scouting mission.
Venturi, the Colts’ linebacker coach, was to visit Vincent Brown at Mississippi Valley State. Brown was predicted to be an early choice in the draft.
While there, Venturi went to Ole Miss to take a peek at a prospect who was productive in a prominent conference. What he discovered became one of the best draft picks the Colts ever made – Jeff Herrod.
“Herrod was tremendously explosive. He’s a case study,” said Venturi. “Jeff wasn’t invited to the combine, even though he had a good Blue-Gray Game. He ran a 4.75 40.
“I was sent to Mississippi to scout him and actually, he was an add-on. I really was there to see Vincent Brown of Mississippi Valley State, who was going to be drafted high.”
Venturi spent one-on-one time with Herrod, who later was named to the Ole Miss Team of the Century.
“I spent a whole day together with Jeff, which doesn’t happen anymore. I watched tape, and he had multiple tackles each game in the SEC. His production was off the charts,” said Venturi. “Even though the workout was so-so, there was a lot of quickness and explosiveness.
“When you were around him, he had that infectious bug. I knew I was going to push like crazy for him. What we didn’t know was he was going to be a tremendous player.”
On draft day, Brown went off the board in round two. Twenty-two picks into the ninth round the Colts grabbed Herrod with the 243rd overall pick.
What they got was a mainstay, a tackling machine who always was on the hunt.
“Jeff was smart, explosive, tough and instinctive,” said Venturi. “I had a lot of smart guys in my 27 years, but Jeff was a guy who could go 100 miles an hour and maintain that football intelligence. He was great that way.
“He’d be going 100 miles an hour, but he never lost his composure. A lot of guys do when they become emotional. Jeff was unique in that way.”
Herrod, 6-0, 250, did not start during his first season, but he could not be budged from the lineup for the next eight years.
He surpassed 100 tackles annually from 1989-96 (154, 155, 160, 138, 142, 200, 186 and 131, respectively), leading the team in all but 1993. Herrod’s 200 tackles in 1994 stood as the club seasonal record until 2012.
He produced 1,149 tackles (according to coaches’ totals) and even though his motor never waned, Herrod remained textbook in his approach.
“Jeff had a knack of moving his feet before the snap,” said Venturi. “He never took a step out of place or had a false start, but it was like he was starting his engine. I used him as an example to others who had a problem with mis-steps. He was a great guy to be around.”
NFL history is dotted with players taken in later rounds who had distinguished careers. Drafting is not an exact science and “measurables” often obscure talent.
“No matter what people tell you, they’re numbers-driven. Even though they want production, it’s numbers,” said Venturi. “In Jeff’s case, he ran about 4.75 or 4.8, but he got better and better. By the time he was done, he ran about 4.5.
“People thought he was a great college player but wouldn’t have a great pro career. Jeff was undervalued because of numerical issues, plus he was small. Thankfully, I went there personally. I knew he wasn’t a first-round pick, but I knew he was an NFL football player. Inside linebackers come in shapes and sizes, and probably numbers matter the least. What I learned from Jeff, too, is when in doubt take the productive player, always.”
Herrod played with some talented Colts linebackers who helped turn the team into a competitor in the late 1980s.
“Duane Bickett, Barry Krauss and Cliff Odom had motors. Bickett and Krauss, in particular, had big-time motors, but I’d have to say it would be difficult to have a better one than Herrod,” said Venturi. “He never lost his head, though. He was physical and smart. There was no dropoff.”
Herrod started on a 1995 team that nearly reached Super Bowl XXX. His interception early in the AFC Championship game at Pittsburgh set up score in a game that Indianapolis lost on the final play.
It was the pinnacle game of his career, and Herrod remains a fan of the team today.
“I still have so many friendships. I still watch the team regularly,” said Herrod. “I remember the past years, and there were some good ones and bad ones. The 1991 season (1-15), I was the team MVP. Even though it was a bad year, it was a good year. We had guys that fought. We didn’t quit.
“We did have some good years and made a great run at the Super Bowl in 1995 with Jim Harbaugh, the Goose (Tony Siragusa), Ray Buchanan, Eugene Daniel, Tony Bennett and Marshall Faulk. It was great to be a Colt in Indianapolis. Those were the up times (1994-96), and I was fortunate to come back and finish my career there in 1998.
“I’m very proud of my career. For all the nicks, aches and pains I experienced physically, I always look on the bright side for the sport that I got to play. When people think of me, I want them to think I was a warrior who always fought. I value my relationship with the Colts.”
1988 (Ninth-round pick, No. 243 overall)
Played 1988-96, 98, GAMES STARTED/PLAYED – 123/143
Notes: Did not start as rookie, but had more than 100 tackles in each of the eight next consecutive seasons, topping the team seven times and never failing to amass fewer than 130 stops in any of those years. Had 200 stops in 1994, the club record until 2012. Credited with 1,149 stops by coaches, the most in local era. Had 14.5 sacks and five interceptions. Had 68-yard interception return for TD 10/13/96 vs. Baltimore, the longest ever by a Colts LB.