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Armando Salguero: RIP Keith McCants, NFL’s 1990 Draft Class Once Again Visited By Death

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Days before the 1990 NFL draft, Cortez Kennedy was thinking he was the best player teams could possibly select, but he was sizing up the rest of the field while sitting in front of several lunch entrees that he would soon make disappear into his mouth.

“I would pick me No, 1,” Tez said as he chewed on some french fries. “Emmitt Smith is the best player in this draft, but I can’t pick no Gator No. 1. I would pick me. And then I’d pick him. Then maybe Junior Seau.”

What about Keith McCants, I asked.

Kennedy and the University of Miami had dispatched McCants and the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day to win their third of what would be five national titles in 20 years.

And I knew Cortez wasn’t friendly but certainly was familiar with the star Alabama linebacker.

“Good player,” he said. “He should go in the first round. I’ve been around him once or twice but not for long. We’re different, say that.”

Cortez Kennedy loved football. And food. And women.

But he stayed away from drugs. And people who had drugs. Or did drugs.

And, he said, McCants didn’t quite feel the same way about that.

I tell this now, after so many years, because both these men that crossed paths in the late 1980s and were such a pivotal part of that spring 1990 NFL draft are gone now.

Way too soon.

Kennedy passed away in 2017. He was only 48 years old, but those huge meals and his penchant for late nights almost definitely took their toll as his autopsy revealed he died of causes related to diabetes and hypertensive heart disease.

McCants passed away in the early hours of Thursday morning at age 53.

“It appears it was a drug overdose, but we are awaiting confirmation from the medical examiner’s office,” sheriff’s spokesperson Amanda Sinni told the Associated Press. “This is still an open investigation.”

It’s an open and shut shame when men who were once so strong, so big, so fast, so full of life, die so young. That’s happening increasingly with that fateful 1990 draft class.

Kennedy, selected third overall, is dead.

McCants, selected fourth overall, is dead.

Junior Seau, selected fifth overall, is dead. He committed suicide at the age of 43.

Reggie Cobb, selected 30th overall, is dead. He died of a heart attack at the age of 50.

Fred Washington, selected 32nd overall, is dead. He died in an auto accident at the age of 23.

Jeff Alm, selected 41st overall, is dead. He committed suicide at the age of 25.

Alfred Oglesby, selected 66th overall, is dead. He apparently suffered a drug overdose at the age of 42.

Tragedy is indiscriminate and follows no road map, but it’s visiting that 1990 draft class way too often. It’s sad. And no story may be more sad than the one McCants lived.

I talked to him maybe three times — once at that Sugar Bowl’s media day, once in the ’91 or ’92 preseason, and finally in the late 2000s.

And the man I saw in the late 2000s was a shadow of the Adonis that was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 20 years earlier.

“It’s hard to remember the details of that day,” McCants said during our last talk, trying to recall his 1990 draft day. “I know I was home. I didn’t go to no New York for the draft, I was back home in Alabama. And I remember I was pissed off because I felt like I should’ve been the first pick.”

He laughed. And then gasped for breath and coughed for a bit, which seemed odd because he was an avid diver.

He had been arrested a couple of times. His nails were long. He had what looked like burns on his fingers.

McCants never admitted to me he used any drugs before he was drafted. He did readily admit being hooked on pain killers and then other drugs late in his career and afterward.

“The NFL got me hooked on drugs,” he said. “They the ones that got me started. So, yeah, I blame the NFL. But it was alright because I was playing in the league every Sunday.

“After I was out of the league, I was an addict. But out of the league you do drugs, you’re a criminal.”

McCants said a leg injury is what led him down the road to addiction.

“I was messed up, man,” he said. “I had one surgery, and I had to play before I was ready because everybody wanted me to be out there, and I wanted to be out there. I had something to prove.

“But I was always in pain so I started on the pain killers, and after a while, it was impossible to stop.”

McCants was homeless at one point. He was hooked on crack at one point. He even said he attempted suicide once.

But in the last decade, McCants would tell people he found God and that he had beaten his demon as surely as he used to beat offensive tackles.

And people helped him.

That demon may have returned on Thursday. And he brought seven others stronger than him.

And they might have tackled Keith McCants.

Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

Written by Armando Salguero

Armando Salguero has covered the NFL since 1990 for the Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald and ESPN. He was a 2016 Associated Press Sports Editors Top 10 columnist. He is a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector and AP All-Pro team voter.

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