Living the dream
For Jack Wirth, a passion for the game became a career
By the time he was in his early 30s, Huntley resident Jack Wirth realized he needed a change in direction. Wirth, who graduated from Harvard High School in 1959, had moved to Worth when he was 20 to work construction. He married his wife, Marilyn, when he was 23, and they have two sons – Paul who lives in Huntley and Mike who lives in Woodstock.
“I got in my 30s and decided this isn’t what I should be doing,” Wirth said. “I wanted to do something in sports and knew I wasn’t going to coach or play.”
Wirth had football experience in high school. He played running back and linebacker under Coach Dan Horne for three years and was part of the 1957 undefeated team, one of four in the history of the school.
“We had a great team, a super team,” Wirth said. “It was a great experience just playing for Mr. Horne.”
Wirth started evaluating college football players. He sent letters to most National Football League teams looking for work. The responses he received were far from positive.
“They said, ‘We don’t hire guys like you. You don’t have any background, and you didn’t go to college,” Wirth said. “But I kept at it. I knew I could do this.”
Wirth sent a letter to the only team he had not communicated with – the Denver Broncos. He received a call from player personnel director Carroll Hardy and flew out to Denver to meet with him. It was Wirth’s first time on an airplane.
Hardy told Wirth it was highly unusual they would even consider someone with no background but gave him a couple of projects to work on – evaluating film of players and identifying where in the draft they should be selected. Hardy was impressed with Wirth’s work and hired him as a part-time scout.
“Carroll said he didn’t know where I got my training, but I had a real aptitude for scouting,” Wirth said.
The Broncos sent Wirth film to evaluate. He worked from home. He administered a rating system developed by Mike Gettings, another Broncos employee, which identified players’ deficiencies, the severity of the deficiencies and how long it would take to correct them.
After a couple of years on the job, Wirth began to understand it might be some time before he would be hired full time by the club. Most of the scouts on the team were in their 60s, and Wirth said “they hung on to their jobs forever.”
Art Arkush, founder of Pro Football Weekly magazine, was interested in starting an agency that would evaluate player deficiencies and help them prepare for the NFL. Several general managers recommended Wirth, and Arkush and Wirth began working together on the program. Arkush passed away suddenly, and Wirth then worked with his Arkush’s son, Hub. Wirth presented to a group of investors, and in eight days they had 23 limited partners and had raised $250,000.
“I had never recruited a player and had never worked on an NFL contract, but I had a real good base from being at Denver and knew I didn’t need to be a lawyer to do this,” Wirth said. “If you were going to negotiate numbers, you had to know one thing – your player.”
Pro Football Associates was formed in 1980 with Wirth as the only employee. He worked out of his basement handling recruiting, signing, testing and negotiating contracts. Wirth signed 19 players and had seven drafted his first year.
Wirth met with seniors and their parents after the end of the college football season and talked about the evaluation process, which looked at strength, speed, flexibility and agility. He told them how the process worked and what they would need to do once they signed with PFA.
“Most players didn’t know what they would do at the combine,” Wirth said. “My job was to prepare them. I would tell them ‘Look, we don’t get paid a dime unless you make it, so we’re going to be involved in that’.”
One of Wirth’s clients was nine-year NFL veteran John Jurkovic, who played for the Packers, Browns and Jaguars and is currently co-host of the Carmen, Jurko and Harry Show on ESPN 1000. Jurkovic went to college with Wirth’s son Mike at Eastern Illinois University, Charleston, and selected Wirth as his agent because of his honesty.
“I was most comfortable with Jack because he was honest and straightforward,” Jurkovic said. “He had enough big guys that you knew he was legitimate. He was always brutally honest with me, which is what I needed.”
Woodstock resident Pete Catan was another client of Wirth. Catan, who played in the USFL, CFL and NFL, is the building trades teacher at Woodstock High School. He also spoke of Wirth’s honesty.
“Jack’s presentation was very forward, up front, not like it is today with all the whistles and bells,” Catan said in an email. “He told me the hard, cold facts of making an NFL club. He didn’t offer me money, but he did offer me something much better — a workout program that he had developed. He sold me on the workout program that would improve my chances of succeeding.
“After we spoke for hours, I realized Jack was choosing me as much as I was choosing him. He wanted players with character and great work ethics, and I fit the mold.”
In the course of his career, Wirth attended four Super Bowls, 27 Scouting Combines and had 238 clients who played in the NFL, CFL or USFL, including seven-time NFL Pro Bowler Andre Reed, four-time NFL Pro Bowler and Defensive Player of the Year Bryce Paup, four-time NFL Pro Bowler Charles Mann and three-time NFL Pro Bowler Mel Gray.
The two players that Wirth missed on were Sam Mills, who played 12 years in the NFL for the Saints and Panthers, and Kurt Warner, who played for 12 years in the NFL for the Rams, Giants and Cardinals and won two MVP awards and a Super Bowl MVP award. Wirth felt Mills, who was 5 feet 9 inches, wasn’t tall enough to play linebacker in the NFL and told Warner he didn’t need an agent when Warner joined the Arena Football League (Warner played five years for the Iowa Barnstormers).
Wirth dissolved his business in the fall of 2010 when his last client, Steve Heiden, Browns, resigned. Wirth had stopped recruiting players five years earlier. Through the years, he worked with some of the NFL’s biggest names including Colts president Bill Pollan, former Dolphin owner Joe Robbie, former Browns and Ravens owner Art Modell, Bengals owner Mike Brown, Raiders owner Al Davis and Bills owner Ralph Wilson.
“These were super people, tough people,” Wirth said. “They would swear at you and get mad as hell at you and then shake your hand and have a drink with you when done.”
Even though he lived his dream Wirth said football is not what he remembers the most.
“I got to live my dream for 35 years,” Wirth said. “I met some fantastic people. I really enjoyed seeing their families grow and seeing them develop. Going to their weddings and seeing their little kids when they were babies and now they are grown up and have kids.”
Wirth is retired and is currently the director of sponsorships and co-director of league affairs for the Woodstock Thunder Youth Football and Cheerleading program. He recently secured sponsorship from Niko’s Red Mill for the new scoreboard the league is installing at the home field at Emricson Park. His son, Mike, is a coach in the league and the secretary of the board of directors.