On Thursday night, the NFL and a massive television audience will be focused on the NFL Draft.
What was a private experience 30 years ago has become a four-day, sponsored and promoted Ramadan of the annual player selection. What you won't see is the excruciating tension that the college players and their friends and families are experiencing in homes across the country. I have been fortunate to have represented over 60 first round draft picks -- eight of whom were the very first pick in the first round. I have also spent almost 40 years sharing this penultimate moment of pressure followed by joy at player's homes and in New York. In New York, team representatives sit at tables with team helmets. The teams have their brain trusts in their home cities so these are employees. National press gathers. The commissioner comes out and announces each choice.
It takes a village to create a potential professional football player. They represent the hopes and dreams of Pop Warner, high school and college coaches and family, friends and community that have been involved in a player's evolution. This provides a large rooting section that descends on an athletes' home to share the unique night. Those players judged to be high first round picks are invited to New York with family members. They take a boat trip around Manhattan, are treated to Broadway shows and parties and take part in the extraordinary pre-draft television and sponsor promotions.
The players in New York are forced to sit at tables in a room just offstage where cameras broadcast every emotion and detail. I spent weeks prior to the draft interacting with teams at the top of the draft attempting to discern which franchise was most likely to take a player. I would sit with the draft order and show a player the most likely scenarios. Each team in the first round has 10 minutes to make its' selection (that drops to five minutes in later rounds). Virtually every team takes the whole time to announce its' pick. They have spent weeks running mock drafts and have calculated every possible outcome for their selection. What are they doing as time ticks away? They are fielding trade offers from teams that want to move up or down in order to choose a special player they fear will be gone when their slot comes or aggregating lower draft picks from teams wanting to move up.
For players like Troy Aikman or Jeff George or Andrew Luck, the New York experience is a cakewalk. They have either signed a contract making them the first selection or the team has publicly announced they will be picked. RG3 knows that Washington will use the second pick in the first round to select him. For the remainder of the picks the time is torture. Draft time is not real time, it is Chinese Water Torture time. Each second feels like a minute, each minute like an hour -- the wait is agonizing. If a player is not selected in the spot he anticipates, depression and uncertainty set in. Watching the other players being picked and go onstage to hold up a team jersey and be photographed with the commissioner is a bittersweet moment.
A plummeting draft pick may sit in that room for four or five hours. Former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn expected to be picked at the top of the draft and kept being passed over. He removed his coat at one point, then his tie, then opened up his shirt -- it was like watching a game of strip poker.
When I sat with Ben Roethlisberger in 2004 I had carefully prepared him to expect the Chargers to trade their pick to the New York Giants. I told him that the Giants would take QB Eli Manning, the Chargers QB Philip Rivers. The first two teams in draft order that I thought were likely to take Ben were Buffalo (which had the 13th pick) and Pittsburgh (which had the 11th pick). But the Giants had told Ben's coach that if the Chargers took Eli Manning, they would take Ben as the fourth pick. The Chargers picked Manning which meant that scenario could come to fruition, but I still thought the trade would happen. The minutes passed oh so slowly which ratcheted tension to an excruciating level. No trade was announced until all but seven seconds remained on the clock, and then as they were about to lose the pick -- the commissioner announced that the Giants had swapped picks with the Chargers, taken Manning and the Chargers had taken Rivers. A deflated darkness settled over our table and the drip, drip, drip of other selections took two hours. Finally Pittsburgh took Ben and the table erupted in exultation. All was forgotten, and Pittsburgh and Ben turned out to be a match made in heaven. But those two hours saw the sprouting of gray hairs, young men turning old and drip, drip, drip.
Notwithstanding how late a player is picked, that moment is the culmination of years of practice, sacrifice and yearning and pure joy ensues. Tears flow, emotional bear hugs break out, prayers of thanks are given, and all's right in the world. It has always been my favorite day of the year.