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From redshirt to red carpet: Eli Apple’s mom on her son’s journey to NFL

First-round draft pick Eli Apple’s mom Annie discusses her son’s long journey to his dream job, her anxious draft-night experience, dealing with ‘anonymous scouts’ and how the commissioner owes her a brownie. 

Last week at a pre-draft party in our home, a family friend turned to my son, Eli, and summed up his journey to his dream job in the NFL: “What people now see took years to build and accomplish.”

Before winning the first College Football Playoff National Championship, before taking home the 2016 Fiesta Bowl defensive MVP trophy, before a stellar performance at the NFL combine, Eli was just a kid who loved football above everything else. It wouldn’t always be this easy. You don’t become great because you wish it; you become great because you work at it.

Eli was a freshman at the Ohio State University when he called home feeling down because he was on the scout team. After starting on both sides of the ball in high school, he thought we’d be disappointed. My husband said, “Eli, that’s great because you get to go up against the first team offense every day in practice. That can only make you better.”

I could sense right away that struck a powerful chord in him. We helped him see the benefits of being on the scout team and how he could make that process work for him, trying to make sure he did not get caught up in the results. Whenever he’d call about something that was bothering him, a disappointment or setback, my response was always, “How are you going to make this process work for you?”

Eli was redshirted his freshman year because there were great starters ahead of him—current Broncos CB Bradley Roby and Steelers CB Doran Grant. But that didn’t stop us from attending every home and away game, except two. It was very important to us that Eli knew we loved and supported him. And seeing a familiar face every week when you’re not playing is so important.

Eli’s starter mentality and work ethic that he adopted on the scout team helped him win a starting spot opposite of Grant, and he became part of an unstoppable secondary that led the Buckeyes to the national championship. When Grant left, Eli became the veteran leader of the cornerbacks unit, as he and Gareon Conley led the Buckeyes secondary to another winning season. Eli learned where you are shouldn’t dictate how hard you work. When you make the process work for you, the results are favorable.

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Declaring for the NFL draft wasn’t an easy decision, but Eli felt ready—and the decision was cemented when he won defensive MVP at the Fiesta Bowl. After the game, his position coach at Ohio State sat us down and said if he stayed one more year, he’d be a bonafide first-round pick and make about nine million more dollars. It was his job to try to get Eli to stay, but we knew it was Eli’s time to go. I reminded his coach that this decision wasn’t about the money. We've never believed in chasing money. When money becomes a god, you become its slave.

I knew Eli could go to the next level, but it wasn’t until a post-Fiesta Bowl celebratory dinner that I realized he was truly ready. During this dinner, his agent Joel Segal talked about various draft scenarios, but it wasn’t the possible compensation that got Eli excited—it was the combine prep. His big round eyes lit up as Joel laid out the rigorous combine prep ahead which included training about ten hours a day, six days a week in San Diego. Just hearing about the training exhausted me, but Eli was ready to embrace the grind to be great. That’s when I knew this kid was ready.

He enjoyed his demanding combine prep and was proud of his performance in Indianapolis. When an NFL coach dehumanized him during a combine interview, Eli handled the matter with strength and dignity. Eli’s mental toughness and strength is one of his greatest assets. Plus, when pursuing your dreams, you can’t allow ignorance to distract or discourage you. So he stayed focused and on task.

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After numerous team visits—including trips to Buffalo, Tampa, Miami, Los Angeles—Eli was ready to get to Chicago. But numerous mock drafts wouldn’t let our chill prosper—they had him going everywhere from Miami to Pittsburgh to Oakland. I avoided reading these online, but it seemed like I couldn’t turn on the TV without hearing another “expert” opinion on where my son was going. 

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I just wanted to focus on what we could control, so I turned my attention to how Eli would look on draft day and for his first team press conference. For the draft, I wanted to go with a more classic look and no one does classic better than Tom Ford. A friend of ours who happens to be a gifted tailor gave us the looks, and I chose a classic black suit for the draft and a blue suit for his team press conference. It was kind of weird that I agreed to a blue suit when Eli’s projected teams were Miami, Pittsburgh and Oakland, but I wanted to keep it classic and clean.

Eli was offered Rolex watches and diamonds to wear on draft day. I told him, “Dude, you’re an unemployed college dropout. You will not be on TV with a Rolex.” So we decided if he needed to know what time it was, he could just look at his phone. I bought him a portable charger.

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We arrived in Chicago the Tuesday before the draft, and it was just awesome. Four other Buckeyes were invited, so it felt like a reunion. We also got the opportunity to meet other players’ families—I met Jalen Ramsey’s mom and grandmother, and I got to chat briefly with Carson Wentz, who had the energy, demeanor and cool of a youth pastor. There was a wonderful welcome reception for the family, though whomever planned the event forgot to include desserts. This is what happens when skinny women rule the world: they forget the chocolate. Clearly the commissioner owes me a brownie.

The day before the draft, news broke of an anonymous scout saying Eli had off field issues because he “couldn’t cook” and “had no life skills.” At this point, we chose to just ignore it, though I had to set the record straight that my husband is a former five-star chef and by the extra 15 pounds I'm carrying, we eat quite well. We were too busy enjoying the NFL festivities and being with family and friends to allow such small-minded ignorance to penetrate our peace. We shook our heads, laughed and moved on.

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On the afternoon of draft day, we all had a call with Eli’s agent. He said where Eli went in the draft depended on if Dallas took his Ohio State teammate Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth pick. According to Joel, if Elliott went to Dallas, then Miami would go for Eli, but if Elliott was still available, then Miami would take Elliott and if that happened, Eli could go late in the first round or possibly the second. Joel wanted to lay out the worst scenario so we’d be prepared.

After this conversation, Eli looked at me to see if I was good. He wanted to see if there were any doubts in my eyes. Honestly, there weren’t. I was good. We’d trusted God up to this point in the journey. We weren’t going to start worrying and being anxious now.

“Being at the draft in person is a whole other experience. The love, the drama, the intensity, the suspense. It’s a little like The Bachelor. You don’t want to be the person sent home having a tearfully awkward conversation in the backseat of a limo.”

I knew I’d be walking the red carpet with Eli on draft day, and my main objective was not to fall or look bloated. Coming out of the hotel, there were cameras everywhere. I felt so blessed to be here with other Ohio State moms who are also close friends, Dawn Elliott and Candice Lee. My first impression when we got to the red carpet was, "Boy, this carpet is really red."

Eli looked so handsome. He was composed and chill. So was I, until I had a case of mommy brain. During an interview with Michael Irvin for NFL Network, in my excitement, I called him a running back but in my head I said wide receiver. Eli used this as an opportunity to clown me all night. When Deion Sanders walked by in the green room, Eli said, “Hey mom, there’s Deion Sanders. He was a kicker.”

The green room was draped in black curtains, which made it feel like you were attending a happy funeral. The NFL really needs to get more festive colors in there. Joining our table were Eli's youth football coach Tony Orio, position coach Kerry Coombs and former co-defensive coordinator and current Rutgers coach Chris Ash, along with my husband and daughter. It’s one thing to watch the draft on television; it’s a whole other experience to be there in person. The love, the drama, the intensity, the suspense. It’s a little like The Bachelor. You don’t want to be the person sent home having a tearfully awkward conversation in the backseat of a limo.

Eli Apple and family in the green room at the NFL Draft in Chicago

Eli Apple and family in the green room at the NFL Draft in Chicago

Speaking of awkward, as we sat in the green room, word of Laremy Tunsil’s video came out. Being a mom, my heart immediately broke for the kid. Every athlete in that room worked hard to get where he is, and every family in that room has made countless sacrifices. To see that overshadowed on the most important moment of a kid’s life was heartbreaking.

Being in the green room is one of the most helpless feelings. Regardless of what anyone tells you, if you’re not the projected No. 1 or 2 pick, your time in the green room can be intensely nerve-wracking. We were sitting at our table when Eli’s cell rang, and it was a 201 area code. Thinking it was a friend or a telemarketer, I told him not to answer. Luckily, coach told him to pick up. When he did, it was Giants coach Ben McAdoo. All I heard Eli say was “Are you serious?” No one saw the New York Giants coming. We all cheered. But before we exited the room, I walked over to Tunsil’s table. I hugged him and said a few words of encouragement. He had enough people judging him.

After Eli’s hours of media requirements, we took a shuttle back to the hotel. We hugged. We laughed. We cemented the day in prayer, thanking God for his love, goodness and faithfulness.

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On barely any sleep, we got up early next day for our flight back home. While other guys were flying in private jets to the cities of their new teams, we were flying commercial to the Philadelphia airport. New Eagles QB Carson Wentz was on our flight and sat in front of me, so of course I had to ask the $25 million dollar man for some change. “Hey Carson, can I hold three dollars?”He laughed and said, “Ask Eli.”

Upon our arrival, we walked to baggage claim to pick up our luggage. Carson was followed by a slew of cameras as he walked to a waiting black Cadillac Escalade. Meanwhile, we headed to my brother’s waiting minivan to drive back home to New Jersey (but not before picking up Wawa sandwiches). I appreciated the way the New York Giants do business. Having Eli go home and decompress before formally meeting the media in the No. 1 city in the world is smart, bold and effective.

All along, my only prayer was that Eli would be drafted by a great organization with an exceptional team culture. It gets no better than the Giants. In a city like New York, the pressures and expectations are high, but I have no doubts that Eli will once again make this process work for him.

Annie Apple is the founder of Survivin America, where she frequently blogs on an array of topics ranging from sports to politics to lifestyle.