This story appears in the May 1, 2017 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
For players the NFL draft represents the intersection of hard work and childhood dreams, but the months-long lead-up can feel anything but celebratory. From participating in the underwear Olympics (official title: NFL scouting combine) to braving interviews tinged with embarrassing questions ("Do you wear a G-string or a jockstrap when you play?"), a prospect is scrutinized for his talent and forbearance. Some aspiring NFLers find that draft night provides little relief.
On April 27, 22 men who are believed to be among the top 32 selections this year will be sequestered backstage at the 3,000-seat open-air theater along Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The greenroom is the setting for some of the draft's most iconic moments, as rags-to-riches tales and plummeting-stock story lines play out for a live TV audience. "Attending the draft can be a great experience," says Bengals offensive lineman Eric Winston, an 11-year veteran and president of the players' association. "But it doesn't have to be the only experience."
The NFLPA wants to help players reclaim the night. Through ACE Media, a part of the union's for-profit arm, the NFLPA is helping organize personal draft experiences for three top prospects who decided to forgo the greenroom, and streaming the results.
Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett, the projected No. 1 pick, told his agent the red carpet isn't really his scene. Instead, ACE will host an intimate gathering at his home in Arlington, Texas, where it will surprise Garrett with appearances by two of his football idols. (ACE won't release the names.) Charles Harris, a defensive end from Missouri, wanted to be with his mother, Deborah Clark, who has multiple sclerosis and cannot travel. ACE will bring the celebration to them, in Kansas City. Ohio State safety Malik Hooker felt restricted by the NFL's two-guest restriction, so he's hosting a bash in his hometown, New Castle, Pa., for 50 of his nearest and dearest friends, with cameras and food provided by ACE.
ACE launched in 2015, aiming to portray the off-field lives of players while helping them build their own brands. This draft venture is a substantial step in its development. Even though top prospects who don't attend the draft miss out on massive exposure—round 1 drew 6.3 million viewers last year on ESPN—NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith believes that the smaller audiences can still deliver a large impact. Says Smith, "When players make decisions to attend the draft, they're often clustered together, like one monolithic pre-NFL block."
And sometimes the greenroom optics can be unflattering. Last year Mississippi tackle Laremy Tunsil provided token (or was it toking?) theatrics. A maliciously timed Twitter hack featuring images of Tunsil smoking from a bong dominated the night. As pundits debated the authenticity of the footage, the top-rated offensive lineman slipped to the Dolphins at No. 13, losing millions along the way. When cameras homed in on the 21-year-old, who was sitting next to his mother, Desiree Polingo, backstage, he was on the verge of tears. Alas, there were few friendly faces and nowhere to hide.
Aaron Rodgers represents a more common greenroom cautionary tale: In 2005 the Cal quarterback was haunted as he waited more than four anxious hours until the Packers picked him at No. 24. The pairing worked out, but Rodgers told ESPN in '13, "Unless you're going to be a first or second pick, I'd say, Stay home."
Once a player's name is called, it's a predictable routine: Walk across the stage to a roar from the crowd (usually cheers), pop on a hat and a jersey, then make a decision: handshake or bro-hug commissioner Roger Goodell. A few posed photos and a synopsis of college accomplishments follow, then it's on to the next team on the clock. When asked if it might reconsider the greenroom experience going forward, the NFL declined comment.
"People will view it however they want," says Smith. "But we want our players to understand [that while] their position in the NFL is a wonderful opportunity, they also have a brand and an identity that's separate from it."
After all, during those years of hard work, no player envisioned sitting in a nearly empty room with a camera in his face, trying not to let the realization of that boyhood dream turn into a nightmare.