The latest Weekend Read documents the journeys of an agent at the 2014 NFL Draft and digs up an old draft photo of Peyton Manning.
Welcome to the Weekend Read. Below you'll find a selection of our best stories of the week, an old photo of Peyton Manning at the 1998 NFL Draft and a feature from 2014, chronicling the life of an agent at the NFL draft. Enjoy.
• In 2004, Miami placed a record six players—Taylor, Winslow, Vilma, Williams, Carey, Wilfork—in the first round. This is the story of the most loaded draft class ever. (By Tim Rohan)
• Take a look inside the black market for NFL draft information. There's more than enough drama and intrigue to go around. (By Jenny Vrentas)
• Ronald Ollie is no longer using the past as an excuse. The unexpected breakout star of Last Chance U is focused on his future. (By Greg Bishop)
• Podcast: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver dissects the sport's biggest issues, including the age limit to enter the draft. (By Chris Mannix)
• Climate change is threatening the future of outdoor hockey. (By Stanley Kay)
• What did we learn from the first round of the NHL playoffs? Nothing makes sense, that's what. (By Alex Prewitt)
Vault Photo of the Week: Smile, Peyton. Your NFL Career Is Starting
Let's rewind to a time when the NFL draft had a little less glitz and glam. When a new mock draft didn't fall out of the sky every day and the draft preview show didn't last six months. It was only 1998. Peyton Manning earned first-pick honors and posed with then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue in a room devoid of iPhones. SI's John Iacono was on site at Madison Square Garden to document the moment, which you can watch while feeling old here.
Best of the Rest
Editor's note: Below are some of our favorite stories of the week not published by SI. This week's list is curated by Charlotte Carroll.
• Suzie Cool and Melanie Newman made history as the first all-female broadcast team in professional baseball. The Athletic's Brittany Ghiroli shows just how momentous the occasion is, but also how important that it becomes the norm.
• HGTV darlings Chip and Joanna Gaines have put Waco, Tx. back on the map for a great reason, so this delve into the city's re-development from Buzzfeed's Anne Helen Petersen is a fascinating look at just who is benefiting post–Fixer Upper boom.
• The New Yorker's Amanda Petrusich writes a must-read account of a Jewish trumpeter who survived the Holocaust. It's a story on how music, despite all the clichés, can truly save a person.
• The New York Times' Katherine Rosman gives us a peek into the life of the most famous fashion designer you've probably never heard of: Carol Spencer, the architect of Barbie's iconic looks.
• The Atlantic's Taylor Lorenz examines why your Instagram feed (fingers crossed) might be featuring less avocado toast and millennial pink.
Editor's note: Below is an excerpt of a story published in the May 19, 2014 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. SI's Austin Murphy embedded with up-and-coming agency Rep1 Sports at the 2014 NFL Draft as they experienced the high of client Blake Bortles being the first QB selected and the disappointment of finding free-agent deals for undrafted clients. Read the entire piece here.
Sitting in the green room backstage at Radio City Music Hall last Thursday night, Rob Bortles suffered a moment of confusion. The NFL draft had just gotten under way, yet there was his eldest son, Blake, the gunslinging junior quarterback from Central Florida, a cellphone pressed to his ear. True, the 22-year-old couldn't realistically expect to be selected for another hour or so—he had spent the previous fortnight plummeting down mock draft boards. Still, his old man considered it bad form to be yukking it up with a buddy, especially with so many cameras around.
"Who's Blake talking to?" Rob inquired. "He needs to get off the phone!"
It was quickly explained that the caller was in fact Blake's future employer, the Jaguars, who had not moved the 6'5" 232-pounder down on their draft board. In fact, they had earmarked him months earlier as their QB of the future and then engaged in a campaign of misdirection and skullduggery to camouflage their ardor. Jacksonville invited multiple passers to its facility in the weeks leading up to the draft, feigning interest in all but one of them. GM Dave Caldwell went so far as to fudge the big board at his team's headquarters, moving Bortles down to a slot where he wouldn't attract attention. Caldwell didn't even tell his wife, Joelle, of the team's intentions for the No. 3 pick until just before the draft.
Less surprised than many by Jacksonville's derring-do was Ryan Tollner, a pensive, handsome ex--Cal quarterback who shares the responsibility of being Bortles's agent. Tollner, 38, had a strong hunch that reports of his client's slide had been greatly exaggerated. Along with his cousin Bruce Tollner, 49, Ryan is a partner at Rep1 Sports, an up-and-coming agency that's gone through a handful of names and configurations since Bruce founded it in 1992. By allowing SI to tag along during the three days of the draft, the Tollners provided a front-row-seat view of the agency's finest hour.
Not everything was on the record: After the Steelers used their first pick on a linebacker rather than an offensive weapon that might make life easier for Rep1 client Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh quarterback sent Ryan a text that the agent thought it best not to share with the world.
But the rest: fair game. A few hours earlier Ryan had stood milling about at the J.W. Marriott Essex House, on Central Park South, which provided its posh lodgings to the 30 prospects invited to attend the draft. One by one, the future stars and future busts migrated toward the shuttles that would take them to Radio City. At one point Bortles found himself 15 or so feet from Johnny Manziel, who helped himself to a long, lupine look at Lindsey Duke, Bortles's equally popular girlfriend. "Watch, now he'll send a runner over for her," wisecracked one member of the Bortles party.
Manziel's stock had been rising as the draft approached. But what did those teams at the top think of Bortles? Ryan Tollner was having a devil of a time finding out. General managers and scouts, formerly his partners in the trafficking of hunches and rumors, became evasive. GMs he was sure thought highly of Bortles—the Vikings' Rick Spielman, the Texans' Rick Smith, Caldwell in Jacksonville—had gone to ground, failing to return calls and texts.
Then there were the Browns, rumored to be interested in a variety of players, none of them Bortles. Which was odd. He'd made a strong connection with the brass on his visit to Cleveland and was one of the few prospects to be granted an audience with owner Jimmy Haslam. Yet none of the rumors surrounding the Browns linked them to Bortles.
"It feels suspicious," Tollner said with a bemused smile before boarding his bus to the draft. "I wouldn't be surprised if they took Blake at four."
He was right to be suspicious. Shortly after Jacksonville selected Bortles, Tollner took a call from Caldwell, whom he's known since he was a scout for the Colts, more than a decade ago. "It was killing me not to tell you," said the GM. Bortles, he finally admitted, had been their man all along.
With the Rams having planted a for sale sign on their No. 2 pick, any GM who pined for Bortles could have leapfrogged the Jaguars to snag him. Hence the Jags' subterfuge. Two weeks before the draft, one assistant coach openly discussed a potential play in the wide receivers' meeting room, then opted not to install it because, he said, "Johnny can't handle it" right away. Shortly afterward, Jacksonville wideout Cecil Shorts, a Rep1 client, texted another of the company's agents, Chase Callahan, to let him know that the team intended to draft Manziel.
"They did a phenomenal job getting the guy they wanted," said Ryan Tollner, who was happy to be duped. When the Browns came on the clock, one pick after Bortles was taken, they promptly traded back to No. 9—a strong indication, Tollner pointed out, "that their guy was off the board."
The green room on NFL draft night can be a cruel archipelago, each roundtable its own island with its own emotional microclimate: jubilation here, anxiety there. The future pros can be divided into two ever-changing groups: those with hats and those without.
While Bortles posed with commissioner Roger Goodell onstage, a young woman bearing a box of Jacksonville ball caps approached the table belonging to the newest Jaguar. Members of the QB's entourage were given a choice between flat or bent brims. (The line of demarcation was right around 22: Those older went with rounded brims; those younger opted for flat.) Photos were Instagrammed, congratulatory texts poured in. Family members laughed and grinned and shed happy tears, but the Rep1 crew—the Tollners, Callahan and charismatic marketing director Nima Zarrabi—had already turned their attentions back to the draft.
By all estimations, the next Rep1 player to hear his name called would be Joel Bitonio, a tackle from Nevada who in 2,054 snaps was penalized just five times and gave up only two sacks. Befitting the son of a carpet layer who moonlighted as an MMA fighter, Bitonio is a relentless, nasty player. (Mike Bitonio died of a heart attack in 2010 at 45.) After shining at the Senior Bowl and slaughtering the Combine, Joel entered the draft projected as an early second-rounder who could sneak into the first. Forgoing New York City, he chose to watch the proceedings in the bosom of family, at the Long Beach, Calif., house where, he says, Mike's presence is still strong, "from the floor he laid to the fireplace he put in to the table I'm sitting at. It's going to be pretty emotional."
The Rep1 gang spent the rest of Thursday evening willing Goodell to speak Bitonio's name. For that to happen, the hogs ranked ahead of him needed to get snapped up. "Three tackles have already been picked," Ryan noted mid--first round. "We need Zach Martin from Notre Dame to come off the board."
Moments later, with the 16th pick, the Cowboys obliged him, taking Martin instead of Manziel. In the green room it had been clear that Dallas was taking a pass on Johnny Football. Martin was on the phone; Manziel wasn't. For two agonizing hours, until Cleveland came to his rescue with the 22nd pick, the QB/celebrity out of Texas A&M lived the Randy Travis lyric: Since my phone still ain't ringin', I assume it still ain't you.
A couple of avowed Bitonio admirers, the Chargers (No. 25) and the Panthers (28), filled more immediate needs. With Day 1 complete, the Bortles entourage decamped to Willow Road, a stylish Chelsea gastropub recommended by ex-Jet Mark Sanchez.
While the flat-brimmed set sowed wild oats—UCF center and Bortles wingman Joey Grant, a rising senior, showing impressive agility on the dance floor—the Tollners found themselves in a more reflective place, savoring a professional watershed. There's a cachet to representing the first quarterback selected in the draft, a distinction usually reserved for monoliths such as CAA and Athletes First.
Joining that club was a milestone for the Tollners. It had been a long time coming.
Editor's note: What kind of stories and content would you like to see in the Weekend Read? Let's chat at SIWeekendRead@gmail.com.