On Friday afternoon, a few hours before the start of the second and third rounds of the NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theater here in Chicago, I joined the hordes headed to the outdoor fan festival, Draft Town. The energy was apparent in the throngs that walked into Grant Park representing nearly every one of the 32 teams. It was like a migration to football land.
And the whole setup was a football lover’s dream. The NFL’s sponsors had built tents showcasing their products, and just inside the entrance, there were stations where kids could play Madden 15.
Mannequins dressed in the jerseys of every NFL team lined the paths, with holes where the heads would have been so fans could stand behind them and have their photos taken. Draftees and famous players signed autographs, and tents showcasing memorabilia from every team lined the walk.
Meanwhile, under a giant temporary dome complete with a huge video screen airing the Draft, fans could view Super Bowl rings from past champions and visit a mini-museum about the Big Game in honor of its 50th anniversary this coming February.
But the highlight was undeniably Combine Corner. Lines stretched dozens of people long as both kids and adults tried out activities meant to mimic the annual NFL combine, from the 40-yard dash to the vertical leap.
The queue for the dash, in which NFL prospects were shown running on a 40-yard-long TV screen next to the fans, was where I found brothers Patrick M., 12, and Daniel M., 11, both Bears fans from Chicago. They showed me two Lego-like figures they had bought, Marcus Mariota in a Titans jersey and Kevin White in a Bears one. The toys must have been made in less than 24 hours.
A few dozen feet away, 12-year-olds Tommy C., Sam A., and Brian B. were waiting in line for the field goal kick, in which people could attempt either 10 or 20-yard tries. Tommy is a Patriots fan, Sam roots for the Saints, and Brian is all about the Ravens. As they spoke I could hear the occasional cheer or groan from the crowd as the kicks headed toward the uprights. (People usually missed.)
The consensus among the kids I talked to was that the dash, dubbed Run Like the Wind, was the best part of Draft Town, with the kick and the vertical leap close behind. As expected, no one even came close to beating the NFL prospects’ sub-five-second times in the dash.
I left Combine Corner and walked towards a skydiving simulator meant to mimic Bears legend Walter Payton’s famous headfirst dive. On my way I passed vendors selling overpriced hot dogs, two Bears fans in full body bear costumes, and a group of fans lined up for photos with Dolphins cheerleaders at the Miami team tent.
The simulator, in all honesty, looked terrifying. People climbed onto a platform and strapped themselves to weighted balloons that kept them from flying off into space while air was blown from below, sending them airborne.
Before I left, there was one last thing I had to see. I headed over to the NFL Network studios that had been set up in Draft Town and looked through the window at the anchors.
Just then, I noticed that it was 6 p.m. The second and third rounds of the draft were beginning.
I ran over to watch from a distance as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell officially put the Giants on the clock in Selection Square of Draft Town, to emphatic booing that would return throughout the rest of the night whenever Goodell announced a pick. (This happened on Thursday night as well.) The commissioner then made a hasty exit in order to arrive at the theater on time to announce the Giants’ pick.
When I arrived in the press conference room in the theater about half an hour later, the second round’s second selection, Donovan Smith out of Penn State, was on the podium.
The new Buccaneer fielded questions from several reporters before answering one from me: “How do you think being drafted will change your life?” It was my second press conference and the first question I’d ever asked at one.
“Oh, man, playing at the highest level, a game that you love, growing up as a little kid, just doing it for fun. Now it’s your job,” he told me. “It’s really not even a job because you know it’s a game you love. Being able to go out there day-in and day-out to get paid playing the game you love, it just makes this that much better. It’s just a great moment.”
Outside, skyscrapers were lit up with the words NFL and draft. In Grant Park, at the edge of Draft Town, the Buckingham Fountain was illuminated in the color of the team on the clock. For the city of Chicago, it was quite a moment.
Photo: Todd Rosenberg for Sports Illustrated