CHICAGO — With a lei draped around his neck and a smile on his face, Marcus Mariota sat in his chair, gathering his thoughts as the celebration unfolded around him.
The Titans had selected Mariota, the former Oregon quarterback, with the second pick in the first round of the NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theater here Thursday night.
Mariota, though, was thousands of miles away at his own watch party, in Honolulu.
Moments earlier, as expected, the Buccaneers had selected former Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston with the first pick. He wasn’t in Chicago, either.
Although Winston and Mariota opted not to attend the draft, the party was on here in Chicago as the city hosted its first NFL Draft since 1964.
Even hours before the first round began, the crowds were out in full force on this cool and crisp evening. Outside the auditorium fans cheered as the NFL prospects walked down the Gold Carpet with their mothers to meet the media. Across the street in Grant Park, thousands flocked to the outdoor fan festival dubbed Draft Town, where they could participate in interactive activities and watch the draft on giant television screens.
As the clock ticked down to the first pick, the mood was a mix of nervousness and excitement. About half an hour before the draft began, the 28 players in attendance were introduced to applause from the still half-populated auditorium. The national anthem and chants of, “U-S-A! U-S-A!” followed. The waiting was almost over.
At 7:05 p.m., NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stood at a podium in Selection Square in Draft Town and officially commenced the draft — “Tonight, for the first time in 51 years, Chi-town is draft town!” — then raced back to the auditorium to announce the first pick.
The fans in Chicago, however, didn’t seem to appreciate his presence. Every time the commissioner announced a pick throughout the night, he was booed emphatically
After Winston and Mariota went 1-2, the Jaguars selected Florida linebacker Dante Fowler Jr., making him the first pick to be present in Chicago for the traditional photo with Goodell while holding a jersey of his new team. Then the Raiders drafted Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper, and the Redskins selected Iowa guard Brandon Scherff.
Though temperatures dipped into the 40s Thursday night, it’s expected to warm up for Friday’s second and third rounds.
By then, Winston, Mariota, and every other player selected Thursday will be well on their way to whatever NFL city awaits them.
Photos: Butch Dill/AP (Winston), Eugene Tanner/AP (Mariota)