Imagine the salespitch that might have been delivered in the long hallways of a Ministry of U.S.Sports Culture not very long ago: O.K., how about this for a television event.The commissioner of the NFL stands at a podium in the middle of a stage. Everyfew minutes he reads out, in a businesslike monotone, the name of a collegianwho has been selected to play for an NFL team. "With the first pick..." and so forth. No music, no special effects. Just the commissioner andthe microphone. Trust me. It'll kill.
The index cardshave scarcely changed. "All these years, and we're still using thecards," says Joel Bussert, the NFL's vice president of player personnel andthe impresario of the draft. In 1976, at the first of Bussert's 31 drafts, theleague provided a stack of index cards on which teams could write their picks.The cards were stamped with blank lines for: team, round, player, position,college. "Now, of course, the cards are a little bigger and they have teamlogos stamped on the back," says Bussert. "But they're pretty much thesame." ¬∂ Little else about the draft is unchanged.
Riding theever-rising tide of the NFL's popularity, the draft has become a spectacle untoitself, picking up steam before the confetti has been swept from the Super Bowlturf, then building to a crescendo on the last weekend in April in New YorkCity. "It's become the second-biggest day of the year for the league,"says Ernie Accorsi, who retired in January after three decades as a personnelexecutive with the Colts, Browns and Giants. "It's bigger than theconference championship games, it's bigger than opening day. It's bigger thananything the league does with the exception of the Super Bowl."
This year fanshave congregated by the millions on the Internet, tirelessly debating mockdrafts and arguing whether the Raiders should take LSU's JaMarcus Russell (apotential franchise quarterback) or Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson (theconsensus best player) with the No. 1 pick. In the meantime prospects spendweeks tuning up for the scouting combine, on-campus pro days and individualworkouts. On Saturday and Sunday, ESPN will provide 18 hours of live draftcoverage, pulling in ratings that dwarf regular-season college basketball. Fansin game jerseys and face paint will swarm into Radio City Music Hall to cheeror chide each pick. In short, an entire culture has grown in support of anevent that resembles sweeps month on C-SPAN.
Why? Because thedraft taps into every fan's inner fantasy player, giving him a sense of controland power that's lacking on fall Sundays. No sane recliner jockey believes hecan do Peyton Manning's job--but plenty of them think they can do BillPolian's. "And do it three times as well," says Polian, the Colts'president. "It's noise, folderol and curbside psychoanalysis."
The deregulationof college football telecasts in 1984 unintentionally turned the draft over tothe masses. Where previously fans were limited to two or three college gamesper weekend, suddenly dozens were being televised nationally, showcasingthousands of potential pros. "College players had been mysterious,"says the ubiquitous Mel Kiper Jr., who began publishing a draft guide in 1979and has built himself into a brand name synonymous with the event. "Theonly guys people had heard of were from Notre Dame or the Heisman Trophywinners. Now there are hundreds of college players ready-made for thedraft."
Looking for adeeper explanation for the draft's appeal? Sports sociologist Jay Coakley,professor emeritus at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, says somefans enjoy seeing athletes in a setting in which they're "objectified andreduced to pieces of meat ... in the same manner that some women and men watchbeauty pageants. It offers a chance to be a voyeur while feeling temporarilysuperior to those being watched and objectified."
If that's tooscary, there's a simpler hypothesis. Draft day is the birth of a year'soptimism, before high picks turn into busts, before hope descends into a 2--6record and strident cries for the coach's head. "Every team and all theirfans think they're a winner on the day of the draft," says former Redskinsand Texans G.M. Charlie Casserly. "It's one weekend when nobody loses anygames. Everybody is undefeated."
At a Sinewy6'4", 219 pounds, USC wideout Dwayne Jarrett is an imposing physicalspecimen. In three seasons as a starter he caught 216 passes and scored 41touchdowns. But several NFL clubs are uncertain whether he's fast enough tomerit an early pick, so at USC's pro day in late March, Jarrett was dressed torun the 40-yard dash in a black sprinter's unitard with gold insets on theshoulders, similar to models designed by Nike for Michael Johnson in hisOlympian prime. Not coincidentally, Jarrett endorses Nike. "When you lookgood, you feel good," said Jarrett. "And you run fast."
Few draft-relatedevents have changed more dramatically in recent years than pro day. Once aquaint, low-key spring tradition, it grew into a phenomenon in the mid-1980s,when Miami became one of the first schools to use pro day as a recruiting tool,inviting players from the fertile Florida high school system to watchHurricanes stars prepare to become millionaires. Last year USC raised the barmuch higher, bringing in more than 200 high school juniors and allowing morethan a thousand spectators in to watch Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart and LenDaleWhite work out for the scouts. "It was awesome," says USC coach PeteCarroll. "There was a ton of excitement in the air. We had juniors andtheir families and friends; we had fans. Just awesome."
So big had pro daybecome that the NCAA finally intervened. Earlier this year it banned recruitsfrom attending pro days on official or unofficial visits. The move limits fanattendance as well, since schools don't want prospects to slip in with thecrowd and jeopardize NCAA compliance. No more awesome.
Still, as Jarrettcrouched into a sprinter's stance to run his critical 40, USC's track and fieldstadium was buzzing. Dozens of scouts were lined up at the finish, and athree-deep semicircle of family, media and underclassmen looked on--still acircus, albeit with fewer rings. And for Jarrett the moment was the culminationof three months of preparation that began as soon as his college careerended.
Jarrett was one of29 players to spend most of January and February at Athlete's Performance inTempe, Ariz., an intense training center where agents pay $10,000 (pluslodging) to provide their clients with a crash course in combine drills,NFL-style workouts and something that can only be described as a professionallifestyle. It's a serious place where nobody drinks Kool-Aid (an in-house chefprepares meals under a nutritionist's supervision), but everybody drinks theKool-Aid. "We try to paint a much broader picture than just getting readyfor the combine," says Mark Verstegen, a former college strength coach whofounded AP in 1999. "We try to provide a professional culture that willstick with them through their career. We use that word a lot aroundhere--culture."
To further readytheir prime clients for the draft, agents such as Tom Condon and Ken Kremer ofCreative Artists Agency have added another layer of training by hiring formerNFL assistant coaches as tutors. This spring Jarrett was tutored by LionelTaylor, a former pro wideout and longtime NFL assistant who coached Lynn Swannand John Stallworth with the Steelers. ("They both had two left feet untilI got 'em," says Taylor jokingly.) Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinnworked with Terry Shea, who was between jobs as quarterbacks coach with theChiefs and the Dolphins, and defensive linemen Alan Branch of Michigan and TimCrowder of Texas were trained by Tom Pratt, 71, who spent 34 years coachingdefensive linemen in the NFL.
It's a fair dealfor both sides: The players get professional coaching. The coaches? "We geta chance to keep our hand in the game," says Pratt, "and pass somethingalong to younger guys." Not to mention that fact that CAA pays for meals,lodging and all the golf the coaches can play.
Back at USC,Jarrett ran 4.62 in his 40. Not exceptionally fast, but not painfully slow,either. "People were saying I might run 4.7 or 4.8," he said. "Thisis a relief."
IF YOU SHOW IT,THEY WILL WATCH
ESPN seniorcoordinating producer Jay Rothman takes a seat in the network's cafeteria inBristol, Conn., sets a binder emblazoned with the NFL logo on the table andbalances a Treo on top of that. Rothman, 44, produces Monday Night Football andruns ESPN's coverage of the draft, overseeing 150 staffers on the two-daytelecast, the network's 28th draft. "It's a bear to prepare for and a ballto produce," says Rothman. "And let me put it this way: We're on theair for 18 hours with a guy reading index cards every few minutes, and we havea hard time squeezing in commercials."
Considering thenature of the programming, the draft's ratings are stunning. Last year theeight-hour first day averaged a 4.7 rating (representing 5.2 millionhouseholds); more remarkably, the first three hours--from noon to three onSaturday--averaged a 5.8. Those three hours represented the highest-ratedsports programming of the weekend, higher than NBA playoff games (a best of4.3), NASCAR (4.4), golf (2.6) and track and field (1.2).
By furthercomparison, the average audience for an ESPN prime-time men's collegebasketball game is 1.0 and a Saturday-afternoon college football game on ESPNaverages a 2.0. Monday Night Football averaged a 9.9 in 2006, which means thatthe first hours of the draft draw more than half the audience of prime-time NFLgames. And none of those numbers include the NFL Network's live draft coverage,which was not rated by Nielsen (it will be this year), or the vast number offans following the selections on the Internet.
"The wholething is beyond unbelievable," says Rothman. "But it is the ultimate inreality television."
Fair enough.Viewers are aware that in the age of unfettered free agency, the salary cap andmammoth rookie contracts, the draft has never been more important. "Withthe money in the game right now," says Polian, "you simply cannot makea mistake at the top of the draft, or there's a very good chance it will setthe franchise back years and cost you your career."
This larger dramais underscored by dozens of smaller ones each year: Eagles fans booing thechoice of Donovan McNabb over Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams in 1999,Aaron Rodgers's stunning greenroom free fall in '05 ("Our ratings spikeduntil the Packers finally took him," says Rothman. "Bad for him, goodfor us") and even last year's dramatic decision by nine teams to pass onLeinart. Reality TV, indeed.
"I rememberwhen ESPN first came to the league and proposed putting the draft ontelevision," says Accorsi. "Pete Rozelle, as much a visionary as hewas, said, 'Why?' Now we know."
Draft gurus arenothing new. In the winter of 1969 Frank Cooney, then a 22-year-old footballwriter for the San Francisco Examiner, developed an in-depth rating system forNFL players. Before the draft that spring he likewise evaluated collegians."NFL teams started getting a hold of me," says Cooney, "and I wasfreelancing for any publication that would allow it. There was a followingright away."
Cooney foundhimself part of a small network of draft zealots, including Carl and PeteMarasco, who published their draft musings in Pro Football Weekly (where theywere succeeded by the tireless Joel Buchsbaum), and Palmer Hughes, aschoolteacher who began publishing his own hand-typed draft chart in 1975. Theylived in a shadow world of heights, weights and statistics. "I once raninto Pete Marasco at a Rutgers-Hawaii game in New Jersey," says Hughes,with more than a little pride.
Cooney, now 60,operates a wide-ranging sports publishing company that includesnfldraftscout.com, which he says gets "a couple million hits a week."Hughes, 72 and living in Sarasota, Fla., still publishes three draft books eachyear. "Interest seems to be increasing," he says daringly.
So are theopportunities. Four years ago Mike Mayock, a onetime NFL journeyman, auditionedfor an analyst's job with the NFL Network. Instead Mayock, then 44, foundhimself breaking down coaches' tape. He now does it for a living as a draftanalyst for the network.
More than anyoneelse, however, the man responsible for taking draft obsession mainstream isKiper. As a Baltimore high school student in the 1970s he'd skip out of classesto call a sports hotline for draft updates and sometimes would show Accorsi thereports he'd written about college players. In '79, as a 19-year-old student atEssex (Md.) Community College with an old school satellite dish and a massivephone bill from calling college sports information directors, Kiper hand-typeda weighty draft guide and sent a copy free to every NFL team. By 1984 he waspart of ESPN's draft broadcast. "People stop me in airports to ask whotheir teams are going to pick," says Kiper, standing on an elaborate ESPNset after eight hours of draft-related taping. "A boy in my daughter'ssixth-grade class did a mock draft. And he did a great job, too."
POWER TO THEPEOPLE
It's wing night atSutter's Mill on Route 59 in Suffern, N.Y., near the New Jersey border inRockland County. Twenty cents buys you a crispy chicken wing for dipping intoscalding crimson hot sauce and thick blue cheese dressing--Tuesday-night dinnerfor a group of devoted twentysomething Giants fans, who wash it down with talldraft beers and draft talk. Costantino (Dean) Pollaro, Tim and Mike Tedino, andTyler Mirkovich visit training camp in Albany for a few days each summer and goto games at Giants Stadium. And for the last five years at least two of themhave been to the NFL draft. They are the face of NFL nation--informed,passionate fans who live the league, identifying other fans by their teamaffiliations, and drafts by the player the Giants picked first.
"My first yeargoing was 2002," says Tim Tedino, 22, a student at Ramapo College."Jeremy Shockey."
"I went in2003," says his brother Mike, 20, who attends Fairfield University."William Joseph."
To watch thedraft, fans stand in a long, zig-zagging line in Manhattan to get the freetickets that are distributed first-come, first-served beginning at 6 a.m.; inthe past the line usually began forming at midnight, but this year fans won'tbe allowed to queue up until 5 a.m. Two years ago--"Corey Webster,"says Mirkovich--Pollaro and the Tedino brothers scrambled back to New Jerseyfor a nap before the draft began. Once it starts, the draft is unlike any otherfan experience in American sports. Winners and losers are not immediatelyapparent, and there is no alcohol in the building. "You can actually havean intelligent conversation with fans from other teams," says Pollaro, 23.Nearly every fan who enters the building carries with him a mock draft of hisown to measure against the real thing.
One year theTedino brothers brought their father, Jerry, a lifelong fan who'd gone to allthree Giants Super Bowls. He told his boys that, after the Super Bowls, thedraft was the best football experience of his life.
As the 2007 draftapproached, the Sutter's Mill gang scoured websites, read newspapers andmagazines, and tirelessly watched television. The Giants pick 20th in the firstround on Saturday, and it's important to be prepared and offer the team someguidance. Voices shout from across the wings and beers:
"PaulPosluszny, Penn State!"
"LorenzoBooker, Florida State!"
The four laugh andchide each other as the energy builds. The joy is in the guessing and in thewaiting. Noon on draft day is like an opening kickoff. "What a greatmoment," says Mike Tedino. "The commissioner walks up there and standsstill ... 'With the first pick of the 2007 National Football League draft, theOakland Raiders select....'"
On the Clock
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