Trade! At the NFL Draft, an announcement that teams have swapped picks is the equivalent of a 70-yard touchdown pass. A little drama. A little twist. So when the crowd at New York City‘s Radio City Music Hall got word that the Oakland Raiders had traded the third overall pick in the draft to the Miami Dolphins, who originally had the 12th pick, the building roared. In particular, a few dozen Dolphin fans tucked high into the Music Hall corner were fairly delirious. “For the love of God,” said a Ravens fan seated nearby. “You’re not picking Marino.”
No, the Dolphins selected Dion Jordan, a defensive end from Oregon. And though Jordan won’t be throwing for 5,00o passing yards anytime soon, that’s just fine with these guys. “Dion Jordan! Dion Jordan!” they chanted from the nosebleeds. When Jordan waved to the Fish fanatics from the stage, they turned it up a few decibels.
Among the Dolphins supporters was Albert Arbesu, 30, who flew all the way from Panama for the sole purpose of hearing NFL commissioner Roger Goodell read names off a card, bear hug the draftees, and hand them jerseys. Was the trip worth it? “Hell yeah,” says Arbesu, who spent a few childhood years in Miami and became a Dolphins fan for life. “Beware Tom Brady. We’re coming for you.”
For years, I’ve sort of knocked my head against the wall, trying to figure out the outsized appeal of the NFL Draft. The event just keeps growing. Last season, for example, ESPN and the NFL Network set a record combined average rating for the first round, and drew 25.3 million total viewers. By comparison, only 18.46 million people watched Game 5 of the 2012 NBA Finals, when LeBron James won his first championship.
In the months after the Super Bowl, pundits dissect the draft non-stop, to the point where it’s seemingly become bigger than the games themselves. And while the draft surely involves strategy and intrigue, and can change the fortunes of a franchise, aren’t there more compelling things to do than watch Goodell call out a name, Mel Kiper Jr. and crew yap for 10 minutes about the name, rinse and repeat?
And why in the world would anyone fly from Panama, or heck, even take a subway in from Brooklyn, so you can stand in line for hours to acquire draft tickets, then stand around Radio City Music Hall to hear Goodell talk every few minutes? A playoff game in person, that’s an adrenaline rush. But Roger Goodell cue-card reading in the flesh? TV is just fine, thank you.
What’s more, some of these draft seats stink. On the lower tier of Radio City, stanchions block the view of the stage for a bunch of fans. So Arizona Cardinals fan John Nelson, for example, flew in from Phoenix for the privilege of watching the proceedings on a Radio City TV screen. Nelson wasn’t ticked, however, since he was one of the 14 lucky fans randomly picked to have a pre-draft lunch with Goodell at the NFL offices. “He was right there,” says Nelson. “I could reach out and grab him.”
The draft is super geeky. Before the big show started, a Jets fan, 49ers fan, and Cowboys fan got all giddy after spotting NFL Players Association chief DeMaurice Smith, and took a group picture with him. Dude, a labor rep! The crowd is colorful, draped in the jerseys of all the teams. One couple even sported Jacksonville Jaguars gear; they held up a big-head cutout of the team’s owner, Shahid Khan. “This is part of your genetics, the DNA of football,” says Robert Thorwaldsen, a Vikings fan who traveled from Minnesota. “This is the entirety of experiencing NFL football.”
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Not all fans were so effusive. “I’m a little disappointed,” says Kyle Blacker, a dental student wearing a Kansas City Chiefs jersey (the Chiefs had the top overall pick, and selected tackle Eric Fisher, an offensive tackle from Central Michigan. Manti Te’o and West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith were not picked in the first round, which was heavy on beefy lineman, and light on offensive skill positions. Only one quarterback, and no running backs, were taken). Blacker lives in New York City, so it’s not like he made a long trip, and his beef was with the lack of beer. “I thought they were serving,” says Blacker. “We needed more information. Charge us $12 or something. I don’t care. Do what you need to do.” What made the dryness even more galling: a bunch of VIPs were partying up on the balcony, bottles in hand. “Still, there are worse things you can do on a Thursday night,” says Blacker. “If it were Friday, that’d be pushing it.”
I fall in Blacker’s camp, though not because I wanted to imbibe. Live-event downtime just makes me antsy. After Goodell took the stage at the beginning — and was roundly booed — then paid a nice tribute to the victims of the Boston marathon bombings — which sparked “USA! USA!” chants — the Chiefs were on the clock. Buzz drained from the building as we awaited the Kansas City pick. The team chose Fisher, which drew cheers. A Fisher family friend, Paul Winkel, pumped his fists, and hugged his son, who grew up with Fisher in Rochester, Michigan. “It’s incredible to watch a kid who had these goals, and achieved them the right way, said Winkel, welling up. “There are so many people back home, at Buffalo Wild Wings and in school gyms, going crazy right now.” After that happy moment, however, another lull until the next pick.
The draft scene remains confounding. But it can be strangely uplifting. “Being here is a lifelong dream,” said Kent Swanson, a Chiefs fan sitting in the crowd with three friends. They all drove from Kansas City to Chicago – the flights to New York were cheaper there — and struck the Priceline jackpot, scoring a suite in the middle of Manhattan for $149 a night. But really, a lifelong dream? “This is the most interesting thing in the NFL,” says Swanson. “You have the highest sense of optimism. The next great thing is on the horizon. On what other night is there a feeling that your team can only get better? We’re just a bunch of a buds, fulfilling a dream.”
High-five. Might not be my dream. Or your dream. But it’s their dream. Can’t play it any better than that.