Wednesday, August 09, 2006

My visit to the 2003 NFL draft

It was during the NFL draft the year before that the idea of going to see the event in Madison Square Garden first came to me. As I cancel my cable in the off-season I was watching the draft at the ESPNzone in Washington DC. I had not been sure what to expect, but I had worn some 49er gear to be on the safe side. There were over two dozen fans there, especially for the early picks. At least half of us had huddled around on the sidewalk before the restaurant opened, a number wearing paraphernalia. The highlight was at the third pick of the draft. The Detroit Lions took quarterback Joey Harrington, which caused a burst of outrage at a table of Lion fans behind me. I gathered they’d been hoping for defensive back (very reasonably). I had fun and as I waited for the draft to work down to the 49ers’ pick I start thinking that for the first time in my life I had the money and lived close enough to go up to New York City so I could experience the draft in person. After the first round ESPNzone changed their main TV and I went to movie with a friend.

I resolved that day to go up to New York the next year. I told a few people at the time, most of who were not as interested in the concept as I. I do not really have any friends who are serious enough NFL fan to take the journey with me. I forgot about my resolution until the draft neared, thus the plan was thrown together at the last minute. Thankfully I had several friends in the city with whom I could stay. Friday night I left from work, flew into LaGuardia, and crashed at a friend’s place in Harlem. I had done a little research and read they just gave out free tickets on a first come, first serve basis in the morning. So despite my friend having many rowdy visitors I went to bed before midnight. I managed to convince my friend to come with me or at least consent to be woken up and decide in the morning. My plan was to get up in the morning around 6:00, get tickets (which supposedly were handed out at 9:00 AM), go get some breakfast, and then return when the gates opened at 11:00. To his credit my friend dragged himself out of bed on a few hours sleep, and, after coffeeing up, came along.

I had never visited Madison Square Garden before. My first experience came on an unpleasant, rainy day. I was grateful to see the small, crooked line was under cover when I arrived. On the other side of the main entryway there was another line of guys who had some kind of bracelet, which got them in ahead of us and could have been picked up by anybody the night before. I joined a good number of those bitching about not knowing that. The larger problem was that nobody from MSG was directing traffic. People kept cutting in the line, which cause considerable resentment, and, given that there were only a few thousand seats to be handed out, seemed to raise the possibility of physical confrontation. No one was sure exactly how many seats were available, estimates varied from 2,000 to 5,000. The closest to an actual fist fight I saw, however, was a party of gentleman debating whether not Chris Simms would go in the first round. For the most part though, the mood was congenial with lots of people talking friendly trash about other people’s teams. There was also a rumor that the Patriots had bundled up their two first round picks to move up to third overall and jump ahead of the Jets at four (probably directed at their numerous fans in attendance). Finally, after several hundred men had cut ahead of me, MSG came out and put up barriers to a round of applause. Then the cameras arrived and filmed us all waiting in line mugging idiotically for an ESPN intro. One Cowboys fan got out front and ran up and down taunting everybody. Cowboy fans, similarly to the team, are the most arrogant in the NFL. Most of my time on line was spent chatting with three guys who had driven up from Delaware; one of whom was a 49ers fan as well.

Eventually they started to let us enter in groups of 50 at a time. I almost got cut off from my friend. They tried to have me go through without him and I stopped and said we did not want to get split. One of the security workers yelled “Go, go, go” as though Charlie was closing in on Saigon. As it turned out I got one of the last tickets, over a thousand were turned away. Later I discovered that as the draft has become increasingly popular more and more seats are reserved so now less than 2,000 are given out to the public. We all waited again in the lobby before they let us into the theater.

Coming up we found the NFL was handing out little gift bags. They also offered the chance to take several cheesy pictures and buy overpriced merchandise or food. My friend and I wisely made a beeline for the seats and landed on the back of the first tier. The layout was different than I had anticipated. From television coverage I’d always believed the fans sat in a balcony, but I saw that it was just one long sloping theater. I was directly in line with the main EPSN desk. Amusingly the other desk was only a few feet away, not in the different room you would expect from watching (ah, the magic peeled away). Before the draft started they introduced the players in the green room. They were fairly far away - just some guys in suits from my perspective.

The draft started with a few minor cheers, and the first few picks rolled out. There was an excited buzz in the room which immediately told me I’d made a wise decision to travel to New York. The picks were taking forever, but you didn’t notice the way you would watching from home. Because one is surrounded by NFL fans, there’s always someone the bullshit with, similar to being at an ESPNZone, but to more of an extreme. This is not to say they were all knowledgeable, I sometimes found that I knew more about their teams than they did. I found it odd that fairly casual fans would go to the draft, even if they are just New Yorkers. It’s becoming an event, rather than just a sports event. My friend unfortunately hit a wall immediately, and left within the top five.

Usually there is little excitement in a draft, which is why only the diehards go. The year before there’d been controversy when the Chiefs had physically blocked out a Vikings runner in order to draft a player they wanted after making a trade with the Cowboys. The individual who sits next to me at work is a Viking fan, and we had jokingly discussed how they might find a way to screw up again. As it were I was surprised to discover they were in a perfect position, as Terrell Suggs, a pass rushing defensive end, and in my mind the most potentially dominant defensive player in the draft (but also a potential bust), fell to them at number seven. Now even if a team has a player signed they will still take their time to make the pick. I guess they feel if they have fifteen minutes, they should use most of it in case a great trade offer comes. Either that or the NFL encourages them to drag it out for ESPN. So as the Vikings’ clock wound down neither I, nor anyone else, thought much of it. Then the room came to realize they had less than a minute left! We all chanted, counting down the final seconds. The entire theater was floored as for no apparent reason the Vikings let time expire! The Jaguars quickly came up to draft quarterback Byron Leftwich, even the Panthers selected tackle Jordan Gross quickly as well, before the Vikings finally recovered and passed on Suggs to take a defensive tackle. Three picks were made in the span of about a minute, a first in any draft I had ever witnessed. Everyone there looked around at each other, no one had ever seen this before; nobody had any explanation: we were all laughing (save those fans of the franchise in Minnesota). Suggs was taken with the next pick, tenth overall, going to Baltimore. The tackle was a huge need for the Vikings, but I am simply unable condone passing on the possible all star player. You win in the NFL by taking risks – on the field and off.

It was the talk of the draft as it then return to its normal pace. There were a few trades, the Cardinals naturally made disastrous reaches. Then it started to get interesting again. The Bears surprised by taking Rex Grossman, at least they knew better than the trust Kordell Stewart long term. The Bills followed by unwisely selecting Willis McGahee, the “twice busted knee kid”. The Colts, drafting next, took a tight end, I could hear the coworker who sits on the other side of me cursing from 200 miles away. All the while, William Joseph, a physically talented defensive tackle (with motivation issues), slipped into late in the first round. My team’s (the San Francisco 49ers) number one need was a defensive tackle as far as I was concerned. Unfortunately the Giants picked right before us, and also had a thin defensive line. There had been back and forth between me and the Giants fans over the playoff game the year before (I was now sitting between two). The 49ers had staged an amazing comeback and won in a controversial missed penalty on the final play of the contest. My line: “Hey the refs didn’t make you play prevent defense” had been well worn throughout the afternoon. However I knew now their time had come and the Giants did indeed take Joseph. Prepared for this, I then started hoping that they would take Kwame Harris, an offensive tackle thereby filling another need (the offensive line being old, even if talented). I was pleased when they fulfilled my wishes.

I immediately sought out a few other 49er fans that I saw in the crowd to get a little reaction back and forth. That is one of the best parts of being at the draft, I know grand total of zero 49ers fans (I’ve always lived on the East Coast), so here I was able after a chat with a few. There is a certain instant camaraderie at the NFL draft when you see someone wearing the gear of your team. Here, surrounded by fans that root for others, you seek fans with your gear and all are naturally friendly to their own. It is also odd not to have one team with a predominance of fans. Watching in DC, everyone would have groaned when Washington picked a Florida receiver, Taylor Jacobs, with their first pick (in the second round), in MSG it just got a few laughs as Snyder’s miss run franchise repeated past mistakes. Some fans are targeted by all others. I already mentioned Cowboy fans, but now as the first round drew to a close two picks by the Super Bowl losing Oakland Raiders were coming. Their fans all clustered together pumping their fists screaming “RAI-ders!! RAI-ders!!” Quickly drowned out by the traditional NFL chant of “Raiders Suck! Raiders suck!” Their picks themselves were probably not what fans wanted, but were legitimate despite the laughs. Thus ended the first round; and fans streamed away. For some it was the time crunch, but for many the interest waned after the first round. Every team now has their big rookie of the year and from here on out the names are going to get more and more obscure. I was going to hang around to see what the 49ers did, but I knew I would not recognize many of the names. Every year I tell myself I’m going to watch more college ball, but I never do. And here it hurt me, as I could only judge the success of my team’s draft by the position they selected, not the player.

As the crowd fanned out I was able to get up and move around a little. I found some 49ers fans with much more knowledge of the college game than I. While I watched, happy to see the 49ers loaded up on defensive lineman as I thought they needed too, these guys debated over the relative merits of the defensive end they took in the third round. The names rolled by, my interest keyed by the occasional face I recognized. I listened to the analysis of the ESPN talking heads, as they tried to explain why the worst team in football, the Cincinnati Bengals, was having a good draft (I disagreed: I don’t consider drafting a quarterback with one good year in college [if you ignore the Kansas State game] and an injury prone wide receiver [when that is the deepest position on a team with many holes] a show of brilliance). Otherwise I just grew listless as the draft of course stretched well into the evening. Somewhere between eight and nine the first day ended. The crowd was much thinner now - indeed even I was halfway up the ramp as the announcer read the last name: “Quarterback from Texas-Chris Simms.” The few remaining gave a hardy cheer of derision. I walked out with a male 49er fan and a young blonde female Packer fan, who he was hitting on.

I had come planning to see both days, and even after a full day of crowds I was still enthused for the experience. I hoped to catch some friends, and tried to meet them to see a movie, but failed to do so. We said we would do breakfast. Instead I went home to my friend’s place and had some pizza delivered while they got drunk and headed out to part. I let my worn self sink into their quasi-clean peach leather couch close to midnight.

I had breakfast with friends the next morning, which delayed my arrival to the second day of the draft until after the first few picks the fourth round had gone down. I lost my camera and inquired about it without success. It was no big loss but after I questioned somebody in a back room, I saw him yell at the old usher who had sent me there which started the day off on a bad note. Walking in I encountered one of the guys I stood in line with the day before, and joined them in their seats…where they were speaking with the two people I’d walked out with. The second day was vastly more relaxed. The few diehard fans were spread out, each one having their own little area set up. Chris Berman was gone from the desk replaced by Suzy Kolber. She was a fan favorite in my section as they did a little chant about her. Mike Golic was also a fan favorite, who tossed out cookies to the crowd. I don’t know if he heard my taunt of “Bob was better.” As for the picks themselves - they ran by, only a few names stuck out as I waited for the 49ers to pick. The Vikings, who had rebounded from round one, took Onterrio Smith. Quentin Griffith, Seneca Wallace, and Lee Suggs were names familiar to my ears. A Jets nearby fan became upset when Dan Klecko, son of Jets great Joe Klecko, went to the Patriots. NFL rivalries. He was not the only one moaning, I was just glad I put the name together with a lineman from my youth. San Francisco took a receiver, which filled another need spot for them and so pleased me. Actually the name, Brandon Lloyd, I had seen going to them in the second round in a mock draft. I talked to another Niners fan who told me he would’ve rather taken Arnaz Battle, a name I did not know. Right after that Rien Long, who some thought might slip into the first round, went. All the mock drafts and player lists I had brought were now long depleted and their predictions had proved to be of limited accuracy anyway.

By the fifth round we were just talking with each other more than following the draft, and by doing so we found we did not all get long as well. One of the other Niners fans discussed how he’d be happy to see Terrell Owens go, because he is a product the system! He told me Freddie Solomon was a better receiver because he won a ring. I asked if he ever hear of Joe Montana (whose jersey he wore). I tried to find a Steeler fan and offer a trade: Plaxico Burress for T.O. the weak minded fool had to think about it, which spoiled my point. Briefly I perked up when Donnie Nickey was selected, my friend had told me to watch out for him as he was the brother of a guy we both knew from college. Debate began late in the day over if Ken Dorsey, a famous, winning, but weak-armed college quarterback, would go or be a free agent. He was not very popular and I joined in bashing him. Eventually we wandered our way down to the 49ers’ next pick, which turned out to be a tight end rather then the defensive back I wanted, but this point they were hopefully just taking the best player available. In the sixth another receiver came in, Arnaz Battle, who I now realized was the former quarterback out of Notre Dame. Somewhere along the line TV coverage of the draft was paused so we could see Kevin Millwood earn a no hitter for the Philadelphia Phillies. At this point I started to watch the time as I was going to have dinner with another friend and then drive the airport to fly the redeye home. But the draft, even in its last stages, crawls, and I realized I would not be able to stay to the bloody end. I waited until the Niners seventh rounder: Ken fucking Dorsey. I shouted a few unpleasantries. Someone told me all he did was win, and I said yes but so had Gino Torretta and Josh Heupel. He countered with Steve Walsh, who “had a nice career.” I’d have preferred just about any defensive back, but it was the seventh round so I got over it. I got home to my friend’s in time to see the last selection of the draft, Mr. Irrelevant, on his TV. I hitched a ride to LaGuardia with another buddy and made my flight (barely), but went without dinner. I called it a successful visit.


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