GameSpot Sports @ The 2006 NFL Draft
GameSpot Sports invades Radio City Music Hall in our behind-the-scenes look at the 2006 NFL Draft.
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There is perhaps no better example of the popularity of the National Football League than the NFL Draft--a two-day televised extravaganza that has for many fans become just as important as the first game of the regular season. No other major American sports draft comes close--the NBA's draft lottery would almost certainly be a distant second, while the MLB and NHL's respective drafts are underneath the radar of all but the most seasoned diehards. The NFL Draft, on the other hand, has become an event all its own. For casual football fans, it's like an old friend visiting your home for the weekend after several months apart; for the hardcore crowd--the fans who know their teams' future prospects are often determined over this two-day event--it can be either Christmas Day or the worst day of their sporting life.
This past weekend, GameSpot Sports traveled to New York City's Radio City Music Hall to take in the sights and sounds of the 2006 NFL Draft.
The Night Before
The NFL Draft weekend actually started the night before the first pick was made--at Jay Z's sports-themed 40/40 Club, which hosted EA Sports' unveiling of Reggie Bush as the cover athlete for
In talking with the players, none of the nerves you might expect from a bunch of first-round picks (Fasano excluded) was evident. In fact, the players seemed to enjoy the attention almost as much as they did playing the game; perhaps some of them realized that their lives would be very different the following morning. What nobody present could anticipate was how different Mario Williams' life would be, in particular.
Approximately 20 minutes before Bush was set to arrive, an ESPN News headline scrolled across the television set: "Mario Williams agrees to contract terms with Houston Texans." There it was--the news noone saw coming. After all, the star of the night was Bush, wasn't it? He was on the cover of NCAA 07; he would be the one holding the press conference for the glut of local and national media on hand, all of whom were eager to talk with the future Texans' running back. By the time Bush did arrive, the news had spread throughout the room, and the tone of the press conference shifted slightly. Reporters were more anxious to talk to Bush about his new position in the draft (would he go to New Orleans with the second pick or fall further down the list?) than the game on which he was starring.
To his credit, Bush handled the news, and the questions, with the aplomb of a carefully coached, media-savvy athlete. He was congratulatory of Williams, saying that the defensive tackle earned the position as number one overall, though he admitted that he had planned on being the number one pick, even going so far as to say he would love playing in New York should the Jets somehow make the deal to trade up. Considering the amount of controversy that has surrounded Bush and his family in the last few weeks running up to the draft (which include shady dealings with agents and even extortion claims), Bush looked like he was on top of the world, even if his stock had fallen, ever so much, for the following day.
The Day Of
Perhaps based on its name alone, Radio City Music Hall doesn't seem like the ideal spot for the NFL Draft to take place. After all, isn't this the home of the Rockettes? The scene of legendary concerts and stage shows? It doesn't take long to realize that, actually, Radio City is the perfect venue for the Draft--which, over many years of being broadcast on television, has become nearly as big a show as any other act appearing on the famous stage. In fact, Radio City is no stranger to sporting events--its legendary stage once hosted Roy Jones Jr. boxing matches and even a WNBA exhibition game. As a backdrop for the entertainment, Radio City is practically without peer, with its huge murals that line the walls in the spacious lobby; the lush and forgiving carpet under your feet; and the comfortable, cushiony seats with far more legroom than you might expect. It all hearkens back to a time when the location and atmosphere of the show was just as important as the show itself.
And then there's the main theater and stage--a massive, yawning space that provides a good view from practically every seat in the house, be it on the floor or up on the balcony. The stage itself was decorated with NFL backdrops--banners with team logos organized by division; huge flat-screen monitors running NFL trivia questions; highlight footage of 2005 Draft rookies; and, later, information on the last player picked in the draft.
Draft-weekend veterans, the fans who spend all Saturday and Sunday in front of the TV, have become intimately familiar with the ESPN Draft coverage team of Chris Berman, Chris Mortenson, Micheal Irvin, and the ultimate draft guru, Mel Kiper. If you've ever harbored doubts that the encyclopedic Kiper is not exactly all-human, seeing the man work live should lay to rest all doubts; only some otherworldly cyborg, it seems, would be able to rattle off as much compelling analysis of each and every draft prospect with such authority...and practically without notes. Truly, Kiper is a one of a kind. This year, for the first time, the NFL's own television network broadcast live coverage of the draft, with Rich Eisen and company providing simultaneous analysis of each and every pick. The two networks broadcast almost directly parallel to one another, providing a full day of opinions, analysis, and the occasional quip or two. Ticket-holders who arrived early enough received a handy FM radio, which let them tune into the audio feed of either the ESPN or NFL Networks' draft coverage.
And then there were the fans. Because the event has been traditionally held in New York City, the image of the NFL Draft has become synonymous with loads of crazed New York Jets and Giants fans (with the latter usually causing a bigger stir than the former). While Jets and Giants diehards were out in force on the second-tier balcony at Radio City, football fans of all stripes were everywhere, all sporting the colors of their favorite teams. The more modest of fans simply wore jerseys of their favorite players--lots of Ben Roethlisberger, Mark Bavaro, and Wayne Chrebet fans were on hand (one fan was even sporting a Detroit Lions' Robert Porcher jersey). For some adamant fans, however, a subtle jersey simply wasn't enough. We saw a gaggle of Cowboys fans dressed head to toe in Lone Star gear; kids wearing jerseys and football pants (sans pads, usually); and, our personal favorite, a Pittsburgh Steelers fan dressed as a Steeltown version of Superman, complete with Pittsburgh cape, a black and yellow "S" on his chest, and Steelers boxers...worn over his black sweatpants.
Down in the press room, all of the first 10 players picked in the draft were brought to a podium to be interviewed by local and national media. As expected, the most excitement in the room was for local boy (and newly drafted New York Jets offensive tackle) D'Brickashaw Ferguson. Based on audience reaction alone--a booming cacophony of cheers, which we heard on the lower level press room as soon as the pick was announced--Jets fans were pretty happy with their first overall pick. To his credit, Brick (as he will surely come to be known) seems to be tailor-made for New York football--with an easy smile and affable character that should help him deal with the intense months of scrutiny ahead. Of course, being a local--he played high school ball for Long Island's Freeport High School--doesn't hurt either.
"That's probably the most asked question in America, so hopefully this will be the last time I have to answer this," Ferguson said, when asked about his unusual first name. As he explained, the name D'Brickashaw came from the novel The Thorn Birds, which was later developed into a popular television movie starring Richard Chamberlain (whose character was actually named Ralph de Bricassart).
By the end of the first round, it was clear that most of the raw energy that had permeated Radio City had dissipated. Everyone now knew that Reggie Bush was a New Orleans Saint, Vince Young was the heir apparent to Air McNair, Matt Leinart was heading to Arizona, and Jay Cutler was headed to the Denver Broncos one pick later. Those who remained were either the truly diehard fans, the ones who were being paid to be there and cover the event, or the hearty souls who were trying to stay for the entire two days to score free tickets to the 2007 Draft, as promised on the overhead speakers by the NFL.
In all, the 2006 NFL Draft had its moments of excitement, though its most dramatic event occurred the night before with the Williams pick. It also had its firsts: the most defensive backs taken in the first round (seven), the most ACC players ever taken in the first round (12), and the least amount of Miami Hurricanes taken in the first (only one--Kelly Jennings, who was drafted #31 overall by the Seattle Seahawks) in recent memory. For the first-ever draft in Radio City Music Hall, it turned out to be a show worthy of its venue.
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