Iâ€™ve always been fascinated by the televised first round pick-parade of the NFL draft, not only because The New York Giants are my religion (and yes, literally, they are) but because Day One of â€śThe Selection Processâ€ť offers such a great through-the-looking-glass, Bizarro-world take on American history, wherein the newly-acquired human is paraded out for inspection for the largely Caucasian audience after being sold to the master, only at that point, itâ€™s the meat thatâ€™s just scored the millions, guaranteed, and itâ€™s The Man who paid it ,in prayer that his new product might restore some luster to a foundering franchise. (Especially if, as of 4/25, youâ€™re Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, now under a very serious federal fraud charge investigation because your truck-stop company has been charged with ripping off Hispanics, and itâ€™s looking grim for the Clevelanders, even though, IMHO, his Pilot-Flying J franchise at Exit 153 off I-40 in Albuquerque serves the best chicken-friend steak in the lower 48.)
Entertainment-wise, though, the problem with The Draft used to be that, despite the efforts of the World Wide Leader (thatâ€™d be ESPN to the infidels), it was all generally as thrilling as watching the woman in the hairnet slice your half-pound of the half-off turkey loaf behind the deli counter. Plus which Mel Kiperâ€™s hair had gotten so weird that you could literally go to any of the Eastern European shoe-shine people at Eddieâ€™s in Grand Central and say, â€śIâ€™d like my shoes to be the same color as Mel Kiperâ€™s hair, only more accurate in their draft predictions,â€ť and they instantly knew what you were referring to, even if they were women from Kazakhstan.
But now, thanks to the ESPN/NFL marketing combine, the First Few Hours of the Draft are nothing less than American Theater â€“ Kabuki Theater, perhaps, but Theater nonetheless. I know that this is true because it all happens on a Thursday, which, when I was younger, used to be a day in the week, football-wise, like David Byrneâ€™s Heaven, where Nothing Ever Happened. But then, because pro football got so big that a single day (Sunday) or two (add Monday) or three (add Saturday) werenâ€™t enough to rein The Game in, Thursday became a day of weird reverence: a day when a) the season started, and, b) games were now weirdly being played, and then, now c) since the draft was worthy of being a three-day event, like a Phish festival at an abandoned air force base, it would begin on Holy Thursday.
This year, I turned to ESPN at 5, three hours before the first pick of the Kansas City Chiefs, about whom I knew little other than they were really bad, because if the whole thing started three hours early, that meant that The First Round of The Draft had become something like the Oscars, without the Red Carpet. So for the first time in my life I bought some wings from a chain wing place and hunkered down at 5, and turned on the television to see a big desk, where a man named (supposedly) Trey Wingo kicked off this evening of import by announcing his fellow panelists: â€śThe Commander-in-Chief,â€ť an old guy I didnâ€™t recognize who turned out to be an out-of-work former general manager; Keyshawn Johnson, an out of-work wide receiver with all the charm of a bored Audi dealer; Cris Carter, a very smart man, and Tom Jackson, who acts like someone named Tom Jackson would.
The first thing I heard was Jackson saying that defensive ends would be in high demand: â€śThese kids know where the money is: itâ€™s in getting the passer.â€ť That was at eight minutes after five. I turned off the television and went away for two hours and 22 minutes.
Then, at 7:30, I came back to the television to see a most unholy trio sitting at huge desk in Radio City Music Hall, the most beautiful Deco theater in the world, which felt sacriligious: Chris Berman, who would be my favorite carnival barker luring me into the snake-woman tent if I liked carnivals, and whose own hair-color now reminds me of that fake peat soil they put in the gardens of Applebeeâ€™s in Lawrence, Kansas; Scary Jon Gruden, who has now turned into a caricature of the doll and actually looks as if he were a true homicidal maniac with that grin that you see on those ads on your Facebook screen that say, â€śWant to See Whoâ€™s Been arrested in your neighborhood?â€ť, and Kiper, who, stunningly, is still employed.
Then it got weirder than I even imagined it could be. Thirty minutes before anyone was actually â€śselectedâ€ť, 22 guys called â€śtop prospectsâ€ť were marched one by one onto the stage, before theyâ€™d actually been picked, announced by name by a guy whose voice was like Satan imitating Michael Buffer. What if they actually werenâ€™t picked in the first round, or, until, even the bottom of the second or third? Not possible. So were they all going to be first-rounders, which means it was fixed? I didnâ€™t care, as long as the Giants got one of them.
But when I learned that this pre-draft half-hour was sponsored by something called â€śIShares in Blackrock,â€ť which sounded as if it were a secret message to rich people trying to invest in mercenaries, I had no further questions. Of course the corporate fix was in. Cool, as long as we got one of those 22, all of whom were dressed very well.
Then, to kill time, Chris Berman started to talk about Mante Tâ€™eo, but only so that he could reveal that he himself had spent â€śa lot of time in Hawaiiâ€ť in the offseason. I was very happy for him, having myself spent all of my offseason wondering whether the snow on the roof was so deep the house might sink.
Then two new talking heads came onto the screen: Chris Mortensen, who looks like a real person who loves the game of football, looking really unhappy when someone named Adam Shefter, who doesnâ€™t, was talking next to him. With fifteen minutes still open before Pick One, I went outside and planted a black currant bush Iâ€™d bought earlier in the day because even if it matures, unlike Berman, Gruden and Kiper, it wonâ€™t talk or dye the color of its fruit.
At 8:03 p.m. Roger Goodell walked onto the stage where Bernstein, Sinatra, Yo Yo Ma and many women with really long legs had performed, when the draft was supposed to actually begin, but instead introduced Joe Namath and Phil Simms, who were there to talk about the Super Bowl in New York next year. This advertorial was not really needed, given that trying to sell the Super Bowl to football fans is like trying to sell the heat of the sun to homo sapiens. Then, finally, it began. I reached for the wings and the wine. Okayâ€¦yes, I was ready for some, um, football.
At 8:07 EST, Goodell said the Kansas City Chiefs were on â€śthe clockâ€ť and, the show was on. The Chiefs chose Eric Fisher, a left tackle from a college called Central Michigan. Berman said that Fisher was from â€śa blue-collar family,â€ť wherein Gruden quickly picked up on the story line and said, â€śThis is what Americaâ€™s all about. This is a great night for me. I like seeing nights like this,â€ť at which point I realized that I was not simply watching irrelevant entertainment; I was watching the unfolding of an American dramatic story-line as vivid and important as the dramas of Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis and William Faulkner. This was an evening when sport would no longer subsume itself to folly. In the greatest performance space in New York City, the drama of America was now unfolding. And all I cared about was linebackers? I was so missing the point.
At 8;24, after a commercial forâ€¦ESPN?… the Jaguars took another offensive left tackle named Luke Joeckel from Texas A&M. He was very big. At 8:34, the Dolphins traded up to third took Dion Jordan, a defensive end from Oregon. The cameras showed Dion talking on a phone with a piggy-curly-tail-wired land line circa Mad Men, which isnâ€™t all that surprising in a league that uses faxes. Gruden said he was shocked because the guy was â€śnarrow.â€ť Gruden then said that Dion â€śmade a lot of money rushing off the edge,â€ť even though, to my knowledge heâ€™d not actually made any money making football yet, at least, not legally.
Then the Eagles chose Lane Johnson, a tackle from Oklahoma. He had a buzz cut. Kiper said that this was â€śan amazing turn of events,â€ť right after Johnson hugged a guy on camera who had suspenders and was wearing a black cowboy hat, and I never found out whether that was the thing that was amazing. Now it was Detroitâ€™s turn, and since Detroit needs love, I paid strict attention, especially when Barry Sanders came out to announce the pick!…until Goodell announced that Barry Sanders was out there not because the city lost 2/3 of its population in the last few years, but because Barry was selling NFL Madden 25.
The Lions chose Ezekiel Ansah, a guy from Ghana who went to BYU. Berman called him Ziggy, like he was a pal, and said he was â€śa natural athleteâ€ť. Kiper said â€śZiggyâ€ť had â€śa mean streakâ€™â€ť, which seemed wrong for someone from a Mormon university, but maybe BYU doesnâ€™t always accept students for their belief in Joseph Smithâ€™s Golden Plates. Then Suzy Kolber interviewed him, and after Ansah spoke appropriate quotes about winning The Super Bowl, Suzy said, â€śWell said,â€ť which seemed to mean that she had ascertained that Ziggy was, you know, smart and articulate.
The Browns then took Barkevious Mingo out of LSU. â€śI like what Cleveland just did,â€ť Gruden said, which made me happy for Cleveland, to know that Jon Gruden approves of what they did.
Berman then said weâ€™d see what was â€śgoing to happen in the desert,â€ť although it turned out the next pick was the Cardinals, who, in Phoenix, are as near the desert as Brooklyn is to The Catskills. They took a guard from North Carolina named Jonathan Cooper. Gruden said, â€śHeâ€™s a finisher,â€ť which I assumed referred to the fact that it took him five years to finish at UNC.
But now it got really exciting, when St. Louis traded up to get the Buffalo pick, The Rams took Tavon Austin from West Virginia. Gruden said, he could â€śstretch the field vertically,â€ť which is nothing, really, less than super human (â€śAble to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Able to stretch a football field vertically!â€ť)
The Jets were next. Berman said they were in â€śa big rebuild: Thereâ€™s no other way to say it,â€ť although there were lots of other ways to say it, and more grammatically. â€śThey have to get a lot of better playersâ€ť would have been one. They took Dee Milliner, a DB from Alabama. Jon, very excited, said he was a â€śfootball-savvyâ€ť guy who was also a â€śtackler,â€ť all of which sounded really good if he were going to be paid to play football
Tennessee would choose next. I was excited because it meant that, after this pick, weâ€™d be more than halfway to the Giants, and it was only 9:23. The Titans took Chance Warmack, an Alabama guard. I guess he isnâ€™t fast, because Gruden said, â€śIf you donâ€™t like 40-yard dash times in guards then donâ€™t time your guards in the 40-yard dash,â€ť so I vowed to never again do so.
The Chargers were next. They took (â€świth the 11th pick in the 2013 NFL draft,â€ť Goodell said, as opposed to the 1962 AFL draft,) D.J. Fluker, the Alabama tackle. Kiper said that Flukerâ€™s performance against LSU â€śhad made him a lot of money.â€ť Oakland was next. Gruden said, â€śThey need players,â€ť which immediately explained why the Raiders hadnâ€™t been successful of late: They didnâ€™t have enough players. They took one. I think they should have been allowed to take two.
Then Sal Palantonio, analyzing the next pick, again the Jetsâ€™, used the word â€śadverseâ€ť when he should have used â€śaverseâ€ť so I stopped listening. Gruden said that the potential next pick, a quarterback, â€śhad lost his fundamentalsâ€ť after five games the season before, which couldnâ€™t be good, because wouldnâ€™t that mean he couldnâ€™t run, or pass, or maybe even stand up? They took a defensive tackle who Gruden said wasnâ€™t really a â€śtrue offensive tackle,â€ť which might open them up to fraud..
The Panthers took Star Lotulelei. A defensive tackle from Utah whom maybe is a Morman, The Saints took a safety who, Gruden said, had â€ś physical presence,â€ť which I had assumed was sort of a thing any football player needed. But what did I know? What good would a metaphysical presence be?
Buffalo came in now, the only New York state team in the NFL, and since they had traded Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jon Gruden said their new coach Dough Marone was probably â€śhaving his guts ripped out,â€ť and was â€śtorn in half,â€ť presumably because he didnâ€™t know who to pick, or a Zeus had descended as an eagle to punish him for something in a past life . He took E.J. Manuel, Florida Stateâ€™s quarterback. They took a lot of pictures of him holding a Billsâ€™ jersey with his name already stitched on it by a really agile seamstress. He was the first one to thank his mom, and so I am now his biggest fan.
The Steelers took someone about whom Kiper said that all he did behind the line of scrimmage was â€śwreak havoc.â€ť The Forty-Niners took Eric Reid, a defensive back from LSU. Mel said, â€śHe had a 40 Â˝ vertical,â€ť
Now it was only 10:15, and it was my time. I was Tangled Up In Blue. I put the cheese popcorn aside, poured another glass of semillion blend, and settled in.
Then ESPN cut to a commercial for Dairy Queenâ€™s â€ś5-buck lunchâ€ť. And another for Holiday Inn Express. Then State Farm. Then Best Buy. Then the Dairy Queen one again. Then one forâ€¦the NFL draft I was missing.
Then they were back in Radio City Music Hall. â€śWith the 19th pick in the 2013 NFL draft,â€ť said the blond man, â€śThe New York Giants take Justin Pugh, tackle, Syracuse.â€ťÂ â€śHeâ€™s an athlete,â€ť said Gruden. I didnâ€™t care about the rest of the picks, so I finished my wine and turned off the television, secure in the knowledge that even if our choice couldnâ€™t wreak vertical havoc, and hadnâ€™t made Jon Gruden happy, at least we hadnâ€™t drafted, say a librarian.