CHICAGO (AP) — The NFL draft is back in the City of Big Shoulder Pads for a seventh time, expecting a much warmer reception than it got nearly 80 years ago from the very first pick in its very first draft.
The man who stiff-armed the NFL back then at the draft in Philadelphia was University of Chicago running back and Heisman Trophy winner Jay Berwanger.
He said “no thanks” when then-Philadelphia Eagles owner Bert Bell — widely considered the “father” of the draft — selected him with the No. 1 overall pick. Then he repeated it to legendary Chicago Bears owner George Halas, who had acquired Berwanger’s rights in a trade. He never played in the NFL and a few years later, he told a handful of sportswriters he’d made a big mistake.
No one tells the NFL “no” any more.
Yet history barely recorded the reaction in the room at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in 1936 because the draft, known as the “players selection meeting” at the time, was a no-frills event that merited no media coverage. That won’t be the case Thursday when the league sets up shop in the Auditorium Theatre at Roosevelt University — 51 years after the last draft outside New York was held, also in Chicago.
In keeping with a recent trend, several likely top picks won’t be part of the live proceedings, leaving commissioner Roger Goodell on stage with hat in hand. Among them are quarterbacks Jameis Winston of Florida State and Marcus Mariota of Oregon, who already announced plans to hear their names called surrounded by family and friends, thousands of miles from the Windy City lakefront. But they might regret missing the after-party.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel relentlessly lobbied the NFL to relocate the event, then invested some of his own political capital to make sure things run smoothly.
He plans to be on hand when the first selection is made, but how long he’ll stick around is anyone’s guess. When asked whom the hometown team should take with the No. 10 pick, Emanuel added a little oomph — but no more information — to the answer he gave to the same question in November. Back then, the Bears were on the skids en route to a 5-11 finish.
“That decision,” he said, “is way above my pay grade.”
The mayor will have a say, though, in almost everything else surrounding the three-day event. There will be a “gold carpet” for draft prospects and their moms to walk outside the theater and no shortage of wraparound events spread across the city and downtown, including ambitious plans to turn historic Grant Park into a 900,000-square-foot football fantasyland.
A flag football festival, Super Bowl museum, outdoor beer gardens and restaurant stands manned by culinary celebrities from Chicago’s renowned food scene will trample some of the same turf where demonstrators ran riot during the 1968 Democratic Convention and the Lollapalooza music bash kicks off for the 10th time later this summer. Even the park’s iconic Buckingham Fountain will get in on the act, lighting up with the colors of the team that is on the clock during the first two nights.
ESPN will arrive with a small army to televise the event. Nearly 10 million viewers tuned in to watch its first-round coverage last year, with the hype surrounding Johnny Manziel. It helped produce the highest-rated draft since the network began tracking numbers in 1993. Lead producer Seth Markman made a handful of visits in preparation for this one, in addition to coordinating a dozen or more “Monday Night Football” telecasts from Soldier Field in previous years.
While the cozy, 3,900-seat Auditorium Theatre will present a number of logistical challenges, that’s not what’s been keeping Markman up at night. Many of the network’s draft-related shows, including its flagship “SportsCenter,” will be staged live outdoors — a roll of the dice, to be sure, considering the unpredictable spring weather in these parts.
“It can’t be as bad as the snow we ran into the night Coach (Mike) Ditka got his number retired. I’m sure of that,” Markman said. “I’m not sure we ever got a colder game than that. I remember thinking, ‘He’s 75 years old and he standing out there in that weather for halftime with nothing but a little hat on.’
“Poor guy,” Markman recalled with a chuckle. “I thought his face would freeze off.”
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