We Went There: NFL Draft Line Diary
Why would we want to go to the NFL draft? Why does an event that consists of Roger Goodell reading names into a mic and then hugging a few prospects appear on our sports bucket lists?
I get the draftnik thing. I am one. As I headed to Radio City Music Hall on Wednesday morning, I packed the new (maybe final) edition of the royal-blue Mel Kiper guide, with Luke Joeckel and Geno Smith on the cover. I Instapapered a bunch of articles about Jerry Jones’s master plan to trade down and control the seventh round.
But why see it live? Later that day, I asked Mike Burton, a Browns fan who’d come all the way from Regina, Saskatchewan. Burton said, “It’s part of football lore, football cultu—” And then he broke into a run across a midtown Manhattan street at rush hour to get in the ticket line for the draft.
I was running after him when I thought, Who cares about why? So today, let’s focus on how. This is how you get into the NFL draft.
The first line for tickets to the 2013 NFL draft formed in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. “Ten after four,” said Bob Bollenbach, a Jets fan.
“We were the first ones,” his son Bobby confirmed. “There was nothing here. The Radio City lights weren’t on.” The NFL had announced that wristbands, which give the holders free admission to the draft, would be distributed at Radio City Music Hall at 9 p.m. Bob and Bobby had driven in from Monroe, New York, with the notion that they should be there very, very early. They formed a line in the darkness.
At about 9 a.m., a Radio City employee ruled that line no. 1 — as this queue would come to be called — was invalid. It was too early. Bob and Bobby milled around on the south side of 50th Street, in front of some very un-NFL draft businesses like Godiva Chocolatier and Delfino and Nine West. They were told to come back at noon. I found them around then occupying the first two spots of line no. 2.
Line no. 2 had a pleasantly New Yorky feel — which is to say, it was a mix of hard-core draftniks and local fauna. In the no. 4 position was Kenny Agresti, an Eagles fan from Howard Beach, Queens. Agresti was wearing a Reggie White jersey. “The first game my father took me to was Giants-Eagles,” he said. “I wanted to root against the Giants.” Kenny had arrived at noon. “I was going to come earlier,” he said, “but I had a hangover.”
No. 5 was Greg Packer, who raced up to me when he saw I was holding a notebook. Packer had chest hair sprouting out of his sweatshirt. It took me a second to realize he was the Greg Packer, who is famous for getting quoted as a “man on the street” in news articles. I won’t quote Greg, but I will quote myself about Greg. “Gosh,” Curtis said, “his chest hairs were higher than Mike Mamula’s vertical leap.”
Farther back in line — call it the no. 11 spot — was an elderly man with a cane and a Yankees cap. “You don’t know who I am?” he asked. I didn’t. He was Pee Wee Scheidt, another media darling. In addition to being a bit player for David Letterman, Pee Wee’s picture had appeared in a 2008 Daily News article about people who line up early for the NFL draft.
A man in a 49ers jersey approached. “Pee Wee, it’s Billy. Remember me?”
“Do I remember?” exclaimed Pee Wee.
Billy Walsh (“Like the coach, yeah”) was pictured with Pee Wee in that very same Daily News article. Billy had slicked-back hair and the noble intentions of a mustache and he was wearing a Vernon Davis jersey. He already had his tickets to the draft. “I was given my tickets by a guy from …” He paused and tried to remember the name of the benefactor. “I’ll think of him,” he said. He never did. He was getting an extra for son.
By 1 p.m., we were feeling pretty good about line no. 2. I was in the no. 15 slot, and there were about 60 or 70 people behind me. We got comfortable. A couple of Giants fans had brought camping stools and those snack bags that contain Cheetos and Doritos and Fritos and (for a healthy item) Sun Chips. Then a New York cop approached us. It was still too early to line up for the draft, the cop said. We’d have to leave.
We consulted the NFL’s handy guide. Yes, we had the right day. Yes, wristbands would be given out at 9 p.m. But the league had made a critical error: It hadn’t indicated what time the line could start. The matter was left to NYPD and Radio City security guards, who said it couldn’t start till 4 p.m. Any draftnik who’d showed up early had wasted his time.
Line no. 2 ended badly. A Giants fan tried to get the cop’s badge number, and the cop said he’d make sure the guy didn’t get a wristband in the afternoon. Bob and Bobby and Greg and Pee Wee and Billy and I had looked somewhat normal when slumped against the side of a building. But when uprooted and made to wander Midtown in our football jerseys, we looked like the gang from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. “I just feel I’ve been treated with no respect whatsoever,” Bob Bollenbach said.
The no. 6 man in line, Michael Boccher (“I was the real no. 2,” he insisted), was pissed. Not only was he kicked out of line, he was told by guards he couldn’t bring his chair back when he returned at 4. There were security concerns. He’d have to walk the chair back to his car that was parked near the Barrymore Theatre a few blocks away.
The upshot was, we had three hours to wait before we could get in a line in which we’d wait for five hours. I guess we should go talk to those Eagles cheerleaders across the street at the NFL Fan Experience, I suggested.
“There’s Eagles cheerleaders?” Boccher said. “Where?”
Anyway, I talked to the Eagles cheerleaders. Amanda Grace (tall, brunette, straight hair) said: “I’d like to see them get Geno Smith. Did we get him yet?” Well, I told her, the draft is tomorrow.
Alicia Marie (tall, brunette, curly hair) said: “I’d like to see them go with a cornerback. Milliner? Is that his name?” I trust Alicia Marie as much as I trust Todd McShay.
I was talking to the cheerleaders when I looked across Sixth Avenue and noticed a surprise: line no. 3! It was a premature line, a false start. We’d been told fairly clearly we couldn’t come back till 4. But a Radio City employee — in another of the building’s dozens of conflicting messages — had apparently told fans to start lining up again. A Broncos fan named Kai Olson had a piece of notebook paper that recorded the exact order of the line no. 2. The idea was that we’d all get the same spots. Of course, nobody who’d just arrived cared about line no. 2, so fans began to gather in clumps. Line no. 3 looked like a snake that was digesting a rabbit. I went from no. 15 to no. 50.
Just as we were settling in, a group of cops and men in suits approached us. It was still too early to stand in line, they said. I sidled up to a NYPD officer and gave him my we-just-drafted-Bobby-Carpenter face. “I know, I know,” the cop said. But what could he do? Radio City had agreed to host the draft but hadn’t agreed to host the line.
I found a Broncos fan named Matt leaning against a wall. Matt looked a lot like Tom Colicchio. In line no. 3, next to Pee Wee and Greg, he might have been Winston Churchill. Matt looked at the departing draftniks and announced, “It’s a cluster.”
The 2013 draft line was a cluster. I don’t want to be too dramatic. The draft is a free event, after all. But the NFL’s tight control had vanished. “We’re telling fans we’re sorry,” Brian McCarthy, a league spokesman, said over the phone. “It’s not a perfect situation. We’re doing the best we can.”
It was strange the league was surprised. Last year, the NFL was crowing that the draft got higher TV ratings than NBA playoff games. “It really is unparalleled for a business meeting,” McCarthy said. And yet this year, the league was stunned when a few hundred people showed up trying to get into this popular event. Moreover, the Boston Marathon bombing earlier this month made everyone edgy about letting a bunch of people stand around on busy streets.
Did Roger Goodell know about the line situation? “Yeah!” McCarthy said. “He’s the one who’s trying to challenge staff to come up with a better way to do this.” McCarthy said Goodell would visit the line later that night.
All of us veterans of lines no. 1, 2, and 3 — now joined by several hundred stragglers who’d showed up in the meantime — didn’t trust the league or Radio City. We weren’t going anywhere. We started cruising up and down 50th Street, hoping the line might re-form just when we were walking by. Oh, I’m not loitering, officer. Just out for a stroll in my Felix Jones jersey.
Let me set the scene here: The cops and Radio City security guards kept the north side of 50th Street clear while they set up barricades. Meanwhile, hundreds of fans stood expectantly on the south side of the street, choking off access to Godiva chocolates and Delfino handbags and Nine West shoes. Pretty soon, we were spilling off the sidewalk and were occupying an entire lane of the street. Cars and buses were confined to a single lane.
I was talking to Mike Burton, the Browns fans from Saskatchewan. “At airports,” he said, “they have this thing they call queuing theory. You make equations based on how much security you need and how to get everybody to line up. Here” — he waved his cigarette at Radio City — “I put the over-under at 10 on how many people get injured.”
About this time, someone on the north side of 50th — security guard? Top of the Rock tourist? — waved. We took this as an invitation, and ran across the street. “Remember the Trent Richardson rule,” someone said. “Don’t duck your head.” We reached the north side of the street. A policeman said, “What are you doing? No one said come over here.” We sheepishly walked back to the south side.
A few minutes later, there was another stampede. I think we all knew that one was doomed. But this is what the NFL had set up: a Midtown Thunderdome where the only way to lose was not to run like Trent Richardson into rush-hour traffic. I glanced across the street and noticed that all this time, security had somehow allowed Greg Packer and Pee Wee Scheidt to maintain their positions from line no. 2. I thought: Greg, Pee Wee, fuck you.
At around 4:30 p.m., the cops finally acquiesced and allowed everyone to race across 50th Street at full speed. I saw guys leaping over metal barricades. Someone said they saw a Jets fan punch a guy — which, in fairness to the NFL, was probably happening simultaneously at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and the Lego Store. I took the “safe” route, which meant running east on 50th over construction cones, swinging around the edges of the barricade like Bugs Bunny taking a tight corner, and then squeezing into a 6-foot-wide chute where I … stopped. Thus began line no. 4.
Line no. 4 is where the NFL draft line entered its baroque period. A Mel Kiper impersonator showed up. (He had the hair right but needed a nametag for anyone to get the joke.) A Radio City security guard was ridiculed for looking like Tommie Harris. When we saw Pepsi product-placement types across the street, withholding their precious caffeinated beverage, we started a “We love Coke!” chant. Meanwhile, a guy told me he attended his first draft back in ’84, at the New York Sheraton. Irving Fryar was the no. 1 pick. I just lined up and got in, the guy said. It was easy.
At this point, some NFL employees came down the line and gave away what they called “fast passes.” You might know these from Disneyland. The NFL draft fast pass says that if you’re willing to spend $35 at the NFL Experience store — the one across the street adjacent to the Eagles cheerleaders — you could skip three hours of line time and get your wristband immediately.
I’d like to say the fast pass was the final straw. And theoretically speaking, it was. Not only was the line a cluster, now you could flash some cash and cut it entirely. Worse, there weren’t enough passes for everyone who wanted one. But a funny thing happened: I got a fast pass, left the line, and spent $35 expensable dollars on a T-shirt and two Sharpie pens. As I type this, I’m wearing a black NFL draft wristband that won’t be taken from me except by cutting off my hand.
Why do we want to go to the NFL draft? Because we go to every event the NFL puts before us, and the draft is the most divinely nerdy, hard-to-get-to event this side of the combine. How should we go to the NFL draft? At around 4 p.m., with Greg Packer, and with 35 bucks in our pockets.