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You’ve got to hand it to the National Football League. Real life handed the league a lemon — in this case, the COVID-19 pandemic — but they showed why they’re the world’s most popular and successful sports operation by turning it into glorious, refreshing lemonade.
Commissioner Roger Goodell opened Thursday night’s start of the annual three-day draft not from a glitzy Las Vegas strip hotel, as originally planned, but from his basement in Westchester County, NY. He promised viewers were about to witness "the most memorable" event of its kind. He wasn’t lying.
Whether or not you’re a fan of four-down football, this was a glimpse at what the new normal in the sports world may look like for the foreseeable future. And the NFL scored big with a compelling and intimate virtual presentation that actually benefited from the lack of pageantry and spectacle.
"After weeks of dealing with this difficult virus and the unprecedented crisis it’s brought on, I think we all need something to look forward to, something to come together," Goodell said off the top.
More than 15.6 million viewers, an all-time record that obliterates last year’s 11.4-million average and the previous high of 12.4 million from 2014, apparently agreed. It’s as if cooped-up sports fans were just starving for something new to sink their teeth into.
From a technical aspect, it came off with very few glitches, save for the occasional missed cue. A dry run earlier in the week apparently had connection and bandwidth issues, but those seemingly got worked out in time. Just in case, information technology crews were standing by, including one computer expert hilariously shown parked in his RV outside Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn’s home, ready to spring into action if needed.
There were remote-video setups in the homes of 60 top prospects, capturing their moments of celebration with family members. There were cameras in the kitchens and living rooms and dens of all 32 owners, GMs and coaches, which included shots of them working the phones and plenty of cute cameos from their children and pets. There were even "fan cams" of about 15 diehards from each team, shown Brady Bunch style cheering each pick as they came in. Many were decked out in face paint.
From a content aspect, you couldn’t have scripted it any better.
There was raw emotion in the form of offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs rolling out a red carpet on the front lawn of his home in Mount Vernon, Iowa, so his mother, Sarah, could walk it in style. Wirfs greeted her at the end with flowers, honouring the woman who helped get him to this stage after a tough life that included growing up poor in a trailer park. Hours later, Wirfs was the newest member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who selected him 13th overall as personal protection for newly acquired quarterback Tom Brady.
It’s striking how many of these phenomenal athletes have persevered through tragedy and troubled upbringings to get to this stage, a theme that was prevalent throughout the night in well-produced vignettes. It made it easy to root for them as we watched their names get called out and the next chapter of their lives begin.
Examples include Cesar Ruiz (New Orleans Saints), who lost his father in 2007 when he stopped to help a stranger change a tire at the side of the road, only to be struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver. Jordan Love (Green Bay Packers) lost his dad in 2013 after the California police officer killed himself following a reaction to a change in blood pressure medication. Jerry Jeudy (Denver Broncos) lost his younger sister to a longstanding medical issue in 2016.
There was also plenty of reason to laugh, starting with Goodell encouraging those on the fan cams to robustly boo him to get things underway.
"C’mon guys, you can do better than that," Goodell cracked. (I hope NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was taking notes.)
How about wide receiver Henry Ruggs III, who greeted news of his 12th-overall selection by the Las Vegas Raiders while lounging at home with his family in what appeared to be a very comfortable white bathrobe that included an Old Spice logo. Function over fashion, I guess.
Other highlights included Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones looking like some kind of James Bond supervillain as he oversaw his team’s operation aboard his US$250-million yacht, Broncos GM John Elway reminding everyone he was one of the all-time greats by showing off his trophy case, a master flex if I’ve ever seen one, and Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel caught spitting out a wad of dip on live television.
It wouldn’t be the NFL without some sizzle and they had that in the form of a Jennifer Hudson musical number from her basement studio, followed by Harry Connick Jr. singing the national anthem.
Some may suggest it was tone deaf of the NFL to proceed with the draft as we are in the midst of these unsettling times. The real-life battle unfolding around us was not ignored, with plenty of tributes to front-line workers, a beautifully produced intro video narrated by Peyton Manning, and a moment of silence for all who have lost their lives.
Most importantly, they put their money where their mouth is and launched a Draft-A-Thon, a fundraising component that has raised more than US$85 million in COVID-19 relief so far.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the U.S., made a cameo appearance to essentially give his blessing, calling the draft "a very important component of the sports world" that demonstrates life can go on, albeit it in a different way right now.
"I want to commend those involved in these decisions to show we can have something as important as that in a way that safeguards the life and safety of the American public," said Fauci.
Sports can be a lot of things, including a much-needed distraction, and there’s no question the NFL and other pro leagues will play a role in the coming months as society slowly begins to reopen.
Memo to the NHL, NBA and MLB — you’re all on the clock. And the bar has been set very high.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
Updated on Friday, April 24, 2020 at 10:45 PM CDT: Fixes typo.
12:29 AM: Fixes typo
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