This past weekend, the NFL hosted the 2018 NFL Draft at Jerry’s World in Arlington. Generally, I’m a football purist, shunning events like the NFL combine as overindulgent ratings grabs for a league not content with dominating the fall months.
Instead, I found that the draft might be the most enjoyable football fan event that exists. Why? Because you can’t lose. Fans show up feeling hopeful, energetic, and unnecessarily confident they may win the Super Bowl. It is tough to refute these feelings because there are no pesky scoreboards to tell fans that they are unequivocally wrong. Every single spectator can walk away from the draft feeling as if his team won the day, no matter how delusional that might be.
Outside AT&T Stadium was a World’s Fair of football, where star players had locker setups on display, Lombardi trophies were available for Instagramming, and the world-famous Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders were posing for photos. Activities such as Hail Mary passing, 40-yard-dash competitions, and field goal challenges generated extensive lines of children and children-at-heart. Live commentators cheered on the kids and cringed as the adults showed why they went pro in something else. Why not? The events were all free to those willing to find parking and fight the monstrous crowd of optimistic attendees.
In the thick of this spectacle, rivals congregated to talk, debate, and celebrate all that is professional football, tense words were not observed between rival fans, and the atmosphere was always jovial. No fumbles would be lost or seasons ended, at least not on this day. The attire ran an impressive gamut of walking-the-red-carpet to team-inspired fans of the Village People.
I took the opportunity to talk to non-Cowboys supporters outside the red carpet. Three Buffalo Bills fans, donning blinding amounts of Bills paraphernalia, were obviously enjoying themselves and had all traveled to attend the event. Justin Higgs of San Jose is an 11-year season ticket holder for the Bills and was a draft-rookie tagging along with fellow draft veteran and San Josean Mark Juarez, who had an odd local connection to TCU.
“I got called on stage in 2016 to make the sixth-round pick for the Bills, that was [former TCU wide receiver] Kolby Listenbee,” said Juarez, who eagerly pulled out his “Draft Diehard” membership card. This was his 18th consecutive draft to attend. “It’s just a fun, free event, just fun with other fans,” he said. “It’s really the first day of the season.”
Inside the stadium, fans who bought tickets sat facing a grand stage with the “war rooms” filled with team executives on stage-right. Special fan seats designated for lucky supporters of all 32 teams were placed on the field directly in front of the stage. Athletes from the Arlington high schools filled mosh pits circling the podium area. The atmosphere was similar to an awards show, complete with hosts, special guests, and, of course, the draft picks themselves, who were paraded around to various levels of support from hopeful fans.
The most overwhelming applause of the day went to the introduction of Shaquem Griffin. The linebacker from the University of Central Florida was the human interest story of the draft, a dynamic player who lost his hand at a young age yet dominated at his position on an undefeated college team. Seattle took advantage of Griffin’s doubters, drafting him in the fifth round to join his twin brother Shaquill Griffin, who entered the league last season.
The greatest draft tradition stayed in full effect: raucous booing of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell during his first-round picks. Even Cowboys legends Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman couldn’t shield Goodell from the verbal tomatoes that were hurled at him during the opening round. The only exception was Goodell’s appearance with 17-year-old St. Jude’s patient and aspiring journalist Austin Denton, who joined the commissioner onstage in his wheelchair. In this case, the boos started but dissipated quickly.
The Cowboys drafted safe choices, committed to filling needs on their roster instead of simply trying to take the best player available regardless of position. Their tremendous shortage of bodies at linebacker prompted the selection of Leighton Vander Esch from Boise State in the first round. The former blue-turf Bronco should fit the Cowboys’ two-backer system, having the length and mobility to defend passes, as well as the speed and weight to be effective against the run.
Dallas’ offensive line, which had been among the best in the NFL, suffered from injury last season. In the second round, Jason Garrett’s team selected Connor Williams, an all-purpose blocker from the University of Texas who will hopefully plug any holes during the season. Michael Gallup, the Colorado State wide receiver who was the team’s third-round pick, is not a replacement for the departed Dez Bryant. However, Gallup’s strength is finding separation from the defense, which might be just what young quarterback Dak Prescott needs, and he is a much cheaper option while salary cap room is needed for other positions.
The takeaway from the draft really had nothing to do with wins or losses or even rosters. It was an ol’ fashioned good time centered around football. It’s a fan event that is mostly free. As game tickets are continually more expensive, this may be the purest and most accessible way for the average family to really enjoy football away from their couch.