The NFL Draft: From Private Party to Fraternity Party

Vincent JacksonCorrespondent IJanuary 4, 2009

Every final weekend in April, 256 college athletes await to hear their name called for the opportunity to play football on Sunday. The draft began in 1936, but it really started to gain steam in 1965 when it was first held in New York City—The New York Giants took Tucker Fredrickson with the first overall pick in '65, a running back out of Auburn.

Since Pete Rozelle's reign as commissioner, the NFL Draft has grown into one of professional sports most anticipated events. The draft has been held at the Jacob Javits Convention Center and the Theater at Madison Square Garden before its current location at Radio City Music Hall.

The draft has evolved from a little private gathering of local media, coaches, and general managers into a full-fledged party filled with fans, expansive TV coverage, and multiple publications.


Role of Television and Media

Back in 1965, only closed-circuit television was available to get the opportunity to see who would get drafted. Since the Internet, weblogs, and pay-per-view did not exist, people had to wait for the morning papers to follow their favorite players and where their fate led them to. 

Beginning in 1980, ESPN (then known as the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network) began its draft coverage with Chris Berman and then added known draft "expert" Mel Kiper Jr. in 1984.

ESPN now dedicates an entire team of analysts in every corner of the draft hall to provide pinpoint coverage on the stage, backstage, outside the hall, in its headquarters in Bristol, CT, and in multiple cities to gauge reactions of fans, coaches, and front-office personnel.

With the debut of the NFL Network in 2003, fans now have double the opportunity to get wall-to-wall coverage of the draft.

Some actually believe this network does a better job in its coverage than does ESPN (especially with Mike Mayock, whom some believe to be one of the better judges in college talent), though the "Worldwide Leader in Sports" has been doing it longer.

ESPN and other affiliates now put out publications in early March with mock draft boards and breakdowns of the pros and cons of every player looking to be drafted, along with position needs for each NFL team. 

The Internet and high-definition radio also play a huge part. Since the explosion of media coverage in the 1990s, fans have created Web sites and personal draft boards to gauge where players could and should go. We call these fans "draftniks" and they are found almost everywhere.

Just like the NFL itself, the draft has also evolved into a 24/7/365 non-stop hype machine. There is no "down time" when it comes to the draft and today's media makes sure of that fact.

From the opening kickoff of the college football season to the final kneel down of the Super Bowl, sportswriters, bloggers and anchors pick and dissect the aspects of some of the nation's most coveted college athletes and do their best to dictate their fate for the ultimate destiny: football on Sunday.


Role of the Fan

It is safe to say that today's NFL fan is more rabid that those of the early days of the draft. As the popularity of the draft has grown, so has the fan base, and since it is located in New York City, you can be sure that the hall is adequately filled with Jets and Giants fans.

Who let their emotions, taunts and chants let their teams' respective front offices know how they feel about a draft choice, even those of the other teams.

Sports talk radio also adds fuel to an already raging inferno.

Take for example the 1995 Draft. Miami defensive tackle Warren Sapp was a lock to go to the Jets; after all, Jets fans had filled the airwaves begging and pleading for Gang Green to take their man with the ninth overall pick and chanted "We Want Sapp" on draft day. 

Instead the Jets took Kyle Brady, a tight end from UCLA; Sapp ended up with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the 12th pick and would go on to win Super Bowl XXXVII. 

Jets fans were not pleased and their season went down the tubes, going 3-13 and 1-15 in 1996 even after grabbing USC's Keyshawn Johnson (a decision they loved) with the first overall pick. 

Another example is the fans of the Philadelphia Eagles. One of the NFL's most passionate and ruthless fan bases had its moment in 1999.

Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams from the University of Texas was destined to go to Philadelphia with the second overall pick. The Philadelphia Daily News even had it written on the front AND back pages. 

But to the shock of the Eagles faithful, Williams went to New Orleans (in then-head coach Mike Ditka's famous player-for-whole draft gamble) and Philadelphia took Syracuse quarterback Donovan McNabb. Eagles fans were incensed with the decision and took it out on McNabb, whom they rowdily booed. 

Eagles fans have grown to love McNabb since that day, giving them the 2004 NFC crown and multiple division titles. After establishing himself as one of the premier backs in the NFL with the Saints and Dolphins, Williams retired from football but has since comeback to spark the Dolphins' 2008 playoff run. 


Road to the Draft

Even before the draft, the road leading up to it is most anticipated time of the season for many teams. Every February, the city of Indianapolis hosts the NFL Scouting Combine. 

Starting in 1977, personnel directors, general managers and some head coaches come to Indiana to evaluate upcoming prospects in a standardized setting.

Athletes attend by invitation only and implications of one's performance during the NFL Scouting Combine can affect perception, draft status, salary, and, ultimately, his career. The obsession over performances in tasks such as the 40-yard dash, vertical/broad jump and Wunderlich test sometimes skews such perceptions. 

Outside of this workout, each university has a Pro Day, where NFL scouts are allowed to come and watch players participate in the events that take place at the Scouting Combine at their own school.

This is done as it is believed that players feel more comfortable at their own campus than they do at the Combine and therefore should perform better. Multiple programs such as USC, Texas, and LSU, which produce a large quantity of NFL prospects, generate huge interest from scouts and coaches during this time.

From this point, players hire and meet with agents to discuss contract negotiations as to where they could be drafted in April. All of these aspects lead to the most anticipated weekend in professional football, and maybe all of sports itself.

The NFL Daft has come a long way since its humble beginnings in 1936. From high school kids on Friday nights to multimillion-dollar NFL quarterbacks, everyone gets pumped for the draft.

Come April 25 in New York, another wave of young talent will find itself in the grind of the NFL. And a horde of rowdy fans will give them a taste of what the next few years will bring.