The NFL Draft has a weird place in my heart. As a die-hard football fan, it’s cool to see what moves teams make. It’s fun to learn some of the big college names and predict who’s gonna be a star. It’s great to see my favorite teams invest in their futures — especially when my Dallas Cowboys take the best receiver in the draft at pick number 17.
But the draft has always been a distinctly replaceable experience. You can always watch some YouTube highlights to cut through all the filler moments and break down the actual football implications with a few articles. However, amid the year of COVID-19, this was anything but the case.
The NFL draft this year was easily one of the strangest and most potent sporting experiences I’ve seen recently. It was a blend of video calls, flashy graphics, pre-recorded footage of college athletes and camera footage of millionaires’ homes. It was aggressively unique, and we’ll likely never see anything like it again.
This year revealed that the traditional NFL draft is usually a little structurally challenged on its own. It’s a massive spectacle built around executives making decisions and calling out names. Thus, the draft’s format has always been one open to innovation and change.
This may explain why I was genuinely and thoroughly blown away by what the NFL draft brought this year, where COVID-19 demanded that the NFL adopt radical organizational changes in the era of social distancing.
With no other real sports on TV, this was the first event in a month and a half that carried any implications for one of the big American sports leagues. The widespread popularity of the draft was evidenced by its record-breaking near 16-million person viewership on the first night. It was exciting just to be watching something.
The event itself had this loose, breezy sense of fun about it. Commissioner Roger Goodell delivered the names of draft picks from his basement, wearing a cozy sweater and standing in front of a television broadcasting live fan reactions for each team. The booing of the commissioner, a long-standing tradition in the draft, was preserved remotely with fan-submitted videos and the aforementioned fan livestreams. In later stages of the draft, Goodell plopped down in his easy chair, and the broadcast took on the look of a cozy yule log video, NFL style.
For the first time ever, fans saw the inside of the houses of NFL coaches and executives. Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury drafted from his massive ivory mansion, showing it off in all its modern architectural glory with a wide camera shot. New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick had his chair commandeered by his adorable husky in round two. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones drafted from his massive yacht, sitting in an all-white room reminiscent of a Bond villain’s lair.
A video conference of various commentators and NFL personalities stood in for the commentary that guides the viewer through a traditional draft. They spoke over each other occasionally and cracked jokes. It was clear that these guys had missed their jobs and were happy to be back together talking football.
The camaraderie was evident, and it was only accentuated when they brought up the heartwarming underdog stories that are always on display in the draft. These stories are the core of the draft. So many of the players selected have incredible, touching stories to tell. The draft is the moment where all the hard work they’ve done in the face of adversity is awarded with a spot on an NFL roster.
The overarching message of hope that the draft delivers so well was more prominent than ever this year. The stories of players’ journeys and the current state of our country and the world brought a combined, potent sense of bittersweet emotion.
While the players themselves were denied their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to walk the stage and hug Roger Goodell, they still got to spend their draft night among family and friends. The reaction cameras captured the raw emotion of the players receiving the call from an NFL team.
The message of hope held a greater meaning this year for teams, players and fans across the country. To begin the draft, future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning delivered a heartfelt monologue, asking fans to persevere and hold out hope for full stadiums in the future, which would indicate we have returned to a normal, joyous world. He and countless NFL personalities thanked front-line workers throughout the draft. It wasn’t escapism, as no event altered this greatly can provide that right now. However, the draft was the perfect remedy for a world devoid of the spectacle and joy of sports.
It was fun, emotional and a little strange at times. It was perfect.