Crystin Immel is an Assistant Producer and the assignment desk editor for Chicago Tonight. She’s also a big NFL fan. We thought it would be fun to send her to the NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre to see the draft through her eyes.
Lights, Camera, Action!
The stage is set for football’s second biggest night. Next to the Super Bowl, the draft is the biggest event for the NFL. The draft is arguably more important and exciting for the fan base than the Super Bowl because it includes all 32 teams. Last year, over 45 million viewers tuned in to watch the next generation of star athletes being born.
The draft signals the start of the football season. This year the NFL Draft returns to Chicago after 51 years.
But what was it like inside the draft? You’ve seen it on TV. The commissioner comes out and announces player after player and the media circus ensues. And four long hours later, there are 32 new players in the NFL. This is my personal draft experience.
I went to Day 1 of draft day in Chicago as part of that media circus. Ironically, it was a circus even with media credentials for the event. The press wanting to cover the draft had to sign up months in advance and then the NFL assigns placement either inside the theater or in a press room. I was given press room credentials which consisted of two comfortable rooms equipped with television screens, snacks, outlets for electronics and a podium for players’ press conferences. But looking around I knew this was too cushy and not close enough to the action, my story was inside the theater. I had to get inside.
So, I talked to media organizers who told me some print media were granted access into the theater, but that my credentials couldn’t be upgraded. I then made my way among hundreds of fans who migrated from Draft Town in Grant Park because they heard they could get standby tickets. While weaving my way through, I realized if I kept saying that someone further down sent me here, I could get past security points easier. Schmoozing doesn’t hurt either.
I finally got to the front of the theater where ticketed fans were going through security. A security guy saw my gear bag and instantly shouted that I would not be allowed into the theater with it. I had heard stories of fans with tickets having to run back a diaper bag to their car because it wasn’t allowed inside. When I told them I was with media they told me to go back to the other entrance, where I had just come from.
Seeing an NFL representative passing out around 200 general admission tickets, I asked if he could give me one of them just to get past security and inside. “I would, but these are all accounted for.” I went to talk to a woman at will call and she told me to talk to the floor manager, “Will.”
While none of the security seemed to know “Will” they let me hang out while I waited for him and we talked some football smack. Meanwhile, I’m texting my boss trying to find a new angle because this wasn’t working out. I stayed calm and polite with security, always trying to strike up a conversation, but staying firm in my resolve.
“Will” came to meet me, and I told him what I was trying to do when he paused while holding my story’s fate in his hands along with a walkie-talkie. I was expecting him to throw me out. “So basically you just want to enter this door instead of that door?” he asked. I smiled and replied, “Basically.” He made it sound so simple.
He gave me the go ahead. I was in. Finally.
Once I got in, it was much easier to stay in.
My heart was still pounding, so I tried to just blend in. I stayed away from any officials who looked like they were just looking for a reason to throw someone out. I went to check out my view. I was on the ground floor of the theater. I snapped a few pictures and took it all in.
I weaved through fans young and old who had traveled anywhere from a few blocks to thousands of miles to get here. Like die-hard Tampa Bay Buccaneer fans Jeffrey Neil Fox and his friend who flew in from Florida for the day. It was hard to not gravitate to these two die-hards, they were decked out head-to-toe as Buccaneers complete with face paint, waving their team’s flag. Fox was excited to be in Chicago, saying the fans were great but still happy that tomorrow he’ll have his toes in the sand again.
Then I ran into a bachelor party celebrating their friend Jeff, “the groom.” A combination of Eagles, Jets, and Giants fans made the trip from New Jersey. Asking Eagles fan Andy who he wanted at pick 20, he turned around to show me the back of his shirt which said, “Anyone but Mariota.” (That’s Marcus Mariota, the Oregon quarterback picked second by the Tennessee Titans.) This was Andy’s fifth draft trip and he says he’ll be happy with any pick, “I just don’t want to sell the farm for one guy.”
The stage wasn’t the only place for the stars; there were some in the crowd. In the front row was a group of mothers. I assumed they were the mothers of this year’s draft picks who had just finished walking the red carpet with their sons. That’s until I noticed their jerseys, and NFL star Reggie Wayne’s mother was quick to point it out to me. She was not happy with her front row seats, asking me if the photographers directly in front of her would be standing there the entire time. They would be.
Then I spotted Mayor Rahm Emanuel who had made it his mission to bring the NFL Draft to Chicago after it left Radio City Music Hall in New York City due to a scheduling conflict at the venue. I made my way to the mayor, bypassing a San Francisco fan. “I had no idea I was sitting in the same row as the mayor.” I asked Mayor Emanuel who he wanted to see the Bears take with the seventh pick in the first round. He told me it was above his pay grade. “If they [Bears] have an idea for pensions I’ll take it, otherwise I’ll let them make the pick.”
The room settled in, as much as a room full of thousands of football fans can settle. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell started the draft from inside the Selection Square (a different draft site outside in Grant Park), much to the fans’ disappointment. When Goodell finally entered the Auditorium Theatre, he was greeted by boos, as commissioners usually are at these kinds of events. A fan who had attended drafts in New York compared the boos there to Chicago. He said, “There weren’t as many fans to boo here (Chicago), but we made up for it with consistency; we were relentless.”
All 32 teams were represented inside the theater, but some had a bigger presence than others. By my unofficial count, home field advantage went to the Chicago Bears fans who were on their feet chanting the minute it was announced their team’s pick was in. The room erupted after the Bears selected wide receiver Kevin White of West Virginia with the seventh overall pick (Brandon Marshall who?) By the 12th selection, a lot of the Chicago fans had left, and the enthusiasm was noticeably deflated.
Next were Green Bay Packers fans, who dominated the theater when it was time for the 30th overall pick with chants of “Go Pack Go.” Lastly, the New York teams were well represented by fans who have gone to drafts for years. Teams with the least fans? My guess would be the Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders, and Atlanta Falcons.
Some fans came to Draft Town early in the day without knowing they would be in the auditorium that night, like Carolina Panthers fan Patrick who flew in from Dallas and snagged a spot in the second row.
“I entered a drawing and 30 minutes ago they texted me saying I got a ticket, so I came in here. The whole process was really pretty easy,” he said.
After the Panthers picked linebacker Shaq Thompson, Patrick welcomed him to the franchise saying, “Shaq, welcome to the family.”
Buffalo Bills fan Mark Juarez, a self-described “draft die-hard” was attending his 15th draft. Juarez was impressed by the atmosphere and fan experience at Draft Town.
“This would never be possible in New York. I mean you could build it in Central Park but it wouldn’t be the same,” he said. “It wouldn’t be as intimate as it is here.”
It was Chicago Bears fans Joe Pancer and his girlfriend’s son Nick Wandersee’s first NFL Draft experience. When describing his day and front row tickets, 11-year-old Nick said, “It’s better than I could’ve ever imagined.” With the same childlike enthusiasm, Joe talks about the goodie bags they received just for walking in. The bags included gifts from the sponsors of the draft. “It’s like being at the Oscars.”
View a slideshow.