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The original plan for the 2020 NFL draft was to have top pick Joe Burrow ferried across the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas where he’d hug Roger Goodell as fireworks exploded overhead. It would begin a night of celebration that, considering the location, could have gone in multiple directions.
Instead, Burrow got word that Cincinnati had selected him while sitting in his parent's small-town Ohio living room. He later slept in his boyhood bedroom, which was still partially "Star Wars"-themed (the bedspread was gone, but the curtains and a couple posters were still up).
His father made fun of him.
In the early stages of the pandemic, in the heart of the lockdown, there were some who didn’t think the NFL should even hold its draft.
There were plenty of others who didn’t think it could — it was a considerable challenge to pull together an all-remote broadcast that was run out of Goodell’s Bronxville basement but would require connections to general manager home offices, draft prospect living rooms and even one coach’s Scottsdale bachelor pad.
It wasn’t just possible, it was what the country needed, one of the rare highlights of that lost spring. Manufactured glamour was replaced with visions of home and family at a time when nearly everyone was home with family.
Nature is healing, so the draft will be back, mostly, to its old ways when it begins Thursday night outside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in downtown Cleveland. Tens of thousands of fans — and at least 13 top prospects — are expected to attend.
Teams, meanwhile, have returned to sterile war rooms (10 vaccinated personnel max), although the Los Angeles Rams are running things out of a 9,000-square foot rented Malibu beach house because, well, just because.
“I really think it’s just a ploy by [coach Sean] McVay to … take his shirt off again and jump in the pool,” teased Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury, who was a sensation a year ago when he was photographed with his dress shoes — sans socks — up on a coffee table in the modern living room of his own outrageous home, with a pool, fire pit and Camelback Mountain perfectly framed in the background.
Kingsbury was on his way to winning the HGTV mock draft until Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones flexed on everyone by making selections from his 357-foot, 15-cabin, $250 million yacht that comes complete with a steam room, plunge pool and two helipads … because sometimes one helipad isn’t enough.
The 2020 draft is an experience no one wants to actually relive, but will go down as the greatest of all time.
Goodell’s “man cave” was ground zero. The league even beamed in booing fans so he’d feel normal (although while most teams had 12-16 groups zoomed-in, the Los Angeles Chargers, of course, could muster only nine).
The first two nights Goodell wore a sweater, at one point looked like he had just snacked on some ice cream, and came across as down-to-earth as a senator’s son who makes about $50 million per year can. By Day 3, he was donning a T-shirt and claiming he just finished putting screens in the windows at the request of his wife.
Most years, the excitement of the draft is finding out the next pick. Last year it was finding out about the next pick — and the guy picking him — by peering into their homes.
Gone, for the most part, was the over-the-top attire. Corona casual was in — lots of shorts and T-shirts, although Tua Tagovailoa wore a sharp suit anyway. Raiders selection Henry Ruggs III went the other way and rocked an Old Spice bathrobe (for charity).
CeeDee Lamb wouldn’t allow his girlfriend to read his phone. (He said it wasn’t what everyone thought.) The living room wall behind D’Andre Swift featured a mural of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Jerry Jeudy had a Pizza Hut order in front of him.
It was mostly a night for families. When the Julian Okwara received word he’d been selected by the Detroit Lions, where his brother Romeo played, he broke the news simply: “We’re about to be roommates.” Everyone went nuts.
Javon Kinlaw’s dad fell off the couch when his son was picked. That was better than what happened to Isaiah Wilson’s girlfriend, who was physically removed from the camera frame by his mother. Lesson: Don’t mess with a Brooklyn mom.
And you didn’t need Mel Kiper to explain where New York Jets’ selection Mekhi Becton got his 6-foot-7, 364 pounds of size. One glimpse of Becton’s enormous dad, Jerome, did that, promoting calls for teams to draft Jerome as well.
Meanwhile the children of general managers and coaches cheered each pick or worked their own makeshift draft boards. Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer sat in front of a roaring fire with deer and moose on the wall. John Elway displayed three Lombardi Trophies. At one point Bill Belichick’s dog sat alone in front of three open laptops inside the coach’s kitchen on Nantucket.
Miami coach Brian Flores marked each selection with an elaborate handshake routine with his kids. “Families together,” Flores said. “So important.”
At the time, over a month into lockdown, it sure was, even if people were beginning to grow restless. Most famously, it appeared that one of Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel’s sons was using the bathroom in the background of a live shot, although Vrabel said it was just a barstool he was sitting on.
He did acknowledge, however, that another son was making fun of him by dressing in an old Pro Bowl jersey complete with blonde mullet while a family friend dressed like “The Freeze.”
“It’s been a long quarantine over here, man,” Vrabel said. “We’ve got a bunch of 19- and 18-year-old kids, and, you know, they’re stir crazy.”
The whole nation was, and the NFL, the nation’s actual pastime, reflected it all perfectly — from boats of billionaires to the trailer parks of prospects. Everyone was happy. Everyone was together. Everyone was focused on the future and the promise of better days ahead.
Cleveland will put on a nice show Thursday. Las Vegas will finally get its chance at ostentatiousness in 2022.
Nothing, though, will beat the 2020 NFL draft.
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