In a world starved for sports, the NFL draft is a feast

Not to get picky, but the NFL draft isn’t really a game. This NFL draft, however, is essentially the only game not just in town but in the hemisphere. The draft won’t pull a Super-sized rating number — we’re not supposed to throw parties with chips and dip while sheltering in place – but it almost certainly will yield the fattest rating for any draft ever.

Sports have been shuttered for six weeks. We’re the definition of a captive audience. We’re at the stage where we’ll watch anything, even if it’s a 10-part documentary that we know will end with a guy — granted, THAT guy — in a red jersey shoving Bryon Russell and hitting the title-winning shot. The WNBA draft, held last week, drew its biggest rating in 16 years. If you Zoom your fantasy baseball draft and post it on YouTube, you’d get 50,000 views.

We pause for a disclaimer: There’s no assurance there’ll be an NFL season; even if there is, you mightn’t be allowed to attend a game in person. The reason sports stopped was because our world is in the grip of a pandemic, the end of which is not yet in sight. As much as Tampa Bay fans are exulting over the prospects of the uprooted Brady throwing to the unretired Gronk, the possibility remains that neither will perform on an NFL field before 2021, by which time one might have said to the other, “You sure we still want to do this?”

Given that the draft is about projections/dreams anyway, our grim reality won’t keep us from watching. If anything, it will make us watch all the more. (I guarantee this year’s Mr. Irrelevant — the last player picked on Saturday – will be a breakout media presence by Monday.) Even the coronavirus-imposed virtual format reflects the tenor of our times. Who among us hasn’t done the Zoom thing, or some version thereof, over our month-plus in isolation?

Those old enough to recall an NBA draft that saw Michael Jeffrey Jordan picked third – behind Hakeem Abdul Olajuwon and, er, Samuel Paul Bowie — will also remember the nascent days of the NFL draft on ESPN. They were, shall we say, less glitzy. They’d begin at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday. ESPN took the plunge in 1980. In 1981, this working journalist drove the 64 miles from Lexington, Ky., to my parents’ house in Maysville because they had cable, and therefore the draft.

I told my Herald-Leader colleagues where I’d be and what I’d be doing. They asked, “Are you serious?” What could I say? Back then, I was something of a draft addict. One of my first projects at the paper was a three-part series on the 1978 draft. Part 2 was an interview with the famous Gil Brandt, then employed by the Cowboys. A week after our talk, a package from Dallas arrived in the office. Gregarious Gil had sent this cub reporter an official Cowboys pen. Pretty sure it’s still a drawer, albeit sans ink.

I bought, without reimbursement, Joel Buchsbaum’s “Scout’s Notebook,” published under the aegis of Pro Football Weekly, although he wasn’t a scout. He was the first draftnik. I called Brooklyn and interviewed the man himself. As the Mel Kiper before anybody heard of Mel Kiper, Buchsbaum was given airtime on early ESPN draftcasts. He died at age 48 in 2002.

By then, Kiper — originally billed as "Mel Kiper Jr." — was ESPN's draftnik-in-chief.  In 1994, then-Colts GM Bill Tobin, irked because his selection of Trev Alberts drew criticism, made him a legend. Said Tobin: "Who the hell is Mel Kiper? … Mel Kiper has no more credentials to do what he's doing than my neighbor, and my neighbor's a postman, and he doesn't even have season tickets." (I was in the Falcons' press room in Suwanee as that aired. The place was howling.)

Twenty-six years later, Mel remains in place. In pre-virus days, the draft had grown into Godzilla, becoming a Super-Bowl-without-the-game for the host city. (Yes, three’s now a “host city.”) A writer for the Tennessean described the draft’s presence in Nashville last year as the biggest sporting event in state history, which led me to wonder: The draft is clearly something, but is it an actual event?

In our time of COVID-19, the draft — even without the street parties — is an upper-case Event. I’ve since modified my draft-watching, largely because there’s only so much banter I can bear. (The tipping point came when Chris Berman asked a player chosen by a Southern franchise, “Were you looking to go warmth?”) But now I’m like everyone else: I’m starving for sports, or at least what can pass for it.

Besides, Draft 2020 should be intriguing. Roger Goodell will be hosting from his basement, which also includes his laundry room. ("I may have to change a couple of loads," he told the Wall Street Journal.) There are no war rooms. There's no green room. The Falcons have an emergency generator at the ready in the event of storms. Lions GM Bob Quinn will have an IT person stationed in a Winnebago in his driveway. BetOnline is giving 8-to-1 odds the virtual draft will be hacked.

I’ll watch. Pretty sure you will, too. Who the hell is Mel Kiper? Well, for three days, he’ll be king of our much-less-wide world of sports.