Draft Invitees Play Waiting Game

The NFL has expanded the number of players it’s inviting to New York for the draft, now looking beyond the top four or five obvious choices and giving more players – probably nine but perhaps as many as 10 -- a chance to experience Manhattan with family and friends before the potentially excruciating process of waiting for their names to be called.

The length of time it takes to go through the top part of the draft can be painful to draftees. A player can still be a first-round or second-round pick -- an excellent accomplishment, with thousands of college players hoping to attain that status -- yet still have his draft day feel like a disappointment because of the endless wait for the call. I always thought players on the west coast had an easier time with the anxiety of draft weekend; they didn’t have to linger so long into the day for their waiting game to end.

On draft day in 2005, I had the privilege of putting an end to Aaron Rodgers’ misery. Aaron had a respectable chance of being the top pick in the draft by the 49ers, but they opted for Alex Smith and left Aaron to the mercy of the rest of the teams. As he watched team after team pass on him – including the Bucs and Jon Gruden, who had told Aaron to his face that Tampa would pick him if he were still available – the green room slowly emptied, leaving Aaron and agent Mike Sullivan sitting alone with the two crews, one from ESPN and one from the cleaning service.

Five hours later, with our pick up at No. 24, Ted Thompson told me to get Sullivan on the phone and tell him to hold tight as we might very well select Aaron. I called the number I had and listened as a voice other than Sullivan’s answered.

“Hello,” the voice said.

“Mike?” I asked.

“No, this is Aaron. Who’s this?”

“It’s Andrew Brandt with the Packers. Aaron, can I talk to Mike?” I felt bad that I couldn’t tell Aaron yet, but we had to wait.

As Aaron passed the phone to Sullivan, who is a good agent and good guy, I knew that this was a tense situation for the player and his agent. They had been staring at each other for almost six hours, watching the teams and the bonus money go by, wondering when this call would come. Mike was trying to act cool as I watched him on television, saying under his breath through clenched teeth: “Andrew, you taking him?”

I responded as Ted had told me, that we very well might, but we needed him to sit tight a few more minutes (as always, we had to wait and see what any trade call might bring for the pick).

After about five more unbearable minutes that seemed like five hours to me -- and probably like five days to Aaron and Mike -- Ted gave me the go ahead to tell Mike we were picking Aaron (only after I received assurances from Mike that we would be negotiating in the realm of the 24th pick, not some higher amount due to his expected higher selection). Aaron and I laughed about it the next day when he came in, starting a nice friendship (in spite of the fact he attended Cal and I’m a Stanford man).

Two years later, Brady Quinn experienced an eerily similar experience, slipping past his expected top-10 selection down 10 more picks, which meant three more uncomfortable hours in the green room. Mercifully, however, Commissioner Roger Goodell – in his first year presiding over the draft – learned from the Rodgers fiasco and moved Quinn and his group into a private room away from the constant glare of the cameras.

Now there will be more players present in New York -- and more possibilities for them to sit there with their families, friends and agents watching their peers move out of the green room and hoping they’re not the last ones standing, or sitting. But hey, it’s OK if they are. Aaron Rodgers just was rewarded with a $66M contract, $20M guaranteed. Alex Smith, who received a $49M contract with $24M guaranteed after being the first selection that day, recently took a large pay cut to stay with the 49ers. Good things sometimes do come to those who wait.

The theme of draft day will be, as Tom Petty sings, the waiting is the hardest part.

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