The NFL Draft is a small sample of insanity wrapped around some information. It’s also one of the most thrilling and challenging events to cover in all of sports because no one has a clue what’s about to happen. And when I first started covering the draft, I had no idea what I was signing up for.
The Pioneer Days of Livestreaming
The first draft I covered turned out to be the hardest thing I have ever done. I hosted a simulcast on ESPN.com from the ESPNZone restaurant in New York City back in 2000. So, yes, this is a trip in the “Way Back Machine.”
I was with four or five former players sitting around a table in the restaurant — no Mel Kiper, Chris Berman, or anyone else to help flesh out the simulcast. The people in the restaurant had no idea what we were doing and no idea who these players were. They just saw some idiot with a microphone sitting with four dudes who could have bent him like a pretzel.
There were no commercial breaks. And back then, there were 15 minutes between picks. The players I was with were not natural gabbers. I am pretty loquacious, but I had no words left by halfway through the first round. So there wasn’t a lot of talking. If I ran for a bathroom break, I risked leaving dead air, and I had no idea if no one was listening or everyone was listening.
That first simulcast was a grand experiment in the history of livestreaming. I felt like the chimpanzee that went up in the first rocket to make sure it didn’t explode before humans got into it — I wondered, is this going to be the end of my draft coverage?
I still get the shakes just thinking about it.
Radio City Memories
That first simulcast must have gone over well because I quickly moved on to radio and then television. For many years, Chris Berman hosted the first round and I hosted later rounds and some cutaway segments, either from ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut or a secondary set at Radio City Music Hall.
In 2003, the Vikings did not make their first-round selection in time. So they passed on their pick, and the Jaguars jumped in and took quarterback Byron Leftwich. Then the Panthers jumped in and selected tackle Jordan Gross a moment later. Ron Jaworski, Merrill Hoge, and I were back in Bristol wondering — how did they not get their pick in on time? After all, you have one job — fill out the card on time and hand it in.
Somehow, the Vikings found a way to screw that menial task up. And they almost did it two years in a row.
I was also in Bristol when the Chargers drafted Eli Manning in 2004, even though they knew he had no intention of playing for them. As I told Manning when he later appeared on my Half-Forgotten History podcast: I have never seen a guy with a less-convincing fake smile, ever, than when he held up that Chargers jersey. His smile said, “I’m holding this thing, but I’m never putting it on.”
Thankfully, Manning was traded about an hour after he was drafted. The Chargers were happy with Philip Rivers, and Eli couldn’t have been happier to go to New York.
The next year, I hosted a televised mock draft before the draft itself. It was 2005, the year that the Lions drafted USC wide receiver Mike Williams, their third first-round wide receiver in three years. Hoge hated him, but Mel Kiper loved him. They started going back and forth on the show. They were getting angry with each other. Really angry.
Now, I love Mel. I think he’s the best. But I will never forget him saying, “Merrill, you are talking about this guy like he’s an Arena Football League player. I’ll remember that when I am watching Mike Williams’ Hall of Fame speech.” That line stuck in my brain for a long time.
By 2008, I was broadcasting from Radio City Music Hall itself. Near the end of the draft, the Lions selected a linebacker named Caleb Campbell, who was in the United States Army and was hoping to get a deferment to play.
Only the diehard fans were still in the crowd that late in what used to be Day 2. We got Campbell to our set for an interview, and I looked up to the upper deck. There were people of every different jersey: Dolphins, Patriots, Cowboys, Jets, you name it. They were all standing and applauding for this young man. It was a very cool moment. I said to Campbell, “Take a look up there. You’re the one thing who can bring everyone together.”
I also got to do an interview with Tyrann Mathieu after he was drafted in 2013. Here was a young man who had to endure some horrific things in his youth, and then he got kicked off campus, kicked out of school, and fell so far out of favor.
That was a very emotional interview that I will never forget. Mathieu was in tears the whole time. He was so thankful for his NFL opportunity. And he has become an incredible person as well as an incredible player.
High Smoke and Heavy Rains
Radio City will always have a special place in my heart because the draft was there for so many years. But I remember when we were setting up for the first fully outdoor draft on the steps of the art museum in Philadelphia in 2017. Roger Goodell and I watched people milling around as we prepared for his annual pre-draft interview. Eventually, I think there were 100,000 people there.
Roger turned to me and said, “Trey, I do believe we’ve outgrown an indoor venue for the draft.”
That whole 2017 NFL Draft was nuts. There was a guy walking around with a sign that just said “Boo.” He was just a Philly guy ready to boo. Drew Pearson got up and just taunted the crowd when the Cowboys made their selection in the second round, which was great.
And then, when the Eagles made their third-round pick at nearly midnight on Friday night, everyone in the crowd started singing “Fly, Eagles Fly.” We just shut up and let it roll for two minutes. It was incredible. I realized then that taking the draft on the road was going to be one of the greatest things that the NFL has ever done.
Also, all of us would have failed a drug test because of the contact high from the crowd. There was a constant waft of a sweet, aromatic smell. As Ron Burgundy might say, “it stings the nostrils.” Suddenly, we were very hungry. And we actually had Philly cheesesteaks on the set on Day 3!
Best of all, the weather in Philadelphia was perfect. The previous year, in Chicago, they had the idea of hosting the third day of the draft outdoors after holding the first two rounds at the Auditorium Theatre. When that Saturday arrived, it was 38 degrees with sideways rain. There was a Joseph A. Banks next to the hotel where we were staying. I walked in and said, “Give me your heaviest weatherproof, waterproof jacket.”
Our plan was to stick it out, but as the wind picked up, the conditions started to get ridiculous. There was only one spectator outside as we broadcast. He was a Patriots fan yelling at us, “Don’t be sheep! Don’t fall for what they are saying about DeflateGate.” I finally turned to him and said, “We’re not sheep! You’re the knucklehead standing outside in the rain yelling at us!”
Eventually, the producers decided that we had to go back inside. That was not an easy feat. We took a commercial break. Adam Schefter had a setup indoors somewhere. They said, “Schefty, the entire outside crew is moving indoors. We’re not going to make it in time. You are going to have to fill the airtime until they are inside.” So Schefter had to perform his version of an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo while we rushed inside. He did an amazing job.
We got inside just before Tyreek Hill got drafted. Of course, Hill had a lot of baggage coming out of college. I was thankful that we got back in so we could frame his selection properly. I would have hated it if Hill was selected while we were in transit when we could not provide the context because we would have been doing the viewers a disservice.
That 2016 NFL Draft also featured the most unexpected moment in draft history: Laremy Tunsil’s gas mask bong. Imagine how much money you could have made with a prop bet in Vegas wagering that there’d be a video of the best offensive lineman in the draft smoking weed in a gas mask would leak during the draft itself, causing him to slide?
Tunsil later had to give his post-selection interview. Usually, the prospect just talks about how excited he is. But Tunsil just kept getting peppered with questions about the video. Then someone asked about allegations that he got paid at Ole Miss. Tunsil said something like, “Yeah, they paid me all the time!” That was the end of Hugh Freeze’s career as Mississippi’s head coach.
And I will never forget when the Steelers made their second-round pick in 2018. I looked up and there was Ryan Shazier strolling across the stage in Dallas. It was only the previous autumn when he got paralyzed. To see him walking that soon afterward was just breathtaking.
Fast forward to 2020, and I was alone in a studio with one camera operator and a stage manager, both of them in masks.
The pandemic hit 53 days before the draft. We had an entire setup ready in Las Vegas. Players were supposed to be brought across to the stage at Caesars Palace on boats. Within a few weeks, we went from those elaborate plans to doing the whole draft virtually.
Our broadcast went across ABC, ESPN, and the NFL Network, whose studios were shut down. We had six analysts working remotely. Kurt Warner, Michael Irvin, and Daniel Jeremiah joined us from NFL Network. Our ESPN team was Mel Kiper, Louis Riddick, and Booger McFarland. We had over 150 players with remote setups. We had every single head coach, owner, and general manager on remote, plus Goodell from his basement. That’s a lot of stuff going on.
When I interviewed Roger before the draft, my first question was, “How’s your bandwidth?” None of us knew what was going to happen. We were expecting massive crashes.
Yet, it went off without a hitch. We got to see inside Mike Vrabel’s home, with his kids doing all sorts of crazy stuff in the background. We would switch to Bill Belichick’s house in Nantucket and his dog was in the chair. Everyone got to see Goodell looking a little sleepy in his easy chair. Goodell is often perceived as someone who stands around in a suit doing the bidding of the owners, and I think that humanized him in a way that was very beneficial.
But the ultimate flex was Kliff Kingsbury. They set up that shot of his spacious pad from as wide an angle as possible. They did that for a reason. He had the fire pit roaring in April in the desert. It was probably about 108 degrees. It was as if he was saying, “You guys think you are having fun? Check out how I live.”
I received texts from other television personalities and from NFL general managers congratulating me and saying they didn’t know how I pulled off that 2020 NFL Draft coverage. I was really proud of that. But it was a Herculean effort by people like Brian Ryder, Rod Adamski, Seth Markman, Jeff Nelson, and many others behind the scenes. They made my job look easy.
To the Future and Beyond
So, my career covering the draft started with a microphone in a restaurant with a bunch of people no one had ever heard of in an early experiment in livestreaming. That chapter of my career ended with the ultimate livestream using technology that worked to perfection in a way we would not have thought possible even two years ago.
As for the next chapter of my career, 20+ years of draft coverage has taught me to expect the unexpected. But while the location and technology may change, the draft will always be about the start of an NFL journey for hundreds of young men who worked hard for the opportunity, as well as the passion and devotion that millions of fans feel toward the sport and the league.
And I’m thrilled to remain a part of one of the most exciting, unpredictable events on the NFL’s calendar.
More NFL Draft Stories from Trey Wingo
- The Windy City Weather/Tyreek Hill Year
- Fly, Eagles Fly
- An Electrocution Scare in Nashville
- The COVID-19 Draft
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