NEW YORK – Ninety minutes before the start of the three-day NFL draft, and I’m totally into my pre-event mode in Radio City Music Hall last Thursday night.
My day job for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis (commercialappeal.com
. . .yes, a shameless but necessary plug) has me at an event I’ve never covered before.
I’ve covered about 25 men’s Final Fours, four women’s Final Fours, three Summer Olympics, the NBA Finals, two NBA all-star games, the NBA draft, the NBA playoffs, three Super Bowls, probably 50 bowl games, eight BCS national championships, every SEC football championship game, all but two SEC men’s basketball tournaments and a Heisman Trophy presentation.
So here I am at my first NFL draft, deep in thought, when I hear a voice to my right.
I look up and it’s LSU coach Les Miles.
He sits down next to me, looks around the glitzy draft set with the wall-to-wall video screens and Academy Award atmosphere.
“Isn’t this amazing?” he says, his eyes drinking in every sight and sound around him.
“It’s like a Hollywood premiere,” I say.
Up on one of the video screens, likely first-round draft choices are arriving in limos and walking the red carpet. Fans dressed in their team’s favorite pro jerseys stand behind barricades begging for autographs. An announcer interviews players.
“The NFL has really made this into an event,” Les says. “I felt I needed to be here for my guys.”
Les’ guys are cornerback Morris Claiborne and defensive tackle Michael Brockers, who eventually are chosen No. 6 overall by Dallas and No. 14 by St. Louis respectively.
“Totally shocked (being picked by the Cowboys),” Claiborne says after being drafted. “I never talked to them before tonight.”
The Cowboys trade their No. 14 first round pick and their No.45 second round pick to the Rams to move to No. 6 to get Claiborne.
That was the second eyebrow raising trade for a team to gain better draft position.
The first deal is from Cleveland, picking fourth, swapping with the Vikings, which has the third pick. And with the No. 3 overall spot, the Browns take Alabama running back Trent Richardson.
Just before Trent walks in the draft interview room – before the night was over I felt like I was at SEC media days since nine SEC first-round selections marched through for post-draft interviews – Alabama coach Nick Saban pops in the back of the room.
Nick is hit with all the usual questions about Trent’s enormous ability and how he’ll project with the Browns. But since I’m at the draft for the first time and considering the emotion of the night with so many players realizing their dreams, I ask Nick how he feels when he sees someone he signed and developed get drafted so high.
“The first thing I always remember is going in the guy’s house on a recruiting visit when he was in high school,” Nick says. “Or whenever I see a guy for the first time when I go into his high school as a junior.
“That doesn’t seem that long ago. But one of the great things about college football is the guy they were when you first met them and the man they are now, to watch them grow and mature personally, academically and athletically, it really makes you feel proud. That’s one of the things you love about college coaching.”
So what does Nick remember in his first encounters with Trent, who starred for Escambia High in Pensacola, Fla., the alma mater of former Florida running back Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher.
“The first time I saw Trent was when I visited his high school during January of his junior year, but I wasn’t allowed to talk to him other than saying hello.
“Then he visited our campus on Junior Day. I got to spend a lot of time with Trent. I remember him and his mother and his uncle Willie. I said, `This guy has got the right stuff.’ He was productive in football, a great track guy and I thought he was the best running back around. He certainly proved that, even tonight.”
Trent being picked at No. 3 overall by the Browns is a stunner, because the NFL game is tilted toward passing, and the brutal hitting has shortened the career expectancy of NFL running backs to a mere 2.57 years.
Despite the fact that Trent was the Doak Walker Award winner as the nation’s top running back and despite running for 3,130 yards yards and 35 TDs in three seasons as part of two BCS national championship team, he’s speechless about being picked so high.
“This moment right here,” Trent says taking a deep breath, “I really can’t explain it. Nobody can ever take this away from me. Hard work pays off.
Trent is ecstatic he was the first running back drafted, and the first SEC running back taken in the top five since Auburn's Ronnie Brown in 2005.
“That’s really big,” Trent says.
But when I ask him about how he felt being the first SEC player drafted – as it turned out the first of 42 SEC players selected in the seven-round draft with every league school having at least one player drafted – Trent is taken aback.
He gets picked just ahead of LSU’s Claiborne at No. 6 and Alabama teammate Mark Barron, a safety taken by Tampa Bay at No. 7. Throw in South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore taken No. 10 by Buffalo and Mississippi State defensive tackle Fletcher Cox at No. 12 by Seattle, and SEC players account for half of the first 12 players taken in the draft.
“I didn’t even think about that (being the first SEC player selected),” Trent says. “That’s crazy. Just being from the SEC and being the first one taken, that’s big, because those are beasts out there in the SEC.
“Playing in that league and with the coaching I got, I’m pretty sure that it (playing in the NFL) is not going to be difficult.
“I’m an old-school player. I want to run the ball and I want the ball in my hands. If you’re a running back and you don’t want the ball in your hands, you don’t need to be in this league.”
Playing for someone like Saban, who had experience as a NFL assistant and coordinator, certainly has given Trent insight as he prepared for the next step of his career.
“He (Saban) told me,” Trent says, “that I should `never forget what you did to get to where you are, that to just be you, stay humble and carry yourself the way you’ve always done.’ ”
Barron concurs he felt completely prepared for the NFL because of Saban, who has won three national titles (one at LSU in 2003, two in the last three years at Alabama).
“Everything we do (at Alabama) is pretty much the same way it’s done in the NFL as far as the way we practice and the way we work out,” Barron says. “I feel like I’m very prepared for the next level.”
That’s a common theme on this rainy night in New York City among all of the SEC’s first-rounder draft picks. Playing in a league that has won six straight national champions and has led college football in attendance for 14 consecutive seasons gives SEC players supreme confidence they can handle anything.
Take Mississippi State’s Cox, who’s told by a writer after being drafted by the Eagles that “Philadelphia fans take their sports really seriously.”
Which is true. Philadelphia fans live and die with their teams, and can be notoriously brutal when things aren’t going well.
“Down in Starkville, the fans and everybody take their sports seriously, so it’s something I’ll be ready for,” Cox says matter-of-factly. “It won’t be something new to me.”
Heck, they don’t even have cowbells in Philly.