The NFL’s Traveling Roadshow: The Draft Invaded Chicago, And Provided A Plan For The Future

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CHICAGO – While DeVante Parker was preparing for what to this point was the biggest day of his life, the now-former Louisville wide receiver’s family was taking in the sights of Chicago. Parker’s mother Raneca, his grandmother Yvonne and his grandfather Willie were strolling down State Street on Thursday afternoon when they popped into a Foot Locker. After brunch at their hotel they had a few hours to kill before they were set to get dressed and ready for the NFL Draft itself, where the league had a hairdresser on hand to do hair and makeup.

On the wall right inside the door was an Adidas display with DeVante blown up to gigantic poster size. The Parkers, who were enjoying their first trip to Chicago, stopped and took pictures together, flashing the Louisville “L” in almost every shot.

“This is truly a blessing to have him up there like that and I hope they have the same in Louisville,” Raneca said. “It’s a dream come true.”

Parker would be one of the 32 players selected on Thursday, going 14th overall to the Miami Dolphins. His stroll to the podium was just a few steps in his long journey to the pros, and having his family there in the Windy City highlighted a part of the NFL Draft that gets a little lost amongst the talk of the off-field issues, the mock drafts, the draft grades and the projected depth charts.

The Outsiders

“The NFL is trying to make this a big traveling road show.”

Nobody ever accuses the NFL of refusing to go all out when it comes to events like this. For as many jokes as you can make about the brand logos splattered all over the place and the hokey costume-party Comic-Con feel that brings out the most passionate and strange fans, if you set your cynicism aside (which is often hard to do especially when it comes to a league as monolithic and Blue Velvet-bugs-inside-a-severed-ear seedy as the NFL), it was hard to look around Grant Park and not notice how impressive this all was.

In your daily life, you don’t see a Packers fan in a sport coat, green and yellow tie, kilt and a military cheese hat being chased down by a man with a clipboard asking for his number. It should be downright weird, but when framed in the context of the NFL, it’s startlingly normal.

“The NFL is trying to make this a big traveling road show,” Yahoo! Sports editor Kevin Kaduk said during a live taping of a podcast at Blogs With Balls 6, a sports media conference held in Wicker Park on Wednesday.

It’s easy to see this thing taking off in other host cities that have an NFL team. The Draft in New York was a tradition, but holding it in New York doesn’t necessarily bring out the sort of fans that would make it out to the Draft if it was held in Seattle or Jacksonville or Nashville.

“I’ve always wanted to go to New York and I still plan on doing it,” Karl Sides, who is more affectionately known as Ram Man, said on Thursday. Sides made the drive up with his tailgate from St. Louis, and he barely went a minute without being asked to be in a picture in his full Ram horn garb. “But this is 4.5 hours away, so I had to go. This far exceeds my expectations so far. Coming out of the parking garage here and coming onto Michigan Ave., it was a sight to behold.”

Other cities might not be as equipped to handle an event like the NFL Draft and have it barely register in the surrounding neighborhoods, but other cities aren’t Chicago. Between May and September it’s as if there’s some sort of festival or conference every weekend. People flood Grant Park for Lollapalooza for three days every summer and aside from the grass in the park getting completely destroyed and some trampled flowers, the city stretches to absorb every drunken sunburnt Ray-Ban and tank top wearing person and comes away without a scratch.

So when I heard some arguments framing the idea of hosting the draft as an honor to the city of Chicago, it seemed a little misplaced. It really should be the other way around. The NFL Draft should have felt honored to be welcomed into Chicago, to be given the use of police and the park and the facilities and the street closures and everything else that goes into preparing for this sort of happening.

The Natives

“Nobody cares. Nobody cares about the draft.”

Some confused runners looked downright perplexed when they were told they had to go around a part of Michigan Ave. near the Auditorium Theater that was closed off to pedestrians. Business owners barely batted an eye at the people coming into town. A similar refrain was repeated from everyone I talked to in the Loop — it’s business as usual.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra put up a small sign with a clip art picture of a football reading “Welcome Football Fans” that almost felt thinly sardonic. A spokesperson from the Art Institute of Chicago, which was pretty much right in Draft HQ, said that they weren’t doing anything different from any other weekend, although they did expect a bit more foot traffic. It’s impossible to say if there really was an uptick in attendance to the museum, although I did see a couple of tweens in Browns jerseys strolling through the Pritzker Galleries on Thursday.

“There’s a little bit less clutter in the city in general,” Jets fan Mike Marston said on Thursday. Marston has been to every draft but two since 1996, and was quick to compare the Chicago experience to that of New York. “From what I’ve seen from the outside they look like they’ve done all that with the Grant Park setup. We were all excited about a different city and the opportunity to see Chicago.”

Come Friday even the novelty of the draft seemed to have worn off to most of the natives. There were too many other sports happening. The Bulls closed out the Bucks in the first round of the NBA Playoffs in impressive fashion, 120-66, on Thursday night in Milwaukee. The Cubs were playing a home game at Wrigley they’d win 1-0 on Friday afternoon, where the closest thing to football I saw on the North Side was a guy in a Vikings hat.

The Blackhawks opened their second round with a win over Minnesota on Friday, and at the Crossing Tavern in Lincoln Park, the second and third rounds were relegated to one tiny TV in the corner while every other screen was locked into Game 1. Approximately 80 people in Jonathan Toews jerseys couldn’t be bothered to see when Dorial Green-Beckham would be selected or why Randy Gregory slid all the way to the Cowboys at pick 60.

“Hockey is on and the White Sox are sort of playing,” one Blackhawks fan told me on Friday evening. “Nobody cares. Nobody cares about the draft.”

On Saturday, with the Kentucky Derby happening and the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight commanding pretty much every inch of sports real estate, only the most fervent fans and curious families were making their way down to Draft Town.

If the rest of Chicago was operating relatively as normal when the National. Football. League. invaded the city, for fans — and more importantly the prospects themselves — the lengths the league went to in taking the spectacle on the road just meant more people could join in on what is supposed to be a special weekend.

I lost count at the number of team jerseys I saw over the three days somewhere between the guy wearing Patrick Willis’ No. 52 or the family of Ravens fans all repping Joe Flacco. People did the combine drills set up near Selection Square in earnest, running the 40-yard dash or doing the vertical jump like they had money on it. Fans from Akron or St. Louis or Wisconsin or Indianapolis drove up just to see what was going on, even if they didn’t have a ticket to get into the Auditorium Theater.

And the families of the first and second day picks that maybe couldn’t have made it to New York in the first place came out in droves.

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Former Michigan State cornerback and Kenosha (Wisc.) native Trae Waynes, who went No. 11 to the Vikings, had all kinds of well wishers in attendance.

“I think Chicago did a great job with this,” Waynes said on Thursday. “I’m really glad it was in Chicago this year because it enabled my family and friends to travel a lot easier than to New York. Chicago’s almost like home. I just love being here.”

In a league where The Shield and the owners and the sponsors have all the power, and individuals — fans and players together — don’t matter nearly enough, the NFL should really focus and hone in on the sentiment shared by players like Waynes and the people who made the pilgrimage to Chicago and left with smiles on their faces. If the NFL’s traveling road show is packing up and moving to another destination in the future, that’s the resonating impact it’ll want to have on the city it brings its behemoth of a draft experience to next.