Even virtually, the NFL Draft provided some much-needed hope and joy

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Everywhere in the United States, a whole lot of people are having to communicate with others without sitting right across from them during the coronavirus pandemic.

Delivery drivers are putting boxes on your doorstep, knocking and quickly retreating instead of handing your groceries or box of greasy pizza to you directly. Folks who have the privilege of working from home are participating in meetings via phone call, Zoom, Skype or through some other form of technology.

And the NFL is no different. The coronavirus is not “the great equalizer” like some have touted, but it has impacted people in all walks of life, no matter your status or career.

When the 2020 NFL Draft got started a few weeks ago, commissioner Roger Goodell wasn’t on a stage. He wasn’t wearing a suit. He was in his home, reading picks off to little applause and just a smattering of half-hearted boos, not even wearing a tie. There were no bro-hugs or unique handshakes. Most players didn’t wear fancy suits. Coaches and general managers made picks from their basements, dining room tables, home offices or kitchen.

And there was contrast. While Cardinals’ head coach Kliff Kingsbury — a rich weirdo — sat on a pristine couch wearing dress clothes alone in a grand room, and Cowboys czar Jerry Jones announced picks from the biggest yacht on the planet, others weren’t so serious. Bruce Arians kicked back on his porch, Andy Reid sipped on a soda while wearing a windbreaker, and Mike McCarthy plucked highlighters out of a paper Gatorade cup.

But here’s the thing: None of us really cared what the draft looked like. We were just happy it existed. It was a pleasant distraction from our quarantines, a much-needed interruption from our stress. There were no balls being thrown and no tackles being made, but this was live sports and a ton of people — a record-shattering average of 15.6 million — tuned in.

If you were a Bengals or Dolphins fan, there was hope. Finally, a quarterback that might lead your squad to — at the very least — a playoff win. Maybe.

If you’re a Redskins’ fan like my step-dad, there was excitement. Finally, an unstoppable pass rusher that will pummel whoever is under-center for that team in Dallas. Maybe.

And then there’s the opposite feeling. If you’re a Packers fan, there was madness and confusion. Aaron Rodgers is still a top quarterback at 36 years old, and he’s a professional at holding grudges. The Packers were a game away from the Super Bowl a few months ago. Why waste that first round pick on his potential replacement instead of getting him a new toy to play with in a skill position player? Tee Higgins was still on the board, among others. Jordan Love isn’t going to see the field unless Rodgers gets hurt, and if that happens, the Packers immediately become non-contenders, so, what’s the point?

I digress.

The NFL could have put as little effort as possible into this spectacle. Heck, before 1980, this thing wasn’t televised.

Instead, they did a really superb job of putting it on, as did the WNBA the week before, the league that paved the way for virtual drafts with an excellent effort.

Despite all the different cameras in different locations, there were few hiccups for the NFL. Trey Wingo steered the ship, giving lead-ins to emotional and entertaining features on the picks, then teeing up analysts from the Mothership and NFL Network to tell us, the viewers, what they thought about Joe Burrow, Derrick Brown, Isaiah Simmons and Division II diamond Kyle Dugger. (We should, however, slightly knock Wingo for incorrectly saying that 7th round Dolphins’ pick Malcolm Perry played at Army. In fact, he played at Navy and ran for 304 yards against the Black Knights in the 2019 Army-Navy game, a convincing win for the Midshipmen.)

Again, this was sports. It was a diversion. It was compelling. More than a month into social distancing, it was necessary. And it evoked emotion: depending on who your favorite team is and what decisions they made, you rooted or you booed. You felt everything from happiness to anger, an emotional switch-flip that all sports fans are familiar with.

Most of all, it was real. The NFL wasn’t embarrassed about doing the draft this way. This how us and they are coping with what’s going on across the world.

We didn’t get to see handshakes and jerseys held up on a stage, or agents talking on the phone, or family members crying at tables in a crowded venue. Instead, we went inside homes. We saw the kids of general managers running around, families celebrating life-changing moments from the comfort of their couches and recliners, cameos from pets (shoutout to Bill Belichick’s very good dog), and weird decorations — like the self-mural and Galaga arcade machine Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn had in his living room.

It was better this way. Modesty and realness won out over glitz.

And it wasn’t all brand-new. There was some familiarity: the Patriots traded out of the first round, the Ravens took a very-Ravens player, a promising prospect had a mighty fall, the Chiefs got another speedy weapon in Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and one team had to answer a bunch of questions because they didn’t do their homework on a player who had some highly questionable and problematic tattoos.

The NFL can come off as canned or phony sometimes. Who hasn’t jokingly accused the league of fixing a game against their favorite team or laughed at Roger Goodell’s robotic and often corny persona? But this wasn’t. It was real, genuine, sincere and fun. Or it at least it seemed so. Or maybe we just ignored all those parts of it because we were thirsty for anything associated with the word “football.”

In these times, where people are getting sick, losing their jobs and being separated from their loved ones during the coronavirus, we needed something like this. The NFL Draft wasn’t a healing moment; the coronavirus didn’t suddenly disappear. But we needed something that sparked some hope, joy, madness and laughter around sports. And for three days, the NFL provided it.

And a few weeks after the fact, we sure could use something else just like it.




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