NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 28: A general view of the Draft stage during the 2011 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on April 28, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Ah, the draft.
Around this time every April, NFL fans all over the country are gearing up for what is quickly becoming one of the most exciting sporting events of the year. The NFL Draft represents the start of a new season, a brief oasis in the barren wasteland of the offseason, and a new sense of hope for every single team in the league. Regardless of who your favorite team is or what their record was last season, you tune in to Round One of the draft every year with the kind of optimism that allows you to think that maybe, just maybe, this is the year that we turn some heads around the league. Maybe this is the year your head coach makes a huge move up the draft board and lands the franchise player that will be the cornerstone of the team for years to come. Maybe this is the year you finish watching the draft as excited as you've ever been for the season to start. Come draft time, there is a sense of anticipation and confidence that is almost unparalleled for the rest of the year.
Unless, of course, you happen to be a Patriots fan.
While I thank my lucky drawers every day that I'm a fan of the New England Patriots, it is generally understood that there are two months a year when it just isn't our time to shine. For two months every year, we are given a brief yet terrifying glimpse of what it must feel like like to be a Browns fan - all the time. A period of bewilderment, confusion, pessimism, and even a little bit of despair as the rest of the league seems to make massive strides forward and we are stuck standing still. One of those months, March, was surprisingly productive over in New England. While the Patriots toed the company line by not making a huge splash with any of the premier free agents, they did acquire Brandon Lloyd and signed a lot of solid, mid-level talent on both sides of the ball for reasonable prices. This March, instead of occupying ourselves solely by watching the Redskins set themselves back another three years by overpaying some other team's malcontents and giving away draft picks in exchange for a team that probably would have won them a Super Bowl three years ago, we Patriots fans got a small taste of the Free Agency Victory cake. And while it clearly has nothing on the sweet, sweet nectar of the fruit that falls from the Super Bowl tree, it was a refreshing change of pace to see New England make a number of quality moves. Overall, it was a good March.
And now, here we are in April, the other month when it's usually not so fun to be a Patriots fan. As Pats fans, it's easy to feell a little left out of the energy and excitement that accompanies the weeks prior to the draft. While I neither want nor expect any sympathy from any other fans about my April woes, I have still found myself walking away from past drafts a little dejected in spite of myself. The feeling goes almost as quickly as it comes, of course, when I remember that I have a full season of football coming my way and will be watching the Patriots play deep into January as all the "draft-day winners" are golfing. But still, some small part of me gets irked every time I think about how all the poring over Combine reports, watching college highlights, and trying to figure out how in the hell Mel Kiper is still employed is going to go right out the window come draft day as the Pats trade down, acquire value picks, and take guys that nobody has ever heard of. As much as I would have loved to have seen the Patriots trade up for a Von Miller or stay put for a Clay Matthews, it never surprises me to watch those marquee players get gobbled up by other franchises as we stick to the game plan and target guys that Belichick believes will fit within the construct of The Patriot Way.
For annoying, immature, emotionally stunted man-children like myself, it's easy to forget how good we all have it 10 months out of the year and get a little jealous sometimes; after all, it must be amazingly exhilarating to watch your team make a huge move up the board to nab that highly touted lineman, running back, or receiver that is sure to usher in a bright, Lombardi Trophy-filled future for your city. And while New England has had far more hits than misses over the years, I still find myself looking back at all the players that we could have had if we'd just stayed at our original draft slot, and it makes me want to slap a street performer.
This year, however, I'm taking a new approach. I have recently realized that to get frustrated each and every year by Bill Belichick's draft strategy is like heading to Taco Bell without first making the required detour for an economy sized roll of Charmin Ultra-Soft - you know exactly what you're in for, so thinking that this time is going be different will only set you up for pain and disappointment. Going after the big names and moving up in the draft just isn't how Belichick operates. He knows that draft picks are like currency, and he makes it his mission to accumulate as many as he can, not just for this draft, but for subsequent drafts as well. What this usually means is New England bounces up and down the draft board like a fat kid on a trampoline, trading picks, acquiring picks, screwing over the Raiders, and targeting specific players. By the time the Patriots do finally make their selection, more often than not we are all too dizzy to even do a Google search for the guy that we've never heard of who just joined our organization a full 26 spots before his projected draft position.
In the past, I would have spent the days after the draft on the message boards and sidled up to the sports bars with the usual "in Bill We Trust" rhetoric, spouting all the clichés about how the offseason is a process and the Patriots' record speaks for itself and there's no need to worry that the pass rush still hasn't been addressed and how Belichick must know something we don't by taking a kicker and a punter with both of his 3rd round picks. And while I would have believed every word I said, inside I'd also be thinking about the articles I read every May questioning whether Belichick has lost his touch and how he's a great coach but a lousy personnel guy and if this is finally the season where years of questionable drafting comes back to bite the Patriots in the ass. I'd be all smiles on the outside, but on the inside, I'd still be just as paranoid and desperate as ever.
But not this year. This year, I'm not going to worry about any of that. The hard truth is that we have the best coach in the league making the decisions that are going to keep this team doing what it has been doing for over a decade now. We all know that the Patriots are going to be in the playoff conversation come December, and between then and now we have an entire season of football to look forward to. So this year, I have decided to let the other fans throw themselves into how their team drafts. I have come to realize that we, as Patriots fans, are perhaps the only ones in the entire NFL that can sit back and enjoy the draft for what it truly is. Because at the end of the day, the NFL Draft is about much, much more than which players are going to become the next group of athletes that propel the New England Patriots to another Super Bowl victory. While it's always exciting to think about what a fresh influx of talent will bring to this team, there is an element to draft day that is all-too-often lost in the hubbub of activity, transactions, and listening to Jets fans boo whoever their first round pick is.
There isn't a person among us who hasn't pretended to be a pro athlete at some point in their lives. Whether the crack in your driveway becomes the foul line in the NBA finals, a cluster of trees becomes the left field wall at Wrigley, or the edge of the front lawn becomes the back of the end zone, virtually everyone has at one point imagined themselves as a sports hero. To most of us, these are just pipe dreams, passing fancies that slowly fade into the background as childhood bleeds slowly into adolescence and then disappear completely by the time adulthood has snuck up to us, kicked us in the face, and thrown us behind a desk while we weren't looking. Most of us eventually decide to pack up our balls (heh) and go home, instead focusing our efforts on school, girls, or in my case, one man Cheetos eating contest where the winner is always me. Exactly when the dream dies is different for all of us, but eventually, we all realize that perhaps we aren't quite pro athlete material.
But for every hundred - probably every thousand - kids who put away the football and go home to watch TV as soon as the sun sets, there is still that one who remains outside, throwing passes through a tire or catching balls under the streetlights until the oncoming night makes it impossible to see. There is that one who takes his football everywhere he goes, who stopped seeing it as a game a long time ago, and whose dreams of professional sports glory border on all-consuming obsession. It is these few, these remarkable, exceptional few, who all gather together once a year in New York City to become a part of something much bigger than themselves. For these kids, football has not been a hobby, or an extracurricular activity, or an escape from the monotony of everyday life. For these kids, football has been everything. It is their greatest love, their most guarded passion, and for some, their only lifeline away from the kind life that I couldn't ever imagine having to endure. The odds that some of these kids have had to defy, not just to make it to Radio City Music Hall, but to even make it out of high school, is enough to give me chills every time I think about it. And that - not contracts, not pick trading, not projections -that is what the NFL Draft really represents.
I can't think of many instances where I get the opportunity to witness the exact second when someone's lifelong dream becomes a reality. For most, sadly, dreams will forever remain just that, flickering hopes and desires that slowly fade with time. For those of us lucky enough to have had our dreams come true, all-too-often the moment sneaks up on us when we least expect it and we don't even realize what has happened until that moment has passed. Some of us even take our dreams for granted, always wishing for something more than what we have but not willing to take the steps necessary to make it happen.
But not on Draft Day. And not for these players. Draft Day brings with it the concrete proof that years of hard work, dedication, and a willingness to make the most of God-given talent will not be laid to waste.
And I have to say - hearing those players' names called, watching them hug their families, seeing the joyful tears that accompany that one impossible instant when they realize that everything they have ever prayed for has just come true and that every daydream and fantasy is about to become a reality - for my money, there is no purer, more honorable, more meaningful moment in all of professional sports. In that moment, there are no wins or losses, no rings or rivalries, no teams or fans. There is just a wide-eyed, triumphant kid who has so loved the game of football that he dedicated his entire life to playing it. A kid who has now been blessed with the opportunity to hone his craft on the world's biggest stage. A kid who, even if only for the briefest period of time, has achieved immortality.
What their fate is after they are drafted is up to them. Some will go on to shine as bright as any who have ever come before them. Some will fizzle out, unable to handle the pressure and intensity of playing at the professional level. And the rest, sadly, will forever be lost as one of the faceless masses who have come and gone in the National Football League, remembered by some but forgotten by the rest.
But all of that will come later - on draft night, every single one of these players are Canton-bound.
And in a country where the only thing that matters is victory, where it's win at all costs and everyone else go home, where you better not even show your face around here if you are an Olympic Bronze Medalist and nobody wants to hear about anything short of perfection, it's very easy to lose sight of just how special this weekend is. It's very easy to look at these new NFL players as nothing more than a means to an end, tools for giving us what we want in a Super Bowl victory and helping to add joy and excitement to our otherwise ordinary lives. And to a degree, these new NFL athletes have earned that label. But more than anything else, they have also earned the right to walk across that stage after their name has been called, to relish the moment and own their accomplishments. And as Patriots fans, we more than any other fans in the league have the luxury of taking a step back and enjoying the draft as a living, breathing reminder that dreams still do come true in this country. We don't need to rely on one weekend a year to build our hopes and magically fix all of the problems that our team has. We can be as optimistic and excited for who the Patriots will select as anyone else, but when the chips are down, we're also able to just enjoy the draft in its richest, purest form. And even if this is the year that Belichick bucks the trend, even if this is the year when he takes advantage of the rookie salary cap by packaging both of his first round picks to move up and grab Mark Barron or Fletcher Cox, that only makes it better.
In the coming days and weeks, we're going to analyze the draft and break down the players and grade each team on how they did. We're going to read article after article about Draft Winners and Draft Losers and which players are sleepers and which ones are busts. The events that will transpire this weekend are going to be picked apart more than New England's secondary was in 2011. I fully plan on going being a part of all that, and I'm going to love it - all of those things are a lot of fun to do.
But let's also remember to appreciate what we are really about to witness this weekend. This weekend, we get to watch young men achieve greatness - which is always a wonderful thing. And whoever it is that joins our beloved organization, we are going to welcome him with open arms.
Even if we have absolutely no idea who he is.