To most, the NFL Draft is an event defined by months of speculation and a glossy, multi-network production featuring a whirlwind of thrills and memorable, made-for-TV moments. For those actually waiting to be selected, it can be a torturous, emotionally-draining experience that, in the end, is life-changing.
The only way to know what it's like to go through draft day as a player is to ask those who have been there. Five current media members who sweated out the NFL Draft spoke to The Big Lead about their experiences. They include:
Joe Thomas, NFL Network analyst (No. 3 pick, Cleveland Browns, 2007)
Adam Archuleta, NFL on CBS analyst (No. 20 pick, St. Louis Rams, 2001)
Tiki Barber, co-host of Tiki & Tierney on CBS Sports Radio (No. 36 pick, New York Giants, 1997)
Rich Ohrnberger, Radio Host Xtra 1360 San Diego and Fox Sports Radio (No. 123 pick, New England Patriots, 2009)
Rob Ninkovich, ESPN NFL analyst (No. 135 pick, New Orleans Saints, 2006)
"I was pretty nervous"
As one would imagine, draft day carries with it a litany of emotions for those hoping to be selected. Life courses change dramatically based on when and where players are picked. Some are anxiously awaiting every selection. Others feel confident that what will be, will be.
Rich Ohrnberger: I was pretty calm. I had leveled my expectations. I was pretty convinced I was going to be a late draft pick or potentially an undrafted free agent. Come draft day, especially the first day, we didn't do anything. I watched it, but back then the draft was only two days long. I knew I wasn't going to be a first or second rounder, so I was sort of in and out of the living room. My wife was there, I was at my family's house in New York and it was kind of a low-key day. It wasn't until day two where things got kind of crazy.
Joe Thomas: I actually was not all that nervous. I kind of looked at the draft like I'd already taken my final exam, which was my four years of college football. The grades were in and it was just a matter of showing up and finding out what my final grade was. And so the hay was in the barn, which is an old football term that everybody talks about once a Saturday practice rolls around. I felt good. I felt like I did enough to be drafted pretty high.
Rob Ninkovich: I was pretty nervous. There are so many thoughts that go through your head. Not to mention, there are 32 places that you could be drafted to and then you have to go there instantly. You have to move to a new place that you've never been to. It's pretty scary times, but it's also exciting because you know that there's an opportunity to play in the NFL and that's all you want. Just a chance.
Tiki Barber faced a unique situation as he and his twin, Ronde, were set to be selected in the same draft, which created complex emotions.
Tiki Barber: We were going to be separated from each other for the first time. So it was like this realization that, man, we've got to grow up and be away from each other. But at the same time, it was this dream that we were both about to realize. It’s rare that twins make it even though there's been a couple, obviously with the McCourty twins and a couple others. So we were nervous and happy and excited, but also kind of dreading it at the same time.
Archuleta had gotten some inside information that made him feel confident he’d be a first-round pick. A month before the draft, then St. Louis Rams head coach Mike Martz let slip that a blockbuster trade could be on the horizon.
Adam Archuleta: We went out to lunch the day after my Pro Day and he told me -- right about a month before the draft -- look, if we trade Trent Green to the Chiefs, we're going to draft you at 20. But you never know. I think the night before the draft, they traded Trent, and so I was like, oh my gosh, like this could happen. I didn’t know if that was real, if they still had plans on doing that. I hadn't talked to any of them since. So in my mind, I'm like, “Oh, I have a great chance to go 20,” or maybe not. Right? So there's a lot of nerves. There is a lot of excitement, but there's just so many unknowns. So I had a mixed bag of emotions.
"I just didn't want my misery to be the story of the draft"
With so much uncertainty, choosing what to do during the draft can be difficult. Some decide to attend the event. Others choose to stay home. Our interviewees all preferred to be with their families, and in some cases wanted to distract themselves from the drama.
Tiki Barber: On draft day, we couldn't decide what we wanted to do. Are we going to stay in the dorm room? Are we going to go hang out with my mom at a restaurant? Ultimately we decided to play golf, which was just something to take our minds away from it.
Adam Archuleta: I was at my mom's house and I had just close family and a couple friends. So I don't know, there was probably 12 to 15 people there. I had news outlets that wanted to come and hang out with us. We declined that.
Rich Ohrnberger: I don't think I was there for the start of the third round. As a matter of fact, I'm pretty sure the second day of the draft, I said to my wife, “I’ve to get out of the house.” I was on this golf kick, so we went and hit a couple of buckets of balls at the driving range and then drove back to the house. The third round was going on and we just sat down in front of the television. A couple of friends came over completely impromptu. There were no plans because, like I said, the assumption is I was going to go undrafted. It was just a very low-key day with my family, my wife and a couple of buddies who dropped by.
Rob Ninkovich: I didn't want to have a party. I didn't want to have anybody at my house. I didn't want to have a celebration, because we've all seen those videos of people who go undrafted and they're looking to be free agents and that's not fun. So I was up in my bedroom all by myself. I didn't want to really be around anybody.
Archuleta’s small party turned out to be pretty tense when something unexpected happened an hour before the draft started.
Archuleta: So on draft morning our phone line went out at our house. We didn't really have cell phones at that time. So we were literally an hour before the draft, like, "Oh my gosh our phone doesn't work? What if they call us? What are we gonna do?" There was a sense of panic and we had a fax line that kind of worked. So I'm calling my agent, my agent is trying to tell all the teams, "Hey, if he doesn't answer, he's alive." There was a little bit of anxiety about if teams were actually going to be able to get ahold of me. That was kind of a funny side story about draft day and kind of the anxiety that went along with it.
Thomas was a sure-fire top-five pick, but he eschewed the pomp of attending the draft in-person and instead decided to go fishing on Lake Michigan with his family.
Joe Thomas: I kind of wanted to spend the draft day itself with the people who I know and love and to celebrate with them rather than with people that I didn't know.
That was the experience that I perceived after watching the draft the previous few years. Watching Aaron Rodgers fall in the draft, seeing that spectacle and knowing that on the biggest day of my life I could become the car crash. That seems to boost ratings, and that's why the NFL wants these guys because they want a soap opera, right? They want good and bad things to happen so they have a story. I wasn't really excited about being the story of having everybody watching me sweat it out as I tumble in the draft. I was going to be fine, but I just didn't want my misery to be the story of the draft.
"I did not want to go to New Orleans"
As with any professional sports draft, there are few certainties in the NFL. One pick can change an entire franchise’s plans in an instant. It’s hard to know where anyone will be selected, which leaves the members of each draft class guessing.
Joe Thomas: My agent thought pretty confidently I would either go to Detroit or Cleveland at No. 2 or No. 3 depending on what Oakland did at No. 1. I was looking at it like Christmas morning, it didn't matter what was going to happen. I felt like it was going to be a good day. Most people go into the draft and it could be literally anything. For me to only have two outcomes that probably were going to happen was definitely comforting and made me feel pretty good about going fishing.
Tiki Barber: I had heard that I was going to be a late first-rounder or an early second-rounder. The teams that were “looking at me” were the Falcons and the Packers. So it was kind of shocking when I got drafted by the Giants, especially because I was scared of New York, but I thought it fit in the right spot for me draft-wise.
Adam Archuleta: I was pretty wide-open. I knew a lot of teams were interested in me, but at that time, especially as a safety, it's probably unrealistic to go before, like 15. So I thought 20 was probably a pretty good spot. Then the teams that were picking between 20 and 30, we thought that there was a good chance there were probably three or four teams we were hopeful that were going to take me. I think the Raiders, the Broncos and the Colts were up there. But then again, who knows, right? We felt pretty confident that I should have been the top safety off the board, but how many teams were going to take a safety in the first round?
Rich Ohrnberger: I had a couple of teams who were specifically interested in me leading up to the draft. The Bears flew me in for a visit. I sat in the office with Lovie Smith and talked to him, met their offensive line coach, met their training staff, their strength coach and everybody who was in the building. So you just sort of take the tour. They're basically bringing you out there to do a medical check, and to maybe get you on the whiteboard to see what you know as far as your football IQ and your acumen. There were a couple of teams like that.
Rob Ninkovich: I thought I was going to New England. I know that sounds crazy, but I had a workout with Dean Pees. I had an interview with the Patriots at the combine, they had a lot of interest in me. I personally thought it was gonna be Cincinnati, New England, Cleveland -- a team that ran a 3-4 defense because I was a hybrid. So, I didn't think I was going to New Orleans, that's for sure.
My mom asked me on draft day, “What is the one team that you do not want to go to?” I said New Orleans. They had a 4-3 defense that didn't fit my body type, didn't fit my scheme, what I thought I would go play. And also with Katrina, you know, the city was devastated, I just didn't think that was a great fit for me. But God works in mysterious ways and now I have three children, my wife's from New Orleans, we met in New Orleans. So now I hold New Orleans near and dear to my heart. So it's crazy how things work out because I did not want to go to New Orleans.
"It was absolutely surreal"
Getting the phone call that you’ve been drafted is quite literally life-changing and represents the culmination of years of hard work. To this day, many have a difficult time describing the feeling of being picked.
Adam Archuleta: Just imagine everything you've ever wanted for your life and the work that you put in is finally coming true. Being able to set a goal several years out -- a decade out -- and really kind of defying the odds and finally making it. It’s a wave of emotion that would be impossible to replicate. It was kind of a surreal feeling. It's just like, is this really happening?
Rich Ohrnberger: It was absolutely surreal. I mean, still to this moment, I can bring up that memory and I have like a visceral response. I was completely in shock.
Joe Thomas: It was overjoying. I remember talking with Phil Savage and Romeo Cornell and just being so excited. My dad's side of the family is from Ohio, so we used to spend the family reunion time there every summer and I’d get to go out fishing with my uncles. I just loved the idea of being right on the shores of Lake Erie, being able to go fishing, go hunting, being in a city that loved its football, loved its sports teams the way I knew Cleveland did. Because I grew up in Milwaukee, which was pretty similar to Cleveland, as far as the city goes, and as far as its passion for its Packers and Brewers and Bucks. Also, I kind of had this dream of going to an organization and being part of the turnaround, which didn't happen when I was there in Cleveland. But it just seemed in my mind, I built it up as a perfect situation.
Rob Ninkovich: I was watching the draft in my room and my phone rang. I thought it was New England because they were the next pick after New Orleans. So I picked up the phone, I thought it was gonna be the Patriots and it was Sean Payton.
Barber was still golfing with his brother when the call came in, and at first he wasn’t sure who had actually selected him.
Tiki Barber: We got about, I want to say 15 or 16 holes in when I got a call from Pat Hanlon. He said, “I'm gonna put you on with our coach who's about to draft you, Jim Fassel.” And I was like, “Wait, who the hell is Jim Fassel?” Because it was his first year as the head coach of the Giants. So for a second there, I'm like, who's drafted me? And then I kind of figured it out and it was exciting, man. I can't tell you how thrilled I was.
But there was still one more Barber to be drafted. Luckily, the family didn’t have to wait long for Ronde’s name to be called.
Tiki Barber: We finished the round, probably 20 minutes later or so. We're still waiting for Ronde. We take a shower and decide to have dinner somewhere. So we went downtown to a restaurant. About 10 minutes into sitting down, Ronde got a call. It was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and they wanted to draft him with the sixth pick in the third round. So he was exactly 30 picks behind me. There were only 30 teams at that time, so it was kind of cool. I got called on the course. He got called before we finished our first beers.
Rich Ohrnberger: So I take the call and it's Berj Najarian, who is Bill Belichick's assistant. And he goes, “Hey, is this Rich?” And I say, “Yes, it is.” He goes, “This is Berj with the Patriots, I'm gonna put you on with Bill in just a moment.” And I was like, “Belichick?” and he goes, “Yeah, I'll put you on with the coach in just a minute.” And so he puts me on hold and I'm now in the front hallway of my house and all of a sudden the living room erupts, my family is going bonkers. I step out onto the stoop so I can hear everything that's about to be said to me. My mind is split between trying to pay attention to my future head coach and wanting to run back into the living room and celebrate with everyone I love.
And you know Bill, the conversation we had was very Bill. “Hey Rich, we think you're a hell of a player and, uh, really excited to get started working with you and welcome to the team and uh, you know, this is going to be uh, this is going to be a great opportunity for you and certainly for us. And so, thank you for all your hard work and we will be in touch soon. Here’s Robert Kraft, just a couple of words.” He puts me on the phone with Kraft and now I'm talking to him and I don't even remember what he said. “Hey Rich, you know, it's great to whatever.” You know what I mean? I was like, “Oh, you know, thank you so much.” I'm pretty sure I called him coach. I was just so out of my mind.
I get off the phone with them, I go sprinting back into the living room and my family is like in tears and, and now I'm crying and hugging everybody. My dad, I've never seen him so proud and my mom is just red faced and just her glasses are off and she's rubbing her eyes and my wife. It was like nothing I've ever experienced in my life.
"That night was epic"
Some players are immediately whisked away on a whirlwind of press conferences and media appearances once they’re selected. For others, it’s time to party and celebrate their accomplishment.
Joe Thomas: It was pretty quickly, like, “Let's go to shore.” The Browns were pretty adamant about, “We want to get you out to Cleveland so you can do your press conference so you can be introduced.” So I think we started pulling lines pretty quickly and had started getting to shore because there's obviously a lot of local media requests and you wanted to try to fulfill as many of those as you could. Especially the people that had covered you as a high school kid and when you're in college.
Rich Ohrnberger: As soon as I get drafted, now the pressure's off and it's the middle of the afternoon. So I called up my (high school) coach just to thank him again for everything he's done for me and he says, “You ready to party or what?” I said, “Let's do it.” So then everybody in my house drove over to his house and it was just burgers and dogs and beers for the rest of the night. It was just a blast.
Tiki Barber: That night was epic. Obviously it's a dream fulfilled. We both got drafted, and I forget the name of the restaurant now, but they had these boots of beer. So we're cheersing these big boots of beers. Fifteen or 20 of us, our friends, my mom was there, obviously a couple of friends from high school and some of my teammates, my RA -- who is now actually a congressman down in Texas. It was just a unique snapshot of this moment in our life that I'll never forget.
Adam Archuleta: It really didn't hit for a long time. I just remember my girlfriend went with me to St. Louis. I think after everything happened and you do the press conference and all that, I'm sitting in the hotel and I'm just like, is this real? I think a lot of guys probably had an expectation that they were going to play in the NFL. A lot of guys that had better pedigrees coming into college. For me it was such an against-the-odds type deal that I went from a walk-on with no college scholarships to a first-round pick. It was a pretty surreal feeling. So I don't know if it ever really kind of hit me.
"I don't think I heard from them again until a week and a half later"
Despite how well-publicized the NFL Draft is, there’s so much the public doesn’t know about the process.
Rich Ohrnberger: What's surprising is how little information you're given. To the best of my ability to remember, I don't really think I had much contact with anybody there for the next week, week and a half. And then I talked to a couple of team operations guys who were getting us set up with hotel rooms as we were approaching our first minicamp and drove up there. The most surprising thing was alright, you're drafted, now what?
Tiki Barber: It was so different back then. I got drafted and I don't think I heard from them again until a week and a half later. It was so informal, it was more behind the scenes than let's make a spectacle of this like it is these days. There was no pomp, no circumstance, there were no camera crews following you around. I didn’t even do an interview for three or four days. I think it was a local guy from my hometown paper who finally tracked me down. I think the informality of it is what's so shocking.
Rob Ninkovich: The most surprising thing that I had just experienced is all your experts and even your agent and all your coaches from college, they have no clue what teams are going to do. You see all these draft boards out there and in the first 10 picks, everything is completely wrong. You don't know what a team is going to do, you don't know where you're going to go, you don't know if they're going to trade their pick. And with all that difference in selections are guys changing the trajectory of their careers. It's just crazy how your fate and your destiny kind of go on a path with a team, selection and where you go. Because every single guy that's ever drafted, it alters his life and where his path has taken him.
"I definitely looked at it as the beginning of a long journey"
With such a life-changing event, sometimes it’s hard to know what it represents in the moment. Is getting drafted the beginning of a journey or the end of one? Maybe it’s a little of both.
Adam Archuleta: I don't know if I saw it as the end or beginning, I think I just saw it as a massive accomplishment. That was always a goal since I was a kid, but it really didn't come into an actual reality until my junior year in college. So in my mind, I was like, “Yeah, I'm going to play in the NFL.” But realistically it wasn't gonna happen. Then the light bulb went off and all of a sudden, hey I can really do this.
Tiki Barber: Yeah, I think it was more the end of the process. I think I realized midway through my third year in college, this is going to be my future, being an NFL player. You get drafted and all of that comes to fruition. Finally.
Rich Ohrnberger: I definitely looked at it as the beginning of a long journey. I realize I didn't achieve all these goals, but I had, from the time I was a kid, always set lofty goals. My goal in high school was to be the best football player this high school has ever had. And then once I got into college, the goal was to be an All-American. That I chased down until my senior year and I didn't end up being first-team, I was like a third-team guy. As soon as it was even being discussed that I could potentially have a football career, I was like, well I'm going to be a Hall of Famer one day. And I got to the pros that I felt very similarly. I was like, “Well, one day I'll be a Hall of Famer, I'm just gonna have to work real hard.” And then I got to my first couple of practices during training camp and I was like, “No, I'm not. These guys are really good, but you know, I'm just gonna keep at it for as long as I can.” So that was the thought process. This is the start of a long, fruitful journey.
Joe Thomas: I looked at it as a new beginning, as the moment where I get to find out where my NFL story begins and I think I rejected the idea that a lot of guys had that the NFL Draft was the end of their football journey. I have made it, I am now in the NFL, I am a millionaire and I can just go lay on my couch and eat bonbons. And, unfortunately, there were guys that were in my draft class and were drafted ahead of me that took that perspective. That's part of the reason I didn't like the idea of making the draft a huge deal for me because it's not a game, it's not even one play, it has absolutely nothing to do with on-the-field football for me as a player. So I don't want to get wrapped up in the idea that this is the biggest moment of my life. This is just me finding out where my NFL story starts.