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American football: Excess all areas - behind the scenes at the NFL Draft

It’s America’s introduction to its finest new athletes – but forget the sport: this three-day cattle auction is all about the money. At Radio City Music Hall, David Usborne goes behind the scenes at the NFL Draft

“They just changed that man’s life,” muses Lisa Adler, who is standing near the stage at Radio City Music Hall. A sports reporter, also on his feet, calls out to no one in particular: “Anyone know how much he weighs?” The giant screens above offer some intelligence. He is six-foot-six (and a quarter), he is an outside linebacker from Oregon and the Miami Dolphins just picked him at No. 3.

Welcome to the 2013 NFL draft, a three-day cattle auction of very expensive beef. This is the moment that the 32 franchises get to select the most promising talent coming out of the college football system. It unfolds not behind closed doors, but here in a theatre better known for the Rockettes (who can high-kick, too, but don’t need a ball) and on TVs across the world.

Ms Adler, invited as the wife of a top NFL executive, knows the first rule of this most American of sporting rituals. “All this is about money, money, money.” Indeed millions of dollars are at stake here for the colleges who have groomed the kids and for the NFL teams which must decide who among them they like. The colleges because high picks mean they can entice the best players from high school, put bums on seats in their often gargantuan stadiums and attract the biggest corporate sponsors. The teams because how they fare next season will depend on the picks they make here. But mostly, the stakes are high for the contestants, for whom this is less auction and more reality show. We are at the first of seven rounds in this year’s draft (the final rounds will commence at noon, New York time, today.) Right now Ms Adler, like all of us, is glued to the monitors showing the green room backstage where all the aspiring pro-players, some barely out of their teens, are waiting for their phone to ring. The Dolphins, we know, are “on the clock”. Whose phone will it be? The man from Oregon State is Dion Jordan. He picks up the receiver, breaks into a universe-sized smile while beside him a woman, surely his mother, bursts into tears.

Several things happen then in quick succession. He, like everyone else lucky enough to be chosen, is ushered, Oscars-style, onto the stage where he must hug the serving NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell. (Mr Goodell has been changing some NFL rules of late to make the game less dangerous, which prompts fans in the upper tiers of the theatre to boo him loudly at every opportunity). He will then give a press conference before going home to ponder what just happened. In short order he must leave his home, move to the city of his new team and, most crucially, hire the services of a good money manager.

“When the phone rang, it was just surreal, it was a dream come true. I can’t process what’s going on right now,” explained the biggest name of Thursday night, an offensive tackle named Eric Fisher from Central Michigan who was the draft’s No. 1 pick. Weighing in at more than 300lb and measuring six foot seven, Fisher will now have to negotiate his contract the Kansas City Chiefs. (Touchingly, almost, the draft is organised so that the worst team from the previous season gets the first pick. The most recent Super Bowl winners – the Baltimore Ravens – go last.)

Scholars of NFL salary models, which have become less generous after recent renegotiations between teams and players, will tell you, however, that the affable Mr Fisher, who sweated a little under the press conference lights and the instant pressure of celebrity, can expect to earn at least $22.2m from the Chiefs. The lower down the draft, the lower your guaranteed salary. At No. 3, Mr Jordan can expect a little less than $20m. Lower, but certainly not low.

Also changed are lives of the players’ families, well represented here at Radio City. Many will be able to retire depending on what happens this week. Mr Fisher tells us how his mother missed only three games of his entire college career while at the same time holding down a job at Volkswagen of America. “We are a real blue-collar family. I have seen her my whole life going to work, getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning and I am so happy I can now help her lead a happy life from here on out.”

The draft can also bring cruel disappointment. Some of those in the green room won’t get picked at all, even during today’s closing rounds. Others who thought they would taste glory in the first round, when the salaries are highest, instead slip into cheaper rounds two, three or lower. This was the fate of Manti Te’o, a native of Hawaii and player for the Fighting Irish, the football team of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Once considered one of the hottest college talents around he failed to find a home during Thursday’s first round, in part because of a perception that his form has faded and because of the fall-out from recent revelations about his private life. For this is the young man who drew enormous sympathy after revealing that his girlfriend had died from leukemia at 22 years of age on the same day that his grandmother passed. Te’o played on through the tragedy, was a man inspired. His profile – and his draft stock – rose. Only the girlfriend, it later emerged, never existed. He would claim he was the victim of an elaborate online hoax. Others suggested more sinister motives.

Thus it was that a brief flash on the TV screens of Te’o’s face early in the evening drew a wave of boos from the cheap seats in Radio City, stuffed on Thursday night by regular fans who queued up earlier for free tickets. While New York area teams – the Jets and the Giants – were generously represented, there were fans loyal to most of the other franchises, too. Occasionally derogatory chants would break out, fists punching the air. “The Dolphins Suck, Suck, Suck” was one among them. A few caps were flung. Radio City on draft day is less Carnegie Hall, more Chelsea terraces.

While the process of announcing each team’s pick is slow – round one took more than three hours – most of these fans are prepped in what their team needs. Arguments break out in the theatre’s lobby areas. Young men leap to their feet when their team’s pick is announced, alternately ecstatic or livid. “We take this very seriously,” says Peter Gallipoli, 24, a Giants supporter who lives in New York City. Here with six other friends who support either the Buffalo Bills or the Dallas Cowboys, he is studying sports management and hopes to be an agent. “We have been studying this for two weeks at least,” he says. “You can find all the tapes of the players on YouTube.”

Up in the Gods, Matthew Boutros, 25, is disconsolate. There may be more rounds of the 2013 draft to go and potential gems (only this time cheaper ones) lurking in the lower rounds, but his team, the Jets, have just chosen a defensive tackle when what they really need is a pass-rusher. Too much more jargon like that and some of us might begin to wish it was the Rockettes on stage tonight after all – more kick and less ball.

Hits and misses: NFL draft

Biggest hits

Considered the greatest draft steal of all time is New England Patriots’ Quarterback Tom Brady, pictured, who went in the 6th round of the 2000 draft. 198 players were chosen ahead of him, including several quarterbacks who would flop. Brady has won three Super Bowls, twice winning the most valuable player award, and has been named the league’s MVP twice. Brady entered the league the year the previous great draft steal left it. Joe Montana was the 82nd pick of the 1979 draft and appeared in four Super Bowls, winning all four. Only he and Brady have won the NFL and Super Bowl MVP titles more than once.

Biggest misses

JaMarcus Russell was the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft, earning a $61m contract with $32m guaranteed. The QB, pictured, was out of football altogether after winning just seven games in three seasons. Trying to make a comeback after being arrested on drugs charges, he now weighs over 300lb. The second pick in the 1998 draft, Ryan Leaf retired after four seasons in which he threw almost three times as many interceptions as touchdowns. He was jailed last year for burglary and drugs possession.