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Wednesday, April 19, 2006
Updated: May 1, 11:42 AM ET
Confessions of a draft refusenik

By Patrick Hruby
Page 2

Can you keep a secret? A deep, dark one? Good. Listen up. I'm sick. And weary. I've been living a double life, playing a game of shadows, killing time in hell's waiting room with nothing to watch except "Deal or No Deal" on a perpetual loop.

My name is Patrick.

I'm 29 years old.

And I couldn't care less about the NFL draft.

Gulp.

LenDale White
What do you do if you don't care about the combine, or what LenDale White does before next season?
Don't get the wrong idea: I love pro football. I dig the college game. But the draft bores me to tears -- the wet, blubbery, Adam Morrison kind. I can't recite Reggie Bush's time in the 40-yard dash. I don't know if Michael Huff has stiff hips, loose hamstrings or feet made for the cha-cha. As far as I'm concerned, LenDale White can spend the entire summer benching barbells loaded with Krispy Kremes; I haven't paid attention to him since the Rose Bowl, and I won't bother to until he trucks an NFL tackler and/or flunks a mandatory team weigh-in this fall.

The last time I maximized a pick, I shoved my pinky a little deeper into my nostril.

I know this makes me strange. Look, coming clean isn't easy. But I need help. For years, I've skipped along in blithe denial, convinced that draft hype is for dopes, suckers and shut-ins. And also Mel Kiper Jr. Watch the draft with fellow fans at nearby FedEx Field? No way. Scout players at the Hula Bowl, even though I don't actually work for an NFL team? I'd rather scout cup sizes on Waikiki Beach.

I have a problem. A serious one. Everyone else seems excited. Draftniks are breaking down film. Fans are posting on message boards. ESPN is at DEFCON 1. They all see the draft as a giant jigsaw puzzle, just waiting to be solved.

MORE NFL DRAFT COVERAGE
Gregg Easterbrook's Tuesday Morning Quarterback
ESPN.com NFL draft index

Me? I see it as an irritating Rubik's Cube, just waiting to be tossed in a wastebasket. Go ahead, line up the pretty colored squares. Here's your prize: squat. Draft indifference torments me, it mocks me in my sleep. The other night, I had a dream I was falling. Jay Cutler wasn't even there to catch me.

Jerk.

Wanton Youth
Looking back, I've always been an odd duck. Kiper ran his first mock draft when he was 12. At the same age, I was sneaking into R-rated movies and beginning to discover girls, largely by sneaking into R-rated movies.

Talk about misspent youth.

DRAFT NON-ADDICTION
A 12-step recovery plan
Can't tell A.J. Hawk from D.J. Shockley? Unconvinced that the Detroit Lions and Arizona Cardinals will land the guys they wanted all along? Not to worry. Page 2 is on the case. Help us … help you:

1. Admit that you are powerless over your non-addiction -- that a life of ignoring the big board, not having an opinion on Matt Leinart vs. Vince Young and actually getting up from your couch on draft weekend to use the bathroom has become unmanageable.

2. Believe that a power greater than yourself -- i.e., Mel Kiper Jr. and/or Kiper's lustrous 'do -- can restore you to sanity.

3. Decide to turn your will and your life over to the care of the National Football League, which you will now exclusively refer to as "the National Football League," never using the base, vulgar and insufficiently self-important terms "NFL" and/or "pro football."

4. Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself, starting with your coffee table. How many draft magazines, books and Web site printouts do you possess? Whatever the number, it is not enough.

5. Admit to yourself, another human being and a Paul Tagliabue bobblehead the exact nature of your wrongs -- for instance, not knowing Santonio Holmes' time in the 40-yard dash down to the hundredth of a second.

6. Be entirely ready to have the National Football League remove all of these defects of character, and also ready to make the scouting combine appointment viewing, so much so that if your pregnant wife goes into labor, there already is a television in your car.

7. Humbly ask your Paul Tagliabue bobblehead to remove your shortcomings -- which is a lot to ask, considering you've never even seen Jay Cutler play.

8. Make a list of all the people you have disregarded, like Eastern Washington quarterback Erik Meyer, and become willing to make amends to them all, even if said people likely will never play a down of football in the National Football League and probably aren't worth the trouble.

9. Make direct amends to such people whenever possible; at the very least, pencil them in on your mock draft worksheet. You do have a mock draft worksheet, right?

10. Continue to take personal inventory and when you are wrong, promptly admit it. Face the truth: your knowledge of the RPM's Paul Pinegar gets on deep outs is not war room-ready.

11. Seek through total immersion in both measureables and intangibles to improve your conscious contact with the National Football League. If D'Brickshaw Ferguson appears in your dreams, that's even better.

12. Having experienced a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, attempt to carry this message to other non-addicts, and practice these principles in all your affairs. In other words: it's never too early to break down 2007's top 10 prospects!

You think you know my pain? The existential dread that comes with ignoring Matt Leinart's exclusive draft diary? The silent shame of not voting for the Arizona Cardinals to pick Winston Justice in a SportsNation mock draft? You have no idea. I have no one to talk to, nowhere to turn. Drug addicts are better off. At least they can try detox clinics, 12-step programs, or three days with Tom Cruise.

I recently saw a priest. Trembling, I ducked into a confessional box:

"Forgive me father, for I have sinned. George Will once said that football combines the two worst elements of American life: violence and committee meetings. I feel the same way about the NFL draft -- only instead of brutality and assemblies, substitute Marxism and homework.

"Really, what is the NFL's worst-picks-first draft order but the athletic equivalent of a Soviet-style collective farm? From each according to ability. To each according to need. The Texans have a lot of needs, right? Rookie salaries are pretty much planned by a central authority, aren't they?

"Heck, isn't the entire draft just schoolwork dressed in shoulder pads, a three-month cram course of facts and figures, measurements and memorization, numeric rankings and letter grades? Canada is the second-largest country in the world. A.J. Hawk turned in the second-best combine time in both the short and long shuttle runs. A-plus … "

Through the screen, I saw a nod. The words spilled out of me, clipped and feverish:

"And the combine! Father, my thoughts are impure. I'd rather watch mini-camp. Dudes running around in mesh shorts? Great. Where's the basketball hoop? No hoop? Then why bother? Are these guys prospective football players, or auditioning for a remake of "The Six Million Dollar Man"? Pat Watkins had the best broad jump at the combine. I suppose that could make him an elite punt blocker -- assuming the other team forgets to field linemen."

The priest coughed. I paused, awaiting my penance. A handful of Hail Marys? Nah … I expected a public flogging.

"So," the priest said, "do you think the Redskins should trade up for Hawk?"

Living a Lie
Such is my burden, the cross on my back. I'm lonely. All of my buddies are immersed in mock drafts. Whose stock is rising? Falling? Personally, I'm indifferent. Can't relate. Elaborate, laborious and ultimately meaningless, mock drafts are akin to Civil War re-enactments. Minus the funny costumes.

Nevertheless, I play along, keep my draft non-obsession in the closet. I fear my friends won't accept the real me: a guy who would rather be watching tennis, or maybe even pro bowling. And so I dissemble, my face a mask of phony enthusiasm: "D'Brickashaw Ferguson is gonna be the next Jonathan Ogden! Whoever drafts Sinorice Moss is getting a steal!"

A slap on the back. Someone pours another beer. I clench my jaw, and grin like the Joker.

Deep down, I know I'm a fraud.

The lying eats away at me. People always ask: What's your most shocking draft moment? I want to blurt out: "Me watching the freakin' draft for more than 10 seconds!" But I hold my tongue. They can't understand, any more than I can comprehend draft fever.

The Sporting News reports that only 51 of last year's draftees were starters last season -- less than two players per team. According to the Atlantic Monthly, a first-round pick during his first five years in the NFL is almost as likely to exit the league (8 percent) or not start a single game (8 percent) as he is to earn a Pro Bowl berth (9 percent). Tim Couch was a No. 1 pick. Tom Brady went in the sixth round. Without fail, stars and busts shake out on the field.

Packers fans
The cheeseheads are some of the biggest NFL draft fanatics.
So why the orgy of semi-informed speculation? The frenzied rush to throwaway judgment?

Crazy talk, to be sure. But these are demons inside my head.

True story: Last spring, I didn't watch tape, hunker down with a big board or spend a minute weighing Alex Smith's Wonderlic score against Aaron Rodgers' shuttle run time. Instead, I split my free time between the gym, playing outdoor basketball and visiting my newborn niece.

When the draft rolled around, I was tan. Fit. My niece recognized my face. On the other hand, I had no idea why San Francisco took the spindly Smith with the top selection; more to the point, I didn't give it a second thought, since I assumed the 49ers would still stink.

In retrospect, that may have been my low point. Addicts call it rock bottom.

Tom Donahoe once said that the draft has become "almost a cult." I'm pretty sure the Romans said the same thing about early Christians. Like a budding religion, the draft gets bigger every year -- and trust me, I'm ready to chug the Kool-Aid. I'm tired of being an outsider, a freak. When Leinart fires his agent, I want to sweat the first-round fallout; when Reed Doughty turns in a combine-best three-cone time of 6.63 seconds, I want to feel a giddy tingle.

Of course, it would probably help to know what "three-cone" means.

The Rocky Road to Recovery
I'm trying to get well. It's a long, hard slog. The other week, I bought a stack of draft magazines, spent a day thumbing through them, and discovered that nearly all of the top quarterback prospects are "athletic," with throwing arms that are "powerful," "strong," "solid," and "make scouts drool."

Suppressing a sudden, desperate urge to locate a large kitchen knife, I kept reading.

The scouting reports left me bewildered. ESPN said Brodie Croyle has "tremendous arm strength." Street and Smith's called Croyle's arm merely "adequate." Similarly, ESPN claimed Leinart possesses the "agility to buy time in the pocket," but "doesn't have the quick feet or agility to consistently buy second chances." Er, which one was it? And where was that knife?

Immersion therapy can be a (expletive).

Next came my war room. Did I need one? I wasn't sure. But Street and Smith's guide proclaimed itself "War Room ready," while the Sporting News' player ratings were compiled by "War Room scouts." I pictured Bill Belichick, sequestered in a concrete bunker beneath Cheyenne Mountain, finger on the button, ready to trade down and/or order a tactical strike on Uzbekistan. I saw canned goods, portable generators, helmet phones.

I looked around my office. No helmet phone. Just a bag of chips and a bottle of water. Using my wimpy, civilian-issue handset, I called a friend with the Washington Redskins.

"What does your war room look like?"

"It's just a conference room with magnet board walls, computers, TVs, all the players set up on the magnet placards. There's a long conference table with chairs."

"Is it stocked with provisions?"

"There's snacks and food outside the hall."

"Um, since it's a war room, can it withstand a direct nuclear blast?"

"Are you serious? It's just like any other room in the building."

This came as a relief, since retrofitting my apartment with military-grade radiation filters would have cost a bundle.

Similarly, the nightly NFL draft specials on "SportsCenter" -- approximately 5,348 total hours of original programming -- have been quite helpful. From Merril Hoge, I've learned that Vince Young's flaws are readily apparent on tape; from Sean Salisbury, I've learned that watching tape is the only way to look past Young's flaws. And when Rick Spielman noted that "there has never been a quarterback drafted over the last 20 years that is over 6-foot-5 and has run slower than a five flat in the 40-yard dash," I suddenly grasped my major malfunction: I was treating the draft like a matter of life and death.

In reality, it's much more important.

The draft rewards commitment, and celebrates overkill. Dilettantes need not apply. If I wanted to get well, I couldn't just make the draft a part of my life. I had to make my life a part of the draft. Which is why I've been running background checks on the guy who does my dry cleaning, administering Wonderlic exams to my parents' dog, and ranking and re-ranking my favorite TV shows on a homemade big board, the better to maximize viewing value:

"TODAY SHOW" SCOUTING REPORT

Weaknesses:

• Matt Lauer slightly nauseated by self.

• News mix consists of Prince Harry, political hacks yelling at each other, and who was eaten by a bear this week?

• Tom Cruise freak-outs not a regular feature.

Strengths:

• Screaming, sign-waving plaza morons louder than my alarm clock.

Mario Williams
How can you think about your wife and not Mario Williams at this time of year?
Slowly, I'm learning to love the draft. Some days are better than others. Two weeks ago, I celebrated my wedding anniversary. Sitting down for a fancy dinner, I panicked -- here I was, less than 400 hours from D-Day, and I wasn't thinking about Mario Williams. No, I was thinking about my lovely wife, and how I wanted to kiss her. I felt frustrated, embarrassed. Why was I so strange? Why couldn't I be like the millions of viewers who make the draft a ratings bonanza? All those New York fans waiting for the Jets to soil the bedsheets couldn't be wrong. Could they? As my reverie became more amorous -- Kiper's top five replaced by my wife's alluring smile -- I calmed myself the best I could.

I thought about baseball. And also Joel Buchsbaum.

Buchsbaum was the draftnik's draftnik, a Belichick favorite, a former Pro Football Weekly editor who reportedly worked 100-hour weeks assembling a revered annual draft guide. Four years ago, he was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment, alone, surrounded by game tapes and media guides. Presumably, he passed away happy. Presumably, he never thought about baseball.

As for me? Time will tell. All week long, I've been prepping for Saturday -- sharpening pencils, clearing off my couch, photocopying Street and Smith's draft day worksheets. I'm ready. Pumped. Problem is, I have a recurring fantasy: I wake up late. Spend the day outside. Grill some burgers for dinner. Kick back with a movie. No guilt. The next morning, I pick up the Sunday paper -- and maybe, just maybe, check on the draft. Unless I'm vacuuming my apartment or something.

Like I said, I'm a sick, sick man.

Patrick Hruby is a columnist for Page 2. Sound off to Page 2 here.