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Saturday, April 27, 2013
Where the waiting is the hardest part

By Elizabeth Merrill

The most horrible invention was the cell phone, right? And caller ID. Worthless caller ID. When you really need it, it fails you, and flashes the indecisive words, UNKNOWN NUMBER. That's the cue that something big is about to happen … or a telemarketer is calling. A lesser man would've thrown that phone into the Hudson River, but Aaron Rodgers knew that a prospective employer, that America, was watching. It was the 2005 NFL draft, and Rodgers was stuck in the green room for so long he could either laugh or cry. So he laughed.

It's much funnier now, the workers who started cleaning out the room while he was still in it, the deodorant that held up for 4 hours and 35 minutes, the texts -- oh, the texts -- from his buddies a couple thousand miles away. Every time that cell phone buzzed, Rodgers grabbed it in anticipation, hoping it was a team, sighing because it was another clown.

Hey, you're on camera! Smile.

How much hair gel did you use?

When the invitation came, it was flattering. It made him feel special. Come to New York, all expenses paid, for the NFL draft. Sit in the green room with five other guys who are considered to be the most talented college football players in the country. Rodgers, a Northern California boy, had never been to New York. That late-April week in 2005, six young men with hopes as high as the Manhattan skyline bonded. A kid named Alex Smith -- a quarterback, just like Rodgers -- had so much in common with Rodgers. They'd stay friends no matter what. Antrel Rolle, a cornerback from Miami, was a cool guy, too.

The day before they went under the bright lights of the Jacob Javits Center, the six of them were on a bus. They joked and wondered who'd be the last one to leave the green room. "I didn't think," Rodgers said, "it was going to be me at that point."

One long and miserable day later, the joke was on Rodgers, who lingered in the green room until the 24th pick. People ask him all the time: Would you do it again? Would you accept that ticket to New York? Rodgers thinks about the cameras that tracked his every move, and thinks about Joe Thomas, a tackle for Cleveland who in 2007 declined the trip to New York and instead carried on a family tradition by going fishing with his dad. If Rodgers could do it over again, maybe he'd grab a pole and do that.

"Unless you're a guaranteed No. 1," Rodgers said, "Unless you're going to be the first or second pick like last year when you knew that [Andrew] Luck and RG III were gonna go, I'd say, 'Stay home.' "

Take the tourist trek, wear the cheesy foam Statue of Liberty crown and the "I Love New York" T-shirt, and from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day, you can tour historic Radio City Music Hall, current site of the NFL draft, plus meet a Rockette for less than $25. But you cannot see the green room.

That's because the green room is neither green, nor a room. It's a cordoned-off area on stage, 3,440 square feet, that up until this year was separated by curtains. (This week, the NFL has decided to go with a graphic wall to make it look "cleaner" and more like a room).

The origin of the green room's name goes back hundreds of years, apparently to English theater. In show business, it's a waiting room for the performers before they go on stage.

At the draft, it's the place where dreams and nightmares unfold in front of millions. Mitt Romney didn't have cameras in his face as he watched the 2012 presidential election slip away; CEOs don't get promoted or demoted in front of a live audience. But that's what is unique about the green room. It makes heroes human.

Those who have braved this room call it a cross between the Grammys, the waiting room of the dentist's office and, inevitably, the New York State lottery.

"It's wonderland if you go early," said former NFL running back Thomas Jones, who went seventh overall in 2000. "If you don't, it can turn into solitary confinement."

The room itself is rather drab and utilitarian. There are landline phones on tables, though nobody seems to use them anymore. There's a snack area with sandwiches, Gatorade and various other non-messy, suit-friendly finger foods, though most guys are too nervous to eat.

The couches are gone, replaced by a mass of round tables. The room will be packed this year with 23 players, plus their families, their agents, some of their coaches, and occasionally a friend. Commissioner Roger Goodell expanded the invitation list a few years ago because he loves sharing the draft experience. More players, more stories.

The story almost always ends with a million-dollar smile. It may take hours, or even another day, but in the end, everyone gets out. They smile, hoist a freshly stitched jersey, and hop on a plane to a new city. A new start.



How this whole thing started depends on whom you ask. It is known that in 1980, ESPN came up with the plan to televise the draft, and Pete Rozelle, then the commissioner of the NFL, asked why, because it was so boring. It did not make for good TV. There was a pick, some analysis, some highlight footage and then maybe a phone interview and a graphic that seemed fancy at the time. And then there was another pick.

Greg Aiello, the NFL's senior vice president of communications who's also known as "the godfather of the green room," was with the Dallas Cowboys at about that time. Cable TV was new, and the Cowboys didn't have it. So they had a satellite service come in, stick a dish on the roof and run cables down to the offices so the execs in the war room and the local media could watch.

Sometime in the late 1980s, Aiello said, the NFL flew the No. 1 overall pick to New York after he was selected. Still, it didn't exactly make for riveting TV.

"In the 1990s, the production value started to increase," Aiello said, "the audience started getting bigger. So naturally the thought was, 'OK, how do we make this a little more entertaining?' "

The answer was to invite six of the top players to New York for the draft and stick them in a room together. The year it started is somewhat foggy. Longtime Dallas Cowboys exec and current NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt is certain it was in the mid-1990s, the same time the NFL launched a live Internet show that was expected to get 2,500 hits. It got 25,000. "Monday Night Football" producer Jay Rothman, who did the draft for more than a decade, said the league started flying players to New York for the draft around 1996 at the prodding of ESPN because it was getting too expensive to do live shoots in living rooms all over the country.

So the green room was born, and Brandt was tasked with helping predict which players would be drafted highest and earn an invite to New York. Usually, he was on the money. Some years, his picks went 1 through 6, which took away much of the drama.

Character, he said, was always a factor in the invitation list. In 1996, Lawrence Phillips, a troublemaking running back from Nebraska, was projected to be a high pick. "There was no way he was going to be there," Brandt said. Instead, the league flew in Leeland McElroy from Texas A&M. McElroy was an electrifying running back, but his prospects were iffy.

And thus began the NFL's version of reality TV. McElroy didn't just drop in the draft; he plummeted. He was still sitting at his table at No. 20. And No. 30. He dropped all the way to the second round.

"[The cameras] were all over that," Rothman said. "I mean, we had the kid sweating, crying, the whole nine yards."

They knew it then, that the draft was changing. But who could've imagined what it would become? That it would morph into the NFL's second season, with months of anticipation and wall-to-wall coverage for three days on two networks?

"[The green room] introduced a new dynamic," said Leigh Steinberg, who has represented eight No. 1 draft picks. "Because it's tense enough when you're in a room with three top clients and their families. At least they know each other. Now the dynamic is being in a room with 15 tables, 15 levels of anxiety and nerves, 15 different realities and expectations.

"It is a bit like childbirth. He bursts from womb, backstage, into the spotlight."



The first night of the draft is controlled chaos. Camera operators are trying to wedge their way through the tiny spaces between tables. Producers are bouncing from analysts to bored athlete shots to team draft rooms in anticipation of the next pick and wait … here comes a trade.

When a player is drafted, it's a sprint against the clock. He has 10 minutes to absorb the biggest moment of his life. Say he spends six of them embracing his mother, thanking his coach, high-fiving his old friend from high school. He still needs to make his way through those tables, through a staging area to grab his cap, then up the stage to meet the commissioner and pose for photos.

There are escorts from the NFL to help them along. They're the guys in the suits standing next to the table. Sometimes, they're a reminder to speed things up. There is a story from 2011 about how Texas A&M's Von Miller, a passionate linebacker, was just as passionate about sharing the moment with his family after the Denver Broncos picked him No. 2. Miller, the story goes, took a bit too long.

Michael Signora, an NFL vice president of communications, insists he was fine.

"I really cannot recall a single player that I would say took too long," he said. "Things happen, and players are overcome with emotion in some cases, and it does take time. But it's never too long."

Steinberg thinks the green room strips away a life-changing and private moment for family.

When he was the most powerful agent in the NFL, Steinberg gathered his players at a Marriott, filled the place with uncles and aunts and nieces and great-grandmas, and gave them time to compose themselves before the cameras came to them.

Some draft-day moments carried great memories. There was 1990, when Junior Seau went to San Diego.

"He had a bunch of his Samoan friends with him," Steinberg said. "They jumped up and down so long and so hard I thought I was back in California in the middle of an earthquake. The whole backstage was swaying back and forth. It was Looney Tunes."

But the NFL believes the green room enhances the moment. Signora played a voicemail that was left recently by Wanda Lacy, the mother of Alabama running back Eddie Lacy.

"I want to thank you so much," she said, "for allowing my baby to attend the NFL draft."



Justin Blackmon is a relatively quiet receiver who doesn't let much get to him. Maybe he's that way because of his father, Warren, an ex-Marine who matter-of-factly says there's no such thing as an ex-Marine. A person is a Marine for life.

Justin doesn't have a lot of memories from the green room; he was out of there fairly quickly, picked No. 5. He expected to be picked high and wasn't really nervous. End of story. Warren, who served in Iraq, doesn't get too deep, either. He says his wife is better at talking about these things and hands the phone to her.

Donna Blackmon remembers everything. A thousand things rushed through her mind that night. She thought about how Justin used to beg her to go to a bigger school in Oklahoma because he was worried he wouldn't get noticed and he desperately wanted to make it someday in the NFL. She thought about what she told him: If it's meant to be, it'll happen. She remembers thinking family -- not his agent -- should sit by Justin during the draft. Then she realized how handy that agent was.

The cameras are all over you in the green room, she said, and people who aren't athletes are very cognizant of it. She thought about what Justin jokingly told her once at an awards banquet. Don't pick your nose. They laughed at that.

When Blackmon received the invite from the NFL, he was rather unaffected. "We don't have to go there," he told his mom, and kept putting off the invite. The family, though, was well aware of how big of a deal it was. "Go for your PawPaw," Donna told him.

So he committed, and jokingly told his mom he got a purple suit, just to get a rise out of her.

As much as Donna tried to be a football mom, tried to watch the drafts in years past, she still got tripped up on some draft lingo. She didn't know the place they gathered last year was called the green room. She referred to it as "backstage." Perhaps the naiveté helped. There were 26 players in New York last year, and inevitably, some of them were left in the room Thursday night, when the final pick of the first round was called.

She didn't know what that meant.

"I thought, 'Oh, they didn't get a ride?' " she said. "But when they said, 'Left in the room,' it meant they didn't get drafted that night."

But Michelle Fleener knew exactly what it meant. Her son Coby, a tight end from Stanford, was projected in the first round, but there were no guarantees. Early in the night, his old teammate Andrew Luck, who went first, passed by the table and told his friend that if he didn't go in the first round, there was always Round 2 …

Luck was referring to his Indianapolis Colts' early pick in the second round.

The night wore on, Fleener didn't hear his name called, and all of a sudden, it was No. 32, and the Giants were up. They selected running back David Wilson. Michelle asked Coby if he was OK. He said he was fine. They arrived at Radio City Music Hall the next day, with Michelle wearing the same dress from the night before. She didn't pack another one. She didn't think she'd have to.

Two picks in, the Colts selected him. Luck and Fleener were together again.

"I just figured if it was meant to be, it was meant to be," she said. "And oh my gosh, it could not have worked out any better.

"Sometimes, when you're nervous about something, you forget things. I wanted to remember everything."



On the morning of April 23, 2005, Mike Sullivan, Aaron Rodgers' agent at the time, pulled Rodgers and his family aside. He wanted to prepare them for the possibility of a long day.

Alex Smith -- not Rodgers -- was going to be the No. 1 overall pick for the San Francisco 49ers, and after that, there was a long list of teams that may or may not pick a quarterback. Tennessee was one of them, but the Titans picked Adam "Pac Man" Jones at No. 6. When the Chiefs selected linebacker Derrick Johnson at 15, Rodgers got up and took a walk. He knew it was going to be a while, and needed some air.

His friends, sensing the pain, stopped texting wisecracks. It wasn't funny anymore. Rolle had been off the board since the eighth pick, making Rodgers the last guy in the green room.

It got so bad it was comical. When the cleaning crew started clearing the area, Eric Finkelstein, the event director for the draft, quickly called down and told the crew to stop.

The cameras followed Rodgers everywhere, and he didn't flinch. At 4:30 p.m. ET, the height of his angst, 4.8 million viewers were tuned in to ESPN to watch, according to the network.

"I mean, I literally kept it together for the majority of that 4½ hours," Rodgers said. "And the one time I do a little lip chatter where I kind of pffft, you know, blow some air and make my lips fall up and down, they catch that, and then they show that going into the break. It's like, 'Here's Aaron Rodgers, he's still sitting here. Man, he looks bored, you know?' "

Meanwhile, in a war room in Green Bay, the Packers were watching. They were impressed by his composure and the body of work he put together at Cal. But they also had a quarterback named Brett Favre who, up to that point, seemed indestructible.

The Packers had defensive needs to address early in this draft, but general manager Ted Thompson's philosophy has always been to go with talent over need and to draft for the future, not a quick fix. As their pick neared, Thompson asked Andrew Brandt, then a Packers executive who is now an NFL business analyst for ESPN, to get Sullivan on the phone. The plan was to keep him on the line for most of the 15 minutes until it was clear there were no trade offers.

So Brandt dialed the number, only it was Rodgers' phone, not Sullivan's.

"They finally call my phone, and it's a number I don't recognize," Rodgers said. "And I'm thinking now this has got to be a team. I pick up the phone, and there's no hello, no nothing. It's hey, put Mike on the phone. I'm thinking, 'Oh gosh, this can't be good.' "

Sullivan, a friend of Brandt's, kept asking out of the corner of his mouth if the Packers were going to take Rodgers (the cameras were still rolling). Brandt had the eyes of the Green Bay draft room on him, and couldn't say. With a few minutes left on the clock, Brandt finally was able to end Rodgers' misery.

"It's not so much adrenaline," Brandt said. "I just feel like we knew it was an important pick for the franchise. It was really a statement of the principle of drafting the best player available in the ultimate way."

Today, Rodgers will not come out and say that those long hours in the green room made him angrier, hungrier or any better. But it's clear he plays with a passion of a man who was overlooked since childhood. He is a Super Bowl champion and an MVP.

If he hadn't made the journey to New York, would he be the same?

"It was definitely a good learning experience," he said. "I look back on it now and I can only laugh about the feelings I had. Things obviously worked out really well in the end.

"But at the time, all I could think about was, 'Get me out of here.' "