Fans make a beeline for NFL draft showcase



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NFL Draft returns with fans Image: NFL

Heavy showers did not prove to be a deterrent for thousands of fans from pouring into downtown Cleveland (US) on April 29th hours before the City’s first-ever National Football League (NFL) Draft – and the first big public event of any kind in more than a year. The NFL returned its annual Draft to much of its traditional glitz and hype, hosting upwards of 50,000 fans at the FirstEnergy Stadium in Ohio after last year’s episode was reduced to a virtual one due to the coronavirus curse.

The NFL Draft was held from April 29th to May 1st in downtown Cleveland.

‘ESPN’ stated that the COVID-19 outbreak globally in March 2020, which had ravaged the United States in a big way, transformed last year’s Draft into a virtual event. But, the nightmare is not over yet in the sense that (fans at the event must wear a mask, have their temperature checked and answer a health questionnaire before entering; those in vicinity of the stage have been vaccinated.) But the energy which was emanating from the FirstEnergy Stadium in Ohio to the newly erected Draft stage set on the bank of Lake Erie was a tangible sign that the coronavirus dust is finally settling in the US.

The 67,895-capacity FirstEnergy Stadium is a multipurpose stadium in Cleveland, Ohio, United States, primarily for American football. It is the home field of the Cleveland Browns of the National Football League (NFL), and serves as a venue for other events such as college and high school football, soccer and concerts.

The FirstEnergy Stadium serves as the residence of the Cleveland Browns. The Cleveland Browns are a professional American football team based in Cleveland. Named after the original coach and co-founder Paul Brown, they compete in the National Football League (NFL) as a member club of the American Football Conference North division.

Each offseason, the National Football League (NFL) commissions a Draft consisting of both a standard and supplemental process for selecting amateur or semi-professional players. Certain aspects of the Draft, including team positioning and the number of rounds in the Draft, have been revised since its creation in 1936, but the fundamental method has remained the same.

Said Sarah Aude, waiting in the rain with her husband, Joe, and father-in-law to peruse the Draft experiences Super Bowl ring display – “You see how many people are here, regardless of this weather. That just tells you how much Cleveland loves the Browns and loves football.”

The last time the Audes were at FirstEnergy Stadium was to click their engagement photos. COVID-19, however, forced them to scrap the big wedding they had planned last May. Instead, they had to get married in their backyard in front of just a handful of family members.

Said Joe Aude, “Fantastic to be back. And we’ll definitely be back in the Fall.”

‘ESPN’ further stated that for fans of a perennial loser (read the Cleveland Browns), the Draft had always been Cleveland’s Super Bowl. But now that the Browns hold Super Bowl aspirations again, the anticipation of the upcoming season manifested in the perpetual reverberation of ‘Here we go Brownies!’ chants and Dawg Pound (read the bleacher section behind the East end zone in FirstEnergy Stadium which lodges diehard fans) barks.

The Super Bowl is the annual championship game of the NFL. It has served as the final game of every NFL season since 1966, replacing the NFL Championship Game. Since 2004, the game has been played on the first Sunday in February.

Said an elderly fan, “This is important – you need something to hang on to. I know a lot of people say football is not very important. But spiritually, it is, you know?”

Rayshon Jackson of Cleveland, who has gone through harrowing times due to COVID-19, stated, “It’s been terrible because we lost a few family members. Been a tough year for everybody. This is really my first time out with a lot of people. It’s so great – I’m really enjoying it.” Jackson brought his two sons, Jeremiah, 10, and Jaylen, 6, to the Draft.

Tommy Darr and Logan Hartsock, of Coshocton, Ohio, were just happy to be talking trash to each other in person again.

Stated a staunch supporter of the Cleveland Browns, “Such a big relief to be here. We’ve been stuck inside for over a year, and it seemed like there was never any end in sight. We got kind of worried this event wasn’t going to happen. Then when we figured out that it was on, it was awesome. The rain was not going to stop us.”

Coming a year after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the NFL to stage the Draft virtually and the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced picks from the basement of his suburban New York home, this year’s event featured many of the normal accompaniments.

The League built a custom-designed draft theater near the FirstEnergy Stadium, home of the Cleveland Browns, and armed the expansive structure with an extensive array of lighting and digital signage. Fans located closest to the stage all were required to have had a COVID-19 shot, and a series of other safety protocols were in place.

But fundamentally, the event saw the return of frenzied fans, something Goodell was critical for the League, even as he was loudly booed, as is now a custom for the Draft.

“I didn’t come out of my basement for nothing. Let’s go!” Goodell said, exhorting the crowd as he took the stage.

Goodell stated, “We all agree that over the past season, one thing that we missed the most was all our fans, all of you. And we can’t wait to have all of you back at FirstEnergy Stadium and in every stadium across the League.”

The huge fan turnout for the first day of the Draft was the largest gathering for a sports-related function in the United States since the start of the pandemic. That mark, however, is set to be soon eclipsed by auto racing’s Indianapolis 500 in late May.

Due to the pandemic and need to still enforce social distancing provisions, the 2021 Draft turnout is still far less than the approximately 600,000 people who attended two years ago in Nashville, Tennessee (US).

After making Draft selections from their homes last year, team executives this year were back to their respective franchise facilities.

Last year’s Draft, held in the early days of the pandemic, essentially had the entire American sports landscape to itself with many major pro sports properties still on pause at that point. But this year’s event is competing with full game schedules for entities such as the Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Hockey League (NHL).

After a year of staying inside the house as COVID-19 bludgeoned the United States, for the NFL fans it was like ‘come rain or shine….’ they would be in the venue irrespective of the weather elements.

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