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Draft day will never be the same

Lifelong Browns’ fan has the ultimate NFL experience

Submitted Photo Browns Backers Worldwide Chapter presidents from all over the United States, including Jamestown’s Paul Lombardo, attended the Browns Backers pre-draft party last week in Cleveland. Lombardo is kneeling at far left, next to Browns Backers worldwide director Corey Kinder (in the white-and-brown Cleveland jacket).

As stated multiple times in the Voice from the Bullpen, I love watching the NFL draft. When the draft began being televised (ESPN), on a 1980 April Tuesday morning, with the only lead analysts being Chris Berman, Mel Kiper Jr. and Paul Zimmerman, I came down with a mysterious ailment and called in sick. While TV channel surfing, I amazingly found the NFL draft to entertain me while I laid in bed. So it began for me.

The NFL draft back then wasn’t anything close to what’s seen on television over the three days of the current format today, with the exception of last year’s “pandemic draft.” Selections were announced by the NFL Commissioner for the first few rounds, then by the deputy commissioner and/or a representative from the NFL office. There were a couple analysts who were at remote locations adding input to selections, but the whole draft experience was about 99.9% football, with the rest a story here and there of human interest or coincidence. Today’s drafts are about 40% football and 60% hype/entertainment. All this being said, I love the NFL draft, but I’ll never see it the same from this moment on.

I’ve had many amazing opportunities in my life, many of them shared with my son, because they were, in my eyes (and my apologies to anyone who thinks this might be a sexist remark), father/son activities. When I heard the 2021 NFL draft was being held in “The Land,” I told Jon this would be one more thing to add to our unforgettable list of sports memories, so I began looking into the “hows” of making it happen.

As soon and they announced the ’21 draft would be in Cleveland, I made hotel reservations. That was well over a year ago, and the excitement began to build. Around the first of this year, Jon said if I brought Mom, he’d bring Erica, Gia and Olivia, and we could do a mini-vacation along with the draft and maybe go to the zoo, aquarium, and could share time with each other as the pandemic has limited our visits with them.

In the weeks leading up to this year’s draft, the Browns Backers Worldwide announced that there was a pre-draft party being sponsored by the Plank Road Browns Backers (Lakewood, Ohio) and any Backers could attend. We made that another possibility on our list for this experience. Another added surprise was an afternoon Tribe baseball game the same day as the evening Backers party, and we had tickets in our partial STH package.

Submitted Photo Sally and Paul Lombardo are seen at the NFL draft while the Browns are on the clock.

The last thing to do was get passes for the draft when they became available, so when I received word when that was, and how to get them, I was immediately on it. Mission accomplished, and I was psyched.

Fast forward.

Sally and I got to Cleveland for the Tribe game as planned, then went to our hotel to check in before the Backers to-do. Just before they were to leave for Cleveland, while we were at the hotel, Jon called and told us Gia had a 102-degree fever, and they wouldn’t be able to come. It was a good decision, as the next day it rained and was super cold, and the temps were not supposed to go up much the next couple days. The right decision, but still a bittersweet one. Missing their family so much, and excited to share the draft with Jon, we were looking forward to spending family time together, but the health of one’s kids always tops the list, and had to in this situation, too.

So, Sally and I proceeded to the Backers party, where I met/spoke to many Backers presidents and members from all over the country. I brought along Browns Backers of Jamestown stress balls that we give to out-of-town Backers who join us at Waddington’s Tavern for games during the season.

I also passed out cards with our address with an invitation to join us if they are ever in our area on game days. And I formally met the head of the Backers Worldwide, and got to meet and have a picture taken with former Brown, Eric Metcalf. Great way to begin the draft experience.

The next day it rained hard, so I took out my computer and the DVD of (what else?) Draft Day, and passed some time watching that, hoping the rain would stop. It didn’t, but we went to the sight of the draft anyway. We walked around checking things out. There weren’t a lot of people there, but we saw the Lombardi Trophy, some photo-op props, then hit the gift shop to add to our souvenir collection at home.

We returned to the hotel drenched and cold, got cleaned up, went to a nice little place for dinner, then back to the hotel to watch Round 1 of the draft on television, but in constant communication with my draft-day “partners,” Jon and Sam.

Up the next day, we chilled out for a while (no reference to the weather, though it really was windy/cold outside, but the sun was out). About 1 p.m., thinking we could get into the Draft Experience as we did the day before, we went down to the draft area, but were told our session passes were time sensitive, so we had to return at 7 p.m., our scheduled time.

We walked around, stopped, had coffee, walked around, stopped, had a beer, went back to the car and sat for a while, and about 5:30 p.m. went back down to the event site. We saw a father and adult son walking with “Carlson 89” jerseys on, and we stopped to talk to them. (I was wearing my Carlson jersey under my Browns jacket, too.) Turns out, their family name was Carlson, and they became instant fans of Stephen, and went right out and bought Stephen/personalized jerseys.

At 6:30 p.m., we finally were admitted into the Draft Experience and we immediately went to the designated station to prove our COVID vaccination and get wrist-banded to be admitted to the standby area of the venue where the announcement of picks took place. Mind you, to get all that done we had to go from one end of the stadium area to the other (covering six city blocks) about four times, plus with the walking we did the day before, and earlier that day, made for very tired legs and feet. But, mission accomplished. There we were at the standby area hoping to get the chance to get into the venue at some point.

Just after the Browns selection in the second round, a group of fans were asked if they wanted to go into the venue as some of the other team boxes were not filled and seats were available. Two of those people were Sally and me.

My tired feet left the ground and I began walking on air. It was amazing. We sat in the New York Giants box, as there were only two Giants fans left in that area. They were great people. The husband got to sit in the Commissioner’s chair and afterward cameras came back to the Giants area and filmed the excitement he and his wife were experiencing. I got a text from my friend, Franni Carlson, that they had just seen Sally and me on TV.

The Commissioner then went out into the crowd (photos, shaking hands, etc.) I went over and yelled I was from Jamestown, hoping he would hear, but I couldn’t get through his circle of protection and the noise was deafening, so I settled for a close-up pic of my fellow Jamestowner.

We watched the Browns final selection in Round Three, and with only five picks left and none of them Browns, we decided to get a head start toward the exits and make the long walk back to our car. We returned to our hotel about 12:30 a.m., but I was too wound up to sleep.

On Saturday, we slept in, had a late breakfast, and then put our tired feet up watching the rest of the draft on TV in our room. We weren’t alone though, as Jon and Sam were with me via text as Rounds 4-7 progressed. When the draft was over, we went for a light dinner, before collapsing into a hard, and well-earned, sleep.

Sunday morning, we were up at 5 a.m., grabbed a bagged breakfast at 6 a.m., watched Mass on TV at 6:30 a.m., and headed for home about 7:15 a.m.

The experience was amazing, and Sally was equally amazing keeping up with me. The draft, however, will never be the same for me, for however many years I have left. It will be better!

Watching the draft on television, hearing the selection announcement for your favorite team is exciting, but hearing it live and in person is surreal, and I’ll always remember that sky-high feeling as I watch all future years of the draft. Mission accomplished — another “bucket list” item now checked off.

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