My Super Bowl in April
Voice of the Fan

My Super Bowl in April

Seats can't go empty at the made-for-TV NFL draft, so the league holds a ticket lottery for fans to fill in the crowd. A Browns supporter shares his experience coming off the bench to attend the big show for the first time

Courtesy of David Occhionero

BY DAVID OCCHIONERO 

Thursday, April 28, was like any other day for me. I went to work, finished my day at Logan Consulting, picked up an Italian beef to go from Al’s and walked to the rush-hour-busy CTA Red Line.

Except this time, instead of heading north toward the Lincoln Park apartment I share with my fiancée, Adriane, I heading south to go to the Super Bowl.

Wait a minute—the Super Bowl in April? In Chicago?

You see, I’m a lifelong Browns fan. So the past 17 years have not brought much success on the football field. This has led to feelings of sadness and depression in the fall, which blossom into hope and excitement in April. Rinse and repeat. For years the breath of fresh air for Browns fans would take place in New York City, where a young college football player would take the stage, don a Browns hat, throw on a size XXXL No. 1 Browns jersey over his suit and smile for the camera. Since our return in 1999, this exercise has been our Super Bowl—not Tom Brady holding his head in his hands in amazement, not Drew Brees raising his son into the air while confetti rains down, not Peyton Manning exclaiming he cannot wait to crack open a Budweiser in celebration. Our Super Bowl consists of montages showing Brandon Weedens, Johnny Manziels and Brady Quinns in baseball hats. Don’t believe me? Look at the ratings. Thursday’s first round drew a 13.3 rating in the Cleveland market, the highest in the land. 

Last year the NFL took its show on the road and relocated to Chicago. At the time when the announcement was made, I thought it would be an amazing experience to witness the draft live. I have been watching it religiously for years, and attending the draft has always been on my wish list. My cousin Jamie and I did our homework, and we both were shocked to learn that the NFL actually requests to have seat-fillers for the event. Up until a couple of weeks ago my only knowledge of seat-filling was when Kramer from Seinfeld, acting in that capacity, was accidentally ushered on stage, picking up a Tony award for Scarsdale Surprise. I thought this concept could only be concocted in the mind of Larry David. Not only was I wrong with my assumption, but we discovered that there was a lottery for tickets to the draft. The odds were not great, but we had to take a chance. Sure enough, hell froze over and both Jamie and I had won tickets to the NFL draft—my Super Bowl!

I decided to wear a vintage Browns shirt with images of Reggie Langhorne and Webster Slaughter, and I threw my Lawrence Vickers No. 47 jersey over my right shoulder for good measure. For those who do not recall (probably most of you), Vickers was the lead fullback who paved the way for Peyton Hillis (remember him?) to have that amazing year. He was the type of player Cleveland could relate to: a hardworking, blue-collar, bring your lunch pail to work every day player. I capped it off with my Browns hat and was ready for my adventure.

3:30 p.m. We got off the train and headed east toward Draft Town.

Photo:

Unruly seat fillers herded in a holding pen to wait for their seat.

4 p.m. We were advised not to linger around the seat-filler entrance, but as you can see from the picture, an unruly mob started to gather. While waiting to be admitted, several brave members of the mob made the usual lazy jokes to us about drafting Manziel, which is par for the course for us Browns fans. Eventually were allowed into the “Pen,” a gated area where we had to check in with a Photo ID and our signed waiver. Once we were through the check in we received a wristband and a towel.

4:46 p.m. After we made it through the initial check in, we were led to a holding area.

5:25 p.m. After a grueling hour waiting in the holding area, the event coordinators finally released us in a single file line, down a closed Michigan Avenue. Finally it seemed as if were making some progress. After a brisk walk we were brought to a halt on Michigan Avenue, only to wait in another line. Skepticism crept into my mind, and I wondered if I ever was going to make it into the draft.

Photo:

Seat fillers procession down Michigan Avenue.

5:41 p.m. The line started to pick up speed, and we breezed by Chicago cops by showing our teal-colored wristbands. We zoomed by the numerous restaurants and stores on Michigan Avenue, and eventually strolled by the NFL’s red carpet entrance. An event coordinator with an earpiece connected to a radio extended her arm and handed me a piece of paper. After what felt like an eternity, I had finally received my draft ticket!

6:03 p.m. The Promised Land! Inside the Auditorium Theatre, I took a few pictures and settled into my seat in the balcony level. The people around us were the extended families and friends of the players, the ones who didn’t it in the green room.

• THE FIRST DRAFT OF HISTORY: Jenny Vrentas on Cleveland's new approach to the draft

6:05 p.m. Along with our ticket we had received a goody bag consisting of a radio, Skittles, Cheetos and rookie trading cards. I think the anxiety of the wait was getting to me, as it only took me 10 minutes to polish off my Skittles. The clock was slowly ticking away. In my mind I developed a personal checklist that I felt the Browns should address this weekend: 

  • Trade down from No. 8 and get into the teens if possible. If we stay at 8, take the best available tackle.
  • Draft a quarterback but do not reach for one. Images of Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder were fresh in my head. Look at Christian Hackenberg, Kevin Hogan and Cardale Jones in the later rounds.
  • Draft a wide receiver with size. Andrew Hawkins and Taylor Gabriel are fantastic players, do better in space, but are not physical receivers. Draft defensive players. Go with the best player available regardless of position. 

6:30 p.m. The Auditorium attentively watched the “Dear Peyton” Gatorade commercial showing on the big screen, paying their respects to one of the all-time greats. Fans of all teams were sprinkled throughout the sections, but in our immediate section we had a plethora of Bears fans, with Titans and Viking fans filling out a few rows.

7 p.m. “Right Now” by Van Halen blared through the speakers, and an air of excitement permeated crowd. At a quarter past the hour, Roger Goodell made his first appearance and was welcomed by a chorus of boos from the crowd. He announced the selection of Jared Goff, and Tupac’s “California Love” began playing. Carson Wentz was selected next at 7:23 p.m., and he came out to country music. These quarterbacks definitely have different tastes in music.

My stomach started churning. How was this regime going to handle this pick? Were these Moneyball guys going to do what I wanted?

7:30 p.m. In my opinion, the No. 3 pick was the first pivot point of the draft. Who would San Diego take? I was very surprised by the Joey Bosa pick, I thought they would take Laremy Tunsil. A thunderous roar erupted from the section next to me—apparently members of Bosa’s entourage were a couple seats over. The Cowboys then made Ezekiel Elliot the newest member of their organization, and based on loud applause it was clear why they are called America’s team. 

8 p.m. A few more picks came off the board, and each time Roger Goodell walked on the stage, the fans passionately booed. The Ravens selected Ronnie Stanley. Great… A division rival has a cornerstone at left tackle for the next 10 years. The Browns were still sitting at No. 8, and the emotions started stirring up. Cautious optimism permeated my brain, but I was pleased to hear at 8:03 p.m. that we were trading back! This is what I had wanted all along, and now I turned my attention to pick No. 15. I jotted down two names in my notebook: Josh Doctson and Laquon Treadwell.

Photo:

Cleveland on the clock...

8:30 p.m. I thought once the Dolphins picked, we would have our choice of wide receivers, since Miami and Oakland were not wide receiver-needy teams. Both Miami and Oakland adhered to my logic, and my stomach started turning. How was this regime going to handle this pick? Were these Moneyball guys going to do what I wanted? Were they finally going to turn this franchise around? At 8:56 p.m. Roger Goodell walked to the podium and uttered the words, “With the 15th pick in the 2016 NFL draft, the Cleveland Browns [HERE WE GO!] select Corey Coleman, wide receiver, Baylor.”  Okay, I thought, he was not one of my top two prospects, but this guy is a playmaker with a nose for the end zone. He has speed, and speed kills in the NFL. He has some similar traits to Odell Beckham Jr., and he seems like a future Steve Smith. This guy oozes potential. I love this pick! Line him up and let him terrorize the AFC North with RG3.

9 p.m. I started analyzing the rest of the first round. Would we trade back into the first round to secure a quarterback for the future? That first-round pick gets a fifth-year option, which I am sure the analytics guys love.

9:30 p.m. The draft continued to hum along, pick by pick, as I listened to the guys analyze the selections on my radio. Both Doctson and Treadwell got drafted. When the latter’s name was called around 9:50 p.m., the row in front of me erupted in cheers. His family was definitely in attendance, and the excitement was obvious. They turned around, and we shared high fives. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh made selections to boost their secondary. There are going to be some classic divisional battles between the young Coleman and these young defensive backs. 

10 p.m. We inched our way closer to the stage for the final few picks.

The curse of eternal optimism from being a Browns fan is setting in.

Denver traded up to get Lynch, and the rest of the first round concluded without a team making another quarterback selection. I had thought the 49ers might pick one, but they instead opted for a guard. Seattle made their pick and the draft concluded without the Browns moving up to make a selection. What a whirlwind of a day!

Photo:

In addition to Coleman, subsequent picks from the weekend resulted in a group of wide receivers, a quarterback, pass-rush help and reinforcements in the secondary and offensive line. We bolstered our position in future drafts and finally have a clear two-to-three year plan in place. All of our picks from this draft are high character guys who appear ready to compete from day one and elevate the competition among incumbent starters. 

The curse of eternal optimism from being a Cleveland Browns fan is setting in. The front office and coaches are finally aligned on long-term goals. There is a clear organizational structure, and we have hired brilliant minds as decision makers. We have our quarterback in RG3, and our team is one of the youngest in the league. The aforementioned future draft picks will set this franchise up for years to come to compete in both the division and conference. 

I am getting chills thinking about RG3 throwing darts in Hue Jackson’s offense. We have a great cover corner and the leader of our defense in Joe Haden. Pep Hamilton and Ray Horton are seasoned assistants ready to take our team to the next level. Chris Tabor always has the special teams in order. I feel great about this team. The Super Bowl is in Houston next year. Who says I will not be attending and cheering on my Brownies? The never ending hope of a Browns fan continues…

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