ARLINGTON, Texas – The old man sat in the very last row of Section 454, by himself, taking it all in.
“It’s the biggest production I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I’m unbelievably thrilled just to sit up here in these nosebleed seats.”
His name is Robert Zalinski. He’s 63 years old, originally from Wisconsin, and he paid $20 outside JerryWorld on Thursday for a free ticket to see the NFL draft. He has never been to a Cowboys game — “Money,” he explained — and so he really wanted to be here. He begged his two adult sons to come too. They said no, so Robert came alone.
“I had to be here,” he said.
Football doesn’t need a football. The scoreboard doesn’t need a score. The game doesn’t need a game.
Thousands of people like Robert poured into JerryWorld on Thursday to watch 32 teams pick players, many of whom weren’t even here. It seems preposterous until you talk to some of those fans. They loved it all.
“It’s the anticipation of it,” said Storm James, who arrived at 11:30 a.m. and checked in for tickets on a draft app. She found herself on a standby list, behind more than 5,000 others. She waited it out and wound up in Sec. 454, only a few rows ahead of Robert. No complaints about all of the waiting. “I got a tan,” she said.
For a lot of fans who can’t afford an NFL game, or simply can’t make it on a fall Sunday, this is a pretty great alternative. There’s noise, there’s fanfare, there’s hope and resentment. There’s a sense of being there.
And, let’s face it, there’s more drama than many actual games.
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Thursday was absolutely wild, with the mystery of the Browns’ first two picks, the rush of quarterbacks going early, the big trades along the way, and the last-second choice by Baltimore to move back to the end of the first round to get Lamar Jackson. It was arguably the most unpredictable draft in recent memory, and it was free to the people who arrived early and got in (unless they paid $40 for parking).
No, it definitely didn’t have the zaniness of Philadelphia last year, but that’s the beauty of this moving carnival: Each destination has its own personality and its own community of fans who otherwise might never see something like this. Think Robert would fly to New York City to watch his beloved Packers announce a draft pick? He barely made it here Thursday after his work shift at a trucking company.
“I wasn’t actually chosen to be in here,” he said. “I was 14,000 on the standby, but I ran into some Cleveland fans who had some extra tickets and I bought a ticket for 20 bucks.”
Even the fans are making spur-of-the-moment trades.
Robert and Storm and the hundreds of others in their packed section couldn’t see anything on the stage far below, but they could see the stage itself: the colors, the technology, the whole display. It looked like an enormous condor had landed on the field, with black curtains as wings and a huge video board for a head. Most people who come to this stadium watch the Jumbotron anyway, so this was no different.
And everyone in every seat could hear and react to the other fans: the euphoric jeers for Roger Goodell; the buzzy murmurs at the announcement of the Bucs getting a haul of picks in a deal with the Bills for their top-10 choice; and the strange sound of ambivalence when the Cowboys took a relatively unknown Boise State lineman named Leighton Vander Esch with their choice. This is really the only time of the whole year when all the teams have a chance to win the day; everybody walks away with something.
The fans can peacock too. A couple of Bengals fans drove down from Cincinnati, with one of them wearing a makeshift Frank Ragnow jersey because he wanted his team to draft a center. (Cincinnati did get a center, right after Ragnow went to the Lions.) Think about it: a guy took the time to create his own jersey of an offensive lineman he hoped would join his team. “We’re football nerds,” he said.
And that’s OK here. There’s no shame in wearing a 15-year-old jersey of a retired player or a guy who got traded. There’s not even shame in being a Browns fan. It all adds to the spectacle.
In a real football game with a real score, plenty of people shuffle out to the parking lot afterward with sour feelings or drunken breath or frostbite or all of the above. Here, most everyone is feeling no pain. Where will the draft be held next year? It doesn’t matter. They could hold it in a parking lot behind an abandoned drive-in theater. It works anywhere, everywhere. It’s the only time when a 63-year-old guy can pay $20 for a free ticket and feel like he won the lottery.
More NFL draft coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Dan Wetzel: Browns bet on monster gamble in Mayfield
• Giants take Barkley with No. 2 pick instead of Darnold
• Did Cardinals get NFL draft’s best QB with 10th pick?
• NFL draft grades 2018: The emoji edition