The draft is one of the NFL’s most highly anticipated events, but the spectacle we see today doesn’t much resemble the drafts of eras past. Over time, as the league has evolved, its draft has, too — from a late-fall event many players didn’t realize was happening to a springtime behemoth that dominates headlines for months after the Super Bowl is over. With that in mind, we asked former players from different eras for the story of the moment they’d learned they’d been drafted. Here is what we learned:
Tom Matte, 1961 — Round 1, Pick 7 (Baltimore Colts, NFL) and Round 5, Pick 37 (New York Titans, AFL)
“They had to find me. I was actually sitting at the North Heidelberg in Columbus, Ohio, not paying too much attention to it at all. There were no scouts out looking for me or anything like that. It was way laid-back and not really as exciting as it is today. But somebody finally called me and said, ‘Hey, listen, we’re going to come down and talk to you,’ and they arrived that afternoon after the morning draft. Then they sat down with me and said, ‘We want you to come to Baltimore,’ and I said, ‘Why?’ because I never thought I’d get picked and they had John Unitas. I was an All-American quarterback at Ohio State, so what the hell do they need me for? But they said they may switch me to running back or defensive back, so I was very surprised, but very pleased.”
Fred Arbanas, 1961 — Round 2, Pick 22 (St. Louis Cardinals, NFL) and Round 7, Pick 54 (Dallas Texans, AFL)
“The draft wasn’t that big a deal back then. That’s just the way it was. But at that time I was living in married housing at Michigan State, and I knew there was going to be a draft because I’d been contacted by several teams in both leagues. And about two days (after the NFL Draft) I was notified that I’d been drafted (by the St. Louis Cardinals), and it was the same with the Dallas Texans, about two days after the (AFL) draft. It was very slow getting in contact with the guys they drafted.
“(I decided to go to Dallas) because the money was a little bit better with the Texans, and I also had a no-cut contract. St. Louis matched the no-cut contract, and the money was almost the same, but I always wanted to move to Texas back then, and St. Louis, I didn’t know a thing about it, so it wasn’t that attractive to me. Plus I had a teammate that I played at Michigan State with, Paul Rochester, that was already with the Texans, and I didn’t know anybody with the Cardinals. There were several things involved.”
“Back then, the draft, instead of being in the spring, was in the fall, shortly after our last regular-season game. I wasn’t really following the draft and had not been contacted by any teams previous to the draft. The only indication I had that there might be a chance I’d be drafted was there was a scout that visited our team, representing several different teams, and somebody interviewed him from our school newspaper and he gave his impressions of seven or eight of the seniors. And I remember he said he was impressed with my blocking.
“But I didn’t even know when the draft took place, so there was no anticipation. Then the day of the draft, I was on campus, and my wife heard on the radio that I had been drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the ninth round. She called me up and was pretty excited, and she said, ‘Do you want to play?’ And I think this deep passion that I have for football came out in that moment, and I told her, ‘Absolutely.’ Not too much longer, Gil Brandt flew up to Seattle, and of my pro career, my most vivid memories were in the fall of 1963, when Gil came up and spent the weekend with us.”
Steve Spurrier, 1967 — Round 1, Pick 3 (San Francisco 49ers)
“Here at Florida, most all the football players used a local attorney named Bill O’Neal, who’s not around any longer. He was our lawyer, agent of record, whatever, and he did it for nothing. So he was our man, and I was down in his law office down in Gainesville.
“So I was sitting there for the draft, and he was on the phone and looked at me and said, ‘The San Francisco 49ers just got you.’ I hadn’t talked to anybody from the 49ers — not a soul. I had talked to the New Orleans Saints because they had the first pick, as a new team. I had talked to somebody from the New York Giants, one of the Mara sons, and maybe one or two other teams. But there was no Combine, no tryouts. They didn’t come by. They just watched your film, and then they had a draft.
“(The media coverage) was also completely different. There was no television. They just put it in the newspaper the next day. Then I flew out there two, three days after, in San Francisco, and the quarterback, John Brodie, who I played behind for six years, was there with the general manager, the coach. A couple years earlier Joe Willie Namath signed for $400,000, and people thought that was the most money any athlete would ever make in the world. Then they had the merger and the money cut back a bunch, and in ‘67, most all of us who were first-round picks — my signing bonus was $25,000, which was still a whole bunch back then, for sure.”
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Steve Grogan, 1975 — Round 5, Pick 116 (New England Patriots)
“It wasn’t on TV, wasn’t on the radio. Nobody really knew anything that was going on. I was finishing up my degree, student-teaching, and I asked the guy I was working for at the school if I could take the day off to see if somebody might call. I basically sat around my dorm room most of the day, and at about 5 Central time the phone rang it was Coach (Chuck) Fairbanks with the Patriots saying they were thinking about drafting me. I said that would be great, and he hung up, and called me back a little bit later and said they had drafted me.
“Because I had some neck problems in college, I was told I could go anywhere from No. 1 to not drafted at all, and back then there were 17 or 18 rounds of the draft, so you could sit around for a couple days and not know anything. So it was special when I got that call, and I don’t think I had any bad feelings that I didn’t go earlier. I was just glad somebody was going to give me the chance to play football.”
“I think the year before or two years before was the first time the draft was on TV, and before that you had to sit around by your phone all day with no idea what was going on. So I was home and as the draft was going on — I think it had just gone off TV for the day, and I hadn’t been drafted, and then I get a call from Dick Vermeil saying the Philadelphia Eagles were about to draft me in the third round. So I didn’t get to see it on TV, and it was a little disappointing because I’m watching, watching, and then all of a sudden the (coverage) is over. But my phone rang a few minutes later. I just missed the TV cutoff.”
“I lived in a house with five other guys in East Lansing, and we pretty much had a party all day. We ordered a keg and had invited the local media to come and hang out so they could catch the reaction live and tape that and show it on the local news when it happened. But it didn’t happen until like 5:30 that evening, so everybody had been drinking that keg all day and the thing was floating. It was really just another excuse to have a party.
“Of course, when I did get the call from the Saints, from Bum Phillips, it was just relief that, ‘OK, it finally happened.’ Because you hear that you might get drafted in the second round, the third round, you might drop. You just never know. And the crazy thing was that I hadn’t had any contact with the Saints at all. I had no inclination that I was going to New Orleans. That wasn’t even on my radar. Nevertheless, I was very happy that the call came.”
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Don Majkowski, 1987 — Round 10, Pick 225 (Green Bay Packers)
“I was in my apartment all by myself at University of Virginia, and I turned on the TV at 8 a.m. when it started. I had no idea what to expect, and I just sat in the apartment all by myself for the entire day. In the first round that year, there were four quarterbacks drafted and when I saw that, I was on the edge of my seat — ‘I’ve got to be one of the next guys’ — because I was right up with those guys. But as it turned out, it was probably one of the longest, most frustrating, most disappointing and sad days I had to go through.
“When the draft went off (TV) around 6, and I hadn’t been drafted yet, and I was really disappointed. And in the sixth round, I got a call from the Buffalo Bills, from Bill Polian, and they wanted to draft me and make me into a free safety. But I told Bill to pass on me and not to waste a pick because I wanted to play quarterback, and they had Jim Kelly and Frank Reich as their quarterbacks. So as it turned out I just sat around the apartment as it got later and later and later, and I actually fell asleep. I didn’t get my call until probably midnight, by the Green Bay Packers in the 10th round.
“I’ve got to be honest, when they called me, I was not very excited. I was happy to get drafted, and it had nothing to do with the team, but I was very upset that I went that late, so I probably didn’t show much excitement when Forrest Gregg gave me the call. I just took all the information they gave me — when I needed to report, all that — and hung up the phone. I was very matter-of-fact about it. It’s not a great memory, a very difficult day. But things turned out pretty well.”
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Craig Kupp, 1990 — Round 5, Pick 135 (New York Giants)
“I was at Pacific Lutheran University, and I didn’t get invited to the Combine or anything like that, so I was kind of one of those off-the-grid, small-school guys. Maybe 12 teams had come by the school and I’d had contact with them, but we really had no idea where I was going to go, or if I was going to get drafted.
“Back then, I think the first five rounds were on the first day and then they did the remaining rounds the following day, and I think it was on a Saturday. So my girlfriend, who is now my wife, and my brother, we came back home to just be with the family on draft day, and of course we tuned in and watched as it was going along, and marked the quarterbacks that were being drafted. But the coverage only went into the early third round, and then it was off the air.
“So it’s getting later in the day and I started doing homework, and I think it was around 8 Pacific Time that the phone rang and Jimmy Phelan was on the other line. He said the Giants just drafted me and that they wanted me to gather my stuff and get out there the next day for the media. It was a phenomenal experience to get that call, and I just remember that night staying up with my folks and with Karen and my brothers, talking through it. The phone started ringing right after I was picked with (calls from) newspapers back in New York because no one had ever heard of me. They were just trying to figure out who this Kupp character was.”
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Herman Moore, 1991 — Round 1, Pick 10 (Detroit Lions)
“I was at my mother’s home in Danville, Virginia, and we were waiting to find out what my position would be. At that moment, all indications were that I would be a high draft pick, and I had taken visits to Denver to meet with coach Dan Reeves, and they were deciding between me and Mike Croel, the linebacker. Wayne Fontes, the (Lions’) head coach at the time, had also visited me at the University of Virginia to do a workout at the stadium, and at that point I knew I was one of the top players on the board. But we’ve all seen the draft stories, and I was very fearful about being on television and being that guy that doesn’t get picked.
“So I was sitting around and got my first phone call and it was from Denver. They called and said they were considering picking me with the No. 4 pick, that it was ultimately going to come down to (Croel) or myself, but then I heard the commissioner give the announcement (on TV), and that’s when the phone kind of went silent. Then later, I ended up getting a call while the Lions were on the board with the 10th pick, and Wayne called me directly and said, ‘Welcome to Detroit, young man.’ But in my mind I was like, ‘Sure, OK, let’s just wait and see what happens.’
“But then seeing the commissioner walk across the stage and announce that the Lions are picking Herman Moore, it was a very surreal moment. A lot of people will say that, but when you’ve gone through that, you know it means your life immediately changes. I remember seeing the jubilation in the people who were there — my mom, my dad, my sister, my future wife — and everyone started jumping up and down. It was just a magical moment.”
“I got a hotel in Santa Monica, and that was just a reason to party. I had no family, had maybe one friend and a few girls over the night before, and was partying like it was New Year’s Eve. And before I knew it, I get a knock at the hotel door, and it’s my agent, because the draft starts Eastern time, and he is completely flustered because he can see behind me, the girls and liquor and everything that goes along with that. So he kind of escorted everybody out — time got away from me, obviously — and the last thing I told him was, ‘Wake me up when the Raiders are on the clock,’ and I went to sleep.
“Later I get a nudge and the TV in the hotel room was on and I see the then-commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, walking to the podium, and while he’s walking to the podium, my hotel room phone rings and it was Art Shell, and he said, ‘It’s unanimous here at the organization that we’re going to take you with our first pick.’ That kind of went parallel with Tagliabue’s walk, and he made the announcement, then I handed the phone to my agent and went to the balcony and kind of released kind of like a primal scream of elation, because it was a long road to get to that point. That was my goal since I was a young boy, and it felt really good to be drafted by the team I wanted to play for for a long time.”
“I’m backstage (at the draft) and I’m sitting there a while because I’m the eighth pick and it takes a little time. So even though I went top 10, I was probably waiting there about an hour, and I got a little impatient, a little nervous. Because they’ve got cameras there, and you want to be drafted high. And to see the guy I played against, who I had a good game against, (Alabama DE Eric) Curry, go No. 6 to Tampa, I was like, ‘Well, damn.’
“So you’re thinking about all these different scenarios and where you’re going to end up, and you’ve met with all these teams. I (originally) thought I was going to Detroit with the eighth pick, but the Saints traded up and traded Pat Swilling (for) the eighth spot. I was just very ecstatic to know I was going to play in the same state where I played college football. I’m from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, so I knew my dad would be driving to all the games like he did in college, so to me it was a blessing to be in my own back yard.”
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Troy Brown, 1993 — Round 8, Pick 198 (New England Patriots)
“I was at home by myself in Huntington, West Virginia, when I got drafted on the very last day. And I just remember the phone call because I thought I was going to get a call late Saturday or earlier on that Sunday. I was still pretty happy when I got that call from Bobby Grier and Bill Parcells telling me, ‘Welcome to the New England Patriots.’ But I was also almost about to leave the house (when they called).
“There was a little bit of talk about me possibly going in the fourth, but as it was explained to me, things start happening and guys start moving up and down the board and teams start reorganizing their stuff. I don’t know how true it was, but I was definitely a little disappointed that I ended up getting pushed down so late. Because you don’t understand how things really work in the NFL. You see all these guys who you played against, and you’re like, ‘I can outplay him,’ and, ‘I can outplay that guy,’ and you feel like you’ve got something to prove, that I should have been picked in a higher spot. But I think that happens to everybody. You could be picked 25th in the draft and still have a chip on your shoulder.”
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Mike Alstott, 1996 — Round 2, Pick 35 (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
"I was at Purdue, and I was at a restaurant with my family and players and friends, stuff like that, and at that time, the first round was pretty much the only thing that was televised. I think the scrolling ticker at the bottom (of the screen) had probably just come out and you could see it scrolling by with who was next in line.
"I had no idea the order of picks as far as teams, but I knew that there were a handful of teams that were interested, that I had visited, and I thought I was going to go in the later first round, possibly to the Steelers. But that’s the year that they traded for (Jerome) Bettis, so once I heard they traded for Bettis, I had no idea what the next options were.
"Then a few picks later, Jill Hobbs from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the secretary to the GM at the time, called me and got Coach (Tony) Dungy on the phone, and next thing I know I’m heading to Tampa. We had a little section in the back room of the restaurant where we used to go to eat all the time after games at Purdue. It was maybe 15 or 20 people, and we were ecstatic. Everybody was obviously very happy. For me, it was just a dream come true to play football in the NFL, and wherever I went, I was just happy to start my journey."
“I’m from Florence, Kentucky, and the Cincinnati airport is in Florence, and we went to Montgomery Inn Boathouse, rented out a boat and basically had the hugest draft party. We had barbecue, and it was just fun, my friends from Kentucky and Cincinnati were there. And it was kind of crazy because the Bengals had the fourth pick and they were talking about trading Corey Dillon away and bringing me in, or that was the rumor. That was so exciting because we thought we were going to go up to the top of the street to keep the party going, but they wound up picking Peter Warrick. Then the Ravens said it was either going to be me or Jamal Lewis (at No. 5), that they were 50-50 in the meeting room, but they picked (Lewis).
“I also had a desire to go to the New York Giants. My cousin Ben was a big Giants fan, and it was kind of rubbing off on me from sixth or seventh grade. So Arizona had the seventh pick, and my agent was sitting next to me saying it could be Arizona, and then they picked Thomas Jones. So I thought, ‘OK y’all, we’re going to New York.’ And I remember it clear as day, the 10th pick went and then they said, ‘Oh and hey, the 11th pick is already ready.’ I looked over at my agent, and I said, ‘Hey, is it normal for them to pick you without calling?’ and he said, ‘That doesn’t usually happen.’ And then they said, ‘Running back, Wisconsin, Ron Dayne,’ and everyone is like, ‘What? No! Booo!’ I so wanted to be a Giant.
“But then I had a great, spiritual moment, when my cousin came to me and said, ‘You’re supposed to go where you’re supposed to go, and God’s got it.’ So 19th pick comes and Mike Holmgren had called at 17 saying, ‘I can’t believe you’re still here. Are you ready?’ And I said, ‘Man, I’m going to tear this place up.’”
“The NFL Draft, the whole weekend is filled with a lot of emotions. For some it’s uncertainty about where you’re going, when you’re going to be picked. There’s excitement that your dreams are about to become reality.
"Depending on who you are, it’s really mixed emotions. I was at my house with my mom. It was Sunday, so I actually watched the entire draft — that’s when it was only two days, a Saturday-Sunday event. I watched all of Saturday, which was the first two or three rounds. I wasn’t sure where I was going to get drafted. Predictions were anywhere between the third (round) and free agency.
"Then Day Two came, fourth round, name wasn’t called, fifth round, started getting a little anxious, wondering if I was going to get drafted. Then I got a call from the Minnesota Vikings, and Dennis Green was on the other line saying they were going to select me with their next pick. It was just a dream come true, excitement that all the hard work I put in in college, even high school, paid off. I was actually going to be an NFL football player. So it was relief, excitement, and I was ready to get onto the next chapter."
Clinton Portis, 2002 — Round 2, Pick 51 (Denver Broncos)
“I was having a little cookout at my mom’s house in Gainesville, Florida. We had news cameras there, we were cooking food, sitting around watching the draft. And I remember watching the first round, and I guess Cleveland was on the clock, and Coach (Butch) Davis selected William Green out of Boston College, and it was kind of like, ‘Are you kidding?’ Then Atlanta was up and they had just traded for Warrick Dunn, but they select T.J. Duckett. So William Green, T.J. Duckett are gone, and I’m like, ‘The next back has to be me.’ But we finish out the first round, no Clinton Portis.
“Come to the second round, Carolina Panthers on the clock, second pick of the second round, and they select DeShaun Foster out of UCLA. At that point, my heart is beating, the camera’s rolling, and I’m so hot I get up and leave the house and head to Tallahassee to head to Kappa Luau. So I’m on the road driving up I-75, tears in my eyes, my mom’s like, ‘No, stay, it’s going to be OK,’ but I’m mad. I didn’t go in the first round, I watched all my teammates go — Phillip Buchanon, Mike Rumph, Ed Reed, Jeremy Shockey, Bryant McKinnie, they all went.
“So I kind of just forgot it was draft day, I kid you not. My mind was set on, ‘I’m going to go enjoy myself, have a good time, whatever. If I get a call, cool, if not, I’m going to make sure they pay for it.’ Then, driving up 75, my phone rang, and it was the Denver Broncos saying, ‘We just selected you, let me transfer you to Coach Shanahan.’ And Coach Shanahan says, ‘Congratulations kid, we just turned your name in, proud to have you as part of the organization.’ I asked him what pick I was and he said I was the 19th pick of the second round. Then I asked him why he didn’t select me in the first round.
“He started laughing and was like, ‘We had you as our No. 1 back and we’re shocked you fell to us, but we’re glad to have you.’ And I told him, ‘You won’t regret this, Coach. I promise you I’ll win Rookie of the Year.’ ”
Michael Roos, 2005 — Round 2, Pick 41 (Tennessee Titans)
“I had a bunch of friends and family in town, and I didn’t have many expectations, didn’t know where I’d get drafted. There were certain people saying you’re projected here or there, but none of that means anything until you’re drafted. Plus I knew there were a few tackles that would probably go ahead of me, so I figured I’d have to wait until they were off the board before anything happens.
“We were going to watch the draft anyway, and I didn’t feel that crazy nervous, so I figured let’s go to a sports bar with everybody — at the time it was called Heroes and Legends — and just watch it there. Back then the first three rounds were the first day, so I thought maybe if I got drafted late third round it would be cool, and if not, we still had a fun day eating and drinking at a bar. So we’re all hanging out for a while, and all of a sudden in the second round my phone starts ringing and I picked up. Of course, everyone gets silent, trying to figure out what’s going on, and it ended up being Jeff Fisher calling, and they took me with the next pick.
“When I was on the phone call, of course, everyone was excited and trying to mute-high-five without making too much noise, and then we were able to watch it as it happen and obviously everybody started cheering loudly. I was also born in Estonia, and the bar let us bring in a bottle of Estonian vodka, so after I got drafted we all took a shot and toasted to that.”
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