What’s it like to go through the NFL draft?

NFL draft 2020: Osi Umenyiora and Jason Bell look ahead to unique occasion
NFL draft 2020
Coverage: The BBC Sport website will run a live text commentary from 23:30 BST on 23 April. The first round begins at 01:00 BST on 24 April.

“You go through a mixed bag of emotions. You’re excited, anxious, frustrated. Then once you get that call the disappointment, the anguish, the nerves all just disappear.”

That’s how Menelik Watson describes the NFL draft, yet those words could well have been uttered by fellow British-born players Osi Umenyiora and Jack Crawford.

Umenyiora could even add “relaxed” as, when he entered the 2003 draft, he was enjoying it like one of the 11m fans that will be watching the 2020 draft this weekend.

Having not been invited to the NFL Combine, where the best college players showcase their talents before the draft, Umenyiora was convinced he would not get picked until the fourth or fifth round and told his family and friends not to join him until day two.

So the former defensive end was home alone in Atlanta, “laying on the couch, enjoying the whole experience, seeing who the teams picked and which schools they were from.”

“Then all of a sudden my phone rings,” he told BBC Sport. “It’s my agent, he says ‘I think something crazy’s happening. I think the New York Giants are about to draft you’.

“Two minutes later I get a call from the Giants and I watch them go up to announce my name. It was surreal. I had no clue they were going to pick me.”

Umenyiora was selected late in the second round, 56th overall, but draft day was far from enjoyable for Watson.

How does the draft work?
The draft takes places over three days with round one on Thursday, two-three on Friday and four-seven on Saturday – with 255 picks
The 32 NFL teams have one pick each round – but teams can trade and some get extra ‘compensatory’ picks
The worst team last season the Cincinnati Bengals get the first pick in each round and Super Bowl winners the Kansas City Chiefs select last in each round

‘It was like a fairytale, then I fell back to reality’

Watson’s journey was one of the stories of the 2013 draft. After an impoverished upbringing in Manchester, he moved to the US on a basketball scholarship and just two years after switching to American football entered the NFL draft.

And it wasn’t just media that were interested. The offensive tackle was invited to the Combine and “virtually all” 32 teams interviewed him.

The draft took place at New York’s Radio City Music Hall and Watson and his family were invited to the green room, where the top prospects wait backstage for their name to be called. And they waited, and waited.

“I had teams saying ‘if he goes here, we’ll take you there’,” said Watson. “Baltimore Ravens had the 32nd pick and told me ‘if you’re still there, we’ll definitely take you’.”

They didn’t. The first round was done. So instead of being presented with his new team’s hat and jersey in front of thousands of fans, Watson had to head back home to Atlanta to “wait his turn” in the second round.

“I didn’t really want to be in New York, to walk across the stage and shake the commissioner’s hand,” he added. “It turned into this big spectacle – I’m there in my suit, my family had come over from England. It was like living in a fairytale for a moment, then I fell back to reality.

British NFL star Menelik Watson proposes to girlfriend mid-game

“It did hurt. It felt like we’d gone to all this effort for nothing. My family were bewildered, they didn’t really know what was going on. After the 32nd pick was announced, we all got up and walked straight out. There were no camera crews following us, no drama. I just wanted to go home.”

Watson treated the next day like any other. He and his brother went for a workout, grabbed a sandwich, and were driving home when Watson got a call. With the 42nd pick, he was selected by the Oakland Raiders, where he’d see an old rival, Jack Crawford.

“I’d actually forgotten the draft had restarted,” said Watson. “But I was happy to feel valued again. All the other emotions just went away.”

The number one rule – text, don’t call!

Watson and Crawford actually played basketball against each other in England before Crawford left for the US even earlier, aged just 16. After two weeks he wanted to go back home, but his new friend Peter Dandrea asked his family if Crawford could stay for a week.

That week turned into three years, during which the Londoner also switched to American football. Come 2012, he was back at the Dandreas’ New Jersey home during the draft.

The Raiders were one of just three teams to speak with Crawford at the Combine so he “didn’t really follow” the first two days. On day three, as the fourth round went by, he started to “feel more pressure”.

“It was tense,” he said. “I remember thinking ‘this is it, this is the biggest moment of my life. Will I get drafted or not?’ You see other guys go before you and at one point I didn’t want to watch anymore because I thought I wasn’t going to get drafted.”

Then he got a call. But it wasn’t from a team, it was one of his mates. “I was not happy,” said Crawford. “I was like ‘man, what the heck are you calling me for?’ The number one rule during the draft is text, don’t call!”

The defensive end didn’t have to wait much longer, the Raiders picked him in the fifth round, 158th overall.

“It was a great feeling,” he said. “I’d put a lot of work into it and it all came down to that one point. In the space of 10 seconds, I went from one of the most anxious moments in my life to the most relieved.

“And it was great to share it with the Dandreas. It was something I’ll never forget. They were so excited for me. They took me in and treated me like one of their own so I consider them family, and I’m still best friends with Pete.”

‘I had to perform, I knew I could mess it up for everybody else’

Umenyiora, Watson and Crawford said the celebrations were short-lived though. They knew that the real work was about to begin.

Many draft picks fail to live up to expectations while undrafted players still manage to get signed and enjoy a successful NFL career, and Umenyiora was determined not to become a ‘bust’.

“I was happy to get drafted but I soon felt a tremendous amount of pressure,” said the 38-year-old. “I was like ‘I went high, man. I need to go out there and live up to that now’.

“I’d come from a small school (Troy) and I knew I could mess it up for everybody else from a small school so I had to go out there and perform.”

That he did, winning two Super Bowls with the Giants, while Watson and Crawford, both 31, have spent longer than average in the NFL. Crawford signed a one-year deal with the Tennessee Titans earlier this month and Watson still hopes to return to the league after leaving the Denver Broncos in 2017.

The NFL hopes more overseas players can make it to the league and there’s now a clear pathway via the NFL Academy, which opened in London last year and will launch an online recruitment process in May to find its next intake of student athletes.

Becoming a draft prospect would be an emotional rollercoaster, but it’ll be worth it for a shot at living the NFL fairytale.

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