The laptop hums well past midnight. The Diet Mountain Dew flows into my cup, Niagara-like in its volume and pace. The up-tempo ’70s soul music peps through my headphones, keeping me awake as the minutes pass like seconds. There’s so much steam rising from vents outside my hotel-room window that a frigid fog seems to hang in suspension over the nearby, domed football stadium. Each step on the sidewalk is accompanied by the crunch of salt and ice; each newscast leads its sports report with college or high-school basketball.
It must be February in Indianapolis.
So far, this has been a placid trip, considering how some of my voyages to far-flung destinations took turns that would have made Odysseus or Uncle Traveling Matt blanch.
Turns out that Wednesday’s trip here was as uneventful as My Dinner With André.
OK, I confess — that was simply superfluous. But when you’re reading a blog entry posted under categories like “YouTube Oddities” and “Self-Indulgence,” you’re entering at your own risk.
Anyhow, this is Combine VI for me. Less than quite a few, but more than numerous others who fill virtually every hotel room within this city’s underrated downtown, every one of which is looking for something or someone different — or so it seems.
Obviously, scouts and coaches are looking for boundless potential to reveal itself among the 300-plus players in town. But even those who will spend most of the next four days in the media room are searching for divergent storylines, from the college writers covering a standout from the school on their beat one more time to the NFL reporters who stand in the hallways of the Indiana Convention Center, looking to flag down a coach or two.
Me? I’m somewhere in between. I’ll check the hallways, but I’ll also linger in the media room, waiting for the rookies-to-be to arrive for inquisition. This isn’t just about the events of the weekend; this is about content collection, trolling for features and storylines to spotlight over the next two months.
At one time, this event was the hidden gem of the NFL calendar, an event that unfolded quietly, with media limited to those who chose to hang out in a downtown hotel lobby to catch players as they passed by. In my previous job at NFL.com, I sat in the office as a staff representative roamed about the lobby to snag some of the rookies-to-be for interviews and on-line chat sessions over the phone. It was in this work that I learned how to spell “Laveranues” without having to consult a roster.
Three years later, in my first offseason on DenverBroncos.com, I actually came to Indianapolis for the first time and found that the event had begun its unfettered expansion. Lobby stalking was out, replaced by milling about a convention-center hallway waiting for players and NFL coaches to wander by.
To me, this weekend is Exhibit “A” in the case for the NFL’s preeminent spot in the nation’s sports landscape. (Exhibits “B” and “C” might be the draft itself and the Senior Bowl.) What the league has managed to do is to construct an attention-snatching event almost out of thin air, thus keeping itself atop newspaper sports sections and SportsCenter broadcasts at a time when the next round of actual games remains months in the future.
No other U.S. professional sports league has a longer offseason; the NFL’s nearly-six-month downtime from any kind of gameplay — preseason or regular season — dwarfs the the respites of MLB (three and a half months), the NBA (three months) and the NHL (two and a half months) that follow their respective championship series. Thus spawns the need to fill the gap, into which steps the draft, the rising prominence of organized team activities and, of course, this weekend’s Combine.
USA Today calls it the “NFL’s giant draft commercial,” and it would be hard to disagree. Should there be some superlative performances this weekend, it would become a far more effective commercial than anything that aired as chips met dip on Super Bowl Sunday.
And that’s why I’m sure mine won’t be the only laptop still manned past midnight this weekend.
Vaya con dios from central Indiana.