Four years ago, I rolled up to a plush house in a modest North Texas neighborhood well before sundown and waited for Dez Bryant to arrive. It was the night before the 2010 NFL Draft, and Bryant, a notoriously tardy and polarizing ex-Oklahoma State receiver, was supposed to meet me at the DeSoto home of his advisor, David Wells, to talk about the life-altering moment that awaited him.
When Wells showed me inside, he apologized and explained that Bryant wasn't there. So I waited. And waited. And waited. Several hours later, I felt a bit like Aaron Rodgers had in the green room five years earlier, minus the cameras and the encouraging (and prescient) words from Paul Tagliabue.
Eventually, Bryant showed up -- and proceeded to make me very grateful that I'd stuck around. We had a long, heartfelt and illuminating conversation about his checkered reputation and the pervasive probing that caused him to resent the process. A little after midnight, he told me about the most demeaning moment he'd experienced -- getting asked if his mother was a prostitute by a team executive, one I later revealed to be then-Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland.
Yet as awful as Bryant's pre-draft ordeal might have been, his official welcome to the NFL was correspondingly awesome. The following night at Wells' house, as I watched Bryant tear up while taking a phone call from Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and get dog-piled by close friends and family members after being selected 24th overall, I was once again reminded how special this seemingly synthetic event can be.
Sure, the draft is a made-for-TV spectacle that's exceptionally light on action, and an incessantly long one at that. And yes, I believe its importance is often over-amplified, and the instant analysis that ensues sometimes borders on the laughable.
There is much not to love about the NFL's annual, anti-free-market dispersal of collegiate talent -- and still, against all logic, I give my heart to the draft, time and time again.
Whether it's a besieged Bryant realizing his childhood dream while getting drafted by his hometown team, an early rising Cadillac Williams pondering his imminent relocation over cheese grits at a Gadsden, Alabama, Waffle House or a frustrated Jeff Fisher pounding his fist against the table in the Rams' war room in response to the Jags swooping in to take Justin Blackmon off the board, the genuine displays of emotion inevitably hit the spot.
For all the clinical breakdowns of draft strategy -- and the oft-misguided assumption that teams' decisions are transformative -- the actual experience, for so many principals, is charged and indelible.
To the young athletes preparing to become professionals, getting that phone call is truly life-changing. And to the general managers, coaches, scouts and other front-office employees in 32 war rooms across America, working the clock and infusing an organization with new blood is the culmination of a long, arduous process.
Though I don't typically put covering the draft on the level of, say, being present for a compelling playoff clash, it is one of the cooler parts of this very cool job.
The walkup to the draft might be protracted -- especially this year -- but I've met some interesting young men during that tenuous stage of the journey.
In the mid-'90s I got to see a future Hall of Famer, UCLA tackle Jonathan Ogden, hang in his Westwood apartment with a bunch of friends and teammates who clowned him for buying plain-wrap bread and other cheapskate tendencies. Over the next 12 seasons, Ogden proceeded to devour pass rushers like few others before or since, and I felt oddly invested in his success -- and heartened by the fact that he stayed so down to earth along the way.
Eleven years later, I had lunch in Norman, Oklahoma, with another man bound for Canton: Sooners halfback Adrian Peterson, who shook my hand like he might dislodge it from my body, looked me in the eye and convinced me he would "tear up the league, for years and years." I love it when people make me look smart.
Do I love it when young people blow me off for breakfast? Not so much. That happened the previous year at L.A.'s famed Original Pantry Cafe, when USC running back LenDale White was a no-show for our interview. We ended up meeting there exactly one week later. White, dogged by pre-draft concerns about his weight, ordered a fruit plate; I tortured him by getting eggs, pancakes and a side of bacon. Later that month, the Tennessee Titans ended up biting, drafting White in the second round.
Have I mentioned that I associate many of my pre-draft memories with food? Come to think of it, I spend much of the actual draft eating, too. Trust me -- it was worse when I broke into the game, covering the San Francisco 49ers for a pair of Northern California newspapers during the Montana/Young glory years. Back then, the draft was 12 rounds long, and the Eddie DeBartolo-owned Niners had an ever-changing spread in the media room, one which I did my best to help deplete.
Three years ago in San Francisco, I got to be part of a pre-draft dinner at which Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff interviewed Cal defensive end Cameron Jordan, who showcased his wicked sense of humor between bites of calamari. The cruel joke would turn out to be on Dimitroff, whose team must contend with the Saints' Jordan, a Pro Bowl selection last season, twice annually.
Last year in a gorgeous enclave near San Jose, I hung out at the childhood home of Oregon linebacker Kiko Alonso -- whose engaging mother, Monica, whipped me up a delicious smoothie while discussing his infamous "Goldilocks" episode in college. Drafted in the second round by the Bills, Alonso was just right during a stellar rookie season that made Buffalo's powerbrokers look clairvoyant on that count.
As for the draft itself, I've steered clear of Radio City Music Hall, yet -- more often than not -- have managed to witness quite a show.
I spent the 2009 draft in Southern California juxtaposing the divergent (and counterintuitive) escapades of a pair of high-profile ex-USC quarterbacks, Matt Leinart and Mark Sanchez. Leinart woke up early on draft day to teach football to inner-city kids. After partying all night in the Big Apple, Sanchez caught some Z's on a transcontinental flight back to SoCal. He would celebrate wildly upon being drafted by the Jets, which was appropriate given that he was in the midst of a dizzying L.A.-to-N.Y.-to-L.A.-to-N.Y. whirlwind.
Two years later, during the heart of the lockout, Larry Fitzgerald opened the door to his Scottsdale home -- part of which resembles the open-air lobby of a luxuriant tropical resort -- and allowed me to watch the draft with a few of his friends. When he learned that LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson would be his newest teammate, the Cardinals' star receiver correctly predicted that the front office had struck paydirt.
A year later, Fisher generously granted me unlimited access to the Rams' war room, where he and first-year general manager Les Snead continued to wheel and deal in the aftermath of the RG3 trade. With the Rams holding the first pick of the second round, the leadup to Day 2 carried plenty of drama, as well, with the team ultimately electing to take a risk later in the round on cornerback Janoris Jenkins -- one which, thus far, Fisher and Snead haven't regretted.
I've taken some risks, too. And in retrospect, not all of my draft-day destinations deserve A grades. Even worse were the ones that got away. For instance, why couldn't I have been smart enough to have spent the 1999 draft in Bakersfield, California, with Colorado State linebacker Joey Porter, a future Steelers star?
While hanging with Porter in his hometown for a 2006 Sports Illustrated cover story, I was treated to an uproarious blow-by-blow of that decidedly unsubtle gathering, which I will share with you in condensed form:
"All my life, I was a Cowboys fan, and they were the team that showed the most interest in me before the draft," Porter had recalled. "A whole delegation flew out to Bakersfield at one point to work me out, and they told me they were gonna take me in the second round. They gave me a special cell phone and said, 'This is for you to take the call on draft day.' I was so fired up. So we're sitting around at the house, having a big party ... waiting and waiting. Finally, the Cowboys were on the clock in the second round, and I was ready for my big moment. The guy came onstage and said, 'With the 55th pick in the 1999 NFL draft, the Cowboys select ... Solomon Page, offensive tackle, West Virginia.' I was like, 'What the ... ?'
"After that, I stopped doing shots, and started drinking straight from the bottle."
Porter would last until the third round; some stay on the clock even longer.
If I had to pick a favorite draft memory, in fact, it would be the robust hug -- equal parts relief and jubilation -- that Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon shared with his father, Dennis Sr., in his apartment near campus 10 minutes after getting selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the fifth round of the 2008 draft.
It was a surreal and incredibly cool sight. I'd been with Dixon for two days, during which he'd talked about some of the struggles he'd faced in his young life, from his mother's death to the torn ACL that had torpedoed his senior season.
Before that injury, Dixon had it all in front of him: a Heisman Trophy, a national title and the prospect of being selected high in the first round. Now he was merely hoping for a lifeline, watching helplessly as lesser college players like Chad Henne, Kevin O'Connell and Brian Brohm went off the board, swallowing his pride over and over and over again.
As the second day of the draft dragged on, Dixon became disconsolate and withdrawn; it was almost as though he had become numb to the proceedings. Four-and-a-half hours into Day 2, his father and younger sister, Danitra, had to pull the plug. They headed to the Eugene airport to catch a flight back to Oakland.
Dennis Jr. said goodbye to his father and sister. After they left, he looked visibly angry and said very little. Lining up a shot on the pool table in his apartment, Dixon felt his iPhone finally buzz. Mike Tomlin was on the other line, asking, "Are you ready to be a Steeler?"
"Yessir!" Dixon exclaimed into the mouthpiece, practically screaming, as his entire persona changed. He raced up the stairs, then back down, then up again as he spoke to Tomlin. He had a smile the size of Mt. Bachelor and pumped his free fist wildly.
The few friends and ex-teammates who had stuck out the long day converged around the elated fallen star, and a few tears were shed. Then, it dawned on the crowd: "We can still catch them!" A phone call was placed to Dennis Sr., who let out a scream of his own -- then whipped a U-turn on the Beltline Highway and sped back to the apartment.
Dennis Jr. greeted him outside, and a father/son embrace for the ages ensued. About three minutes passed before Dennis Sr. and Danitra peeled out and raced back to the airport, making their flight in the nick of time.
It wasn't the way the Dixons had imagined the moment, but it was still a dream come true, and the culmination of a long journey fraught with potholes and unwelcome detours.
As so often happens when it comes to the draft, the ultimate outcome was well worth the wait.
Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.