- Courtesy NFL
- The Draft Town fest in Grant Park features areas where fans can watch the draft for free.
Back on December 2, 1963, the last time the NFL draft was held in Chicago, there was no television coverage. Nothing on the radio either. And there certainly wasn’t a fan festival like the Draft Town event happening in Grant Park this week, which takes place while the league’s teams make their selections across the street at the Auditorium Theatre.
Due to a scheduling conflict at Radio City Music Hall, where the draft had been held for the last 12 years, the NFL looked to hold the function outside of New York City for the first time in 50 years. And with Mayor Rahm hounding league commissioner Roger Goodell since 2012, Chicago beat out the other city in the running, Los Angeles.
To say that a lot has changed in the 51 years since Chicago hosted the NFL draft is beyond an understatement. Everything from how the draft operates to the level of media coverage to the player experience is vastly different. In certain ways the draft was simpler a half century ago—but in even more ways it was a complete mess.
The modern NFL draft features 32 teams and seven rounds that stretches over a span of three days. (This year, round one is on Thursday, rounds two and three on Friday, and rounds four through seven on Saturday.) Each team is given ten minutes in the first round, seven minutes in the second, and five minutes the rest of the way to make their selections.
During the ’64 season draft in Chicago there were only 14 NFL teams. So you’d think the event would be at least half as long, right? Not even close. The draft that took place way back then was a whopping 20 rounds. And there was no time limit per pick. The ’64 draft lasted 21 hours and 43 minutes, ending at 6:47 AM and earning a place as the longest continuous draft in league history.
The player experience
These days players are pampered like tributes prepping for the Hunger Games. Being a prospect in the NFL draft means you’ve already arrived. You’re greeted by a red carpet. You chill in a green room. Your face is beamed out on national television. And once selected you get a dap from the commish.
Prospects in ’63 found out via a phone call that they were selected. Wide receiver Paul Warfield, one of 11 future Hall of Famers that would be selected in the ’64 draft, “sat in his dormitory on the Ohio State campus . . . listening to news updates for several hours on a transistor radio,” according to a story by ESPN’s Rich Cimini. Charley Taylor, another star wide receiver, “was sleeping in his apartment at Arizona State.” Taylor recalled: “My roommate woke me up. He said, ‘The Redskins want to talk to you.'”
Most of the draftees sat in a locked room with nothing but a phone and a “babysitter”—team officials who hung around the draftees to protect them from representatives of the American Football League. AFL reps were known to try to persuade good players to sign on with the rival league. Warfield told Cimini that the Buffalo Bills, once part of the AFL, attempted to sign him as he was walking off the field after his last college game.
The fan experience
In 1963, the draft was about as entertaining as C-SPAN on Sunday night. If you were a fan and did happen to show up to the Sheraton and sneak past security into the ballroom, you’d be sorely disappointed: there was nothing to behold but team reps in suits hovered around landline phones.
Today the draft is a Chris Rock monologue short of being the Oscars. Lights, cameras, a plethora of needless analysis. I’m betting ESPN’s NFL draft anchor desk costs more than the entire production back in ’63.
Draft tickets are currently going for as much as $325 on Craigslist. If that’s too rich for some fans’ blood, entry to the Draft Town fest—taking over some 900,000-square-feet of Grant Park land—is free. There will be a live draft feed to watch, merchandise, games, a tavern, and on Saturday night JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound perform as a cap to the three-day draft.