In Charlotte Wilder
FOX Sports Columnist
LAS VEGAS, Nevada — Cat Daddy, Flutter Hawk, Harley Bills and Buffalo Spartan appeared to be heading to a NFL superfans convention as they passed a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in Las Vegas.
Which, to be fair, they kind of were — it’s just that in the sports world, we call it the NFL Draft.
These fans have real names. They are DJ Howell, Stacey Stewart, Tiffany Green and Dan Klien, and they met online as part of a group of NFL superfans Green founded called “Elite Super Fans,” which advocates good sportsmanship and opposes bullying.
When I asked the group if I could record a video of them to show off their impressive outfits, Howell and Klien were concerned that they weren’t dressed in their full outfits.
“If you do, we’ll be back soon,” Howell said. “I’ll get my things.”
“Yeah, let’s get our helmets,” Klien yelled over his shoulder as they ran back to the hotel, past a bachelorette party walking in the opposite direction.
Five minutes later, the men reappeared, having successfully retrieved a helmet from Bills and a giant head from Panther from their hotel. They immediately struck up a conversation with a Titans fan who wanted a Tennessee-themed helmet like the one they were wearing.
Las Vegas and the NFL Draft were made for each other. Their coming together this weekend is like watching two chaotic, unpredictable and somewhat manipulative people get married by an Elvis impersonator in a drive-thru chapel. They would probably destroy anyone else in a relationship, but together, you think, “Maybe this could work.”
Both are transactional in nature. You go to Vegas to spend, win and lose money. You go to the draft to see teams spend money and see players win and lose. You roll the dice at the dice games at Bellagio while the franchises roll the dice at the guys who will determine their futures. Status is important in Vegas and the Draft, and your current rank depends on what you’ve done in the past.
The 2022 draft is the biggest show of the year in the NFL at America’s biggest one-place show. Spending time in Vegas feels like a dream – sometimes a fever, sometimes a nightmare – and I imagine being chosen to join an NFL club and receive millions of dollars before the age of 24 must feel like one too.
Ben and Max Walker, a father-son duo from Tampa Bay who roamed the streets in Tom Brady shirts, think the draft should be here every year. While they might not attend if it’s in another city, they love the event no matter where it takes place. Ben said the draft is the only place where fans wish each other the best instead of telling each other they suck.
“We’ve always been draft addicts,” Ben said. “We love the hope it gives. Everyone thinks the draft is going to change your team. You get that instant satisfaction in thinking you’ve got your squad, now you’ve got our quarterback for the next 10 years. You’re still not wrong. No. there is game to prove whether it was a good decision or not.”
The Walkers expect the Buccaneers to have a defensive lineman this year. Max wants Jordan Davis, the standout of the national champion Georgia Bulldogs, but he knows Tampa Bay would have to trade to get him (Davis is projected to be in the top 10 or so).
Many fans I spoke to in Vegas seem to want “a big guy,” as one Chargers fan put it.
The draft is usually most exciting — or at least, it gets the highest TV ratings — when it features a class of quarterbacks or wide receivers, but this year, people seem to believe in the importance of stopping defense and protecting. the quarterbacks they already have.
(Except for Seahawks fans, of course. Stacey Stewart, aka Flutter Hawk, told me she’s desperate for Seattle to be a QB after trading Russell Wilson this offseason. That said, she really wants the team to bring in Colin. Kaepernick, who hasn’t played in five years after publicly protesting racial injustice).
Even a group of Lions fans named Jeremy, James, Jake and Jason thought these Bucs fans were right: there’s reason to dip your toes into the pool of optimism.
But they’re not going all the way in.
“This is our Super Bowl,” James said. “That’s all we have. We’re not doing the real Super Bowl.”
“We haven’t won a playoff game since 1991,” Jason said. “I was 10. It was my 10th birthday when they won.”
“Obviously,” he said, laughing, “I’m not 10 years old anymore. We beat Barry Sanders, arguably the best running back in history. We beat Calvin Johnson, who could have been the best receiver in history. We lost Matthew Stafford, who’s traded. and wins a Super Bowl. But this year, we have a good coach that we like, so we’ll see.”
Like these Lions fans, Las Vegas is an honest place. I spent over a month in this city during the inaugural season of the Golden Knights in 2018. I had never been here before, and I didn’t think I would like it very much.
But I was won over by the lack of pretension. Even the buildings are obviously trying to sell you something (although it’s not always clear what), with their walls covered in giant banners of the faces of Martha Stewart and Lisa Vanderpump. Chris Rock’s voice echoes on the track to try to convince him to buy tickets to his show.
Las Vegas is an alien place made of neon and full of artificial pools and lakes in the middle of a desert. It doesn’t pretend to be real any more than Lions fans pretend they’re going to win it all. This city tells you what it is from the moment you step off the plane and are greeted by airport slot machines.
But it’s also a place full of normal people living normal lives. The Strip is a small part of Vegas. The suburbs stretch for miles outside the city. Beyond the dead ends, you see sand, tumbleweeds and red mountains rising from the earth, looking like our planet wanted to change its hair and brought photos of Mars to your hairdresser for inspiration.
Likewise, the draft contains thousands of human stories. Every player who walks the red carpet on Thursday has come from somewhere. This day is about to change their lives – and hopefully the lives of their families – forever. There are webs of people connected by draft events, people who supported these young people to make sure they got here.
Players and fans will benefit, but in Vegas, the house always wins. And in the draft, the NFL is home. It’s putting on a show the way casinos do: lights flashing, music loud, fountains splashing. It’s providing fans with a memorable experience, even if they are losers. The draft stage is set over the Bellagio fountains, and at noon on Thursday, fans watched a Cirque de Soleil show at the very spot where their teams’ fates will be decided tonight.
People who come to Vegas and the NFL Draft don’t show up because they know they’re going to win or because they’re guaranteed the best player their franchise has ever seen. They show up because they wait that is why.
And by the end of next year’s Super Bowl, a fan base will be right. The other 31 will wait until next year, when once again, no matter how bad the season is or how many games the Lions miss, they will have reason to wait.
“It’s the perfect place for the draft because it’s a gamble, as we know,” said Lions fan James. “It doesn’t always pay off. But it’s fun to be here.”
Charlotte Wilder is a general columnist and co-host of “People’s Sports Podcast” for FOX Sports. She is honored to represent Boston’s constantly neglected area in sports media, loves talking to sports fans about her feelings, and is happiest eating a hot dog in a stadium or nachos in a stadium. Follow her on Twitter @TheWilderThings.
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