Cloudy Skies Don’t Dampen Opening Day of NFL Draft Town

By Julia Cardi

Temperatures hovered in the 40s and a gray blanket of clouds hid the sun. But the less-than ideal April weather didn’t deter football fans from congregating in Grant Park on Thursday to kick off the first day of the NFL Draft at Draft Town. The open-air festival, dubbed “NFL Disneyland,”attracted fans representing every team in the league. They participated in mock combine drills, sampled food from an array of Chicago restaurants and rode a 120-foot Ferris wheel.

While the weather was a topic of much conversation, it didn’t dampen the spirits of those who braved the chill. “We were going to be here rain or shine,” said Hannah Yeiger, a San Francisco 49ers fan.

Buckhingham fountain serves as the center piece for NFL Draft town (Julia Cardi/ Medill)
Buckhingham fountain serves as the center piece for NFL Draft town (Julia Cardi/ Medill)

Yeiger came to Draft Town with L.J. Ruthringer, a Denver Broncos fan who was eager to see Broncos linebacker Von Miller speak later in the afternoon. Both Yeiger and Ruthringer, who live in Chicago, said they would have liked to attend the draft itself, but didn’t sign up for the ticket lottery in time. They settled for a tour of Draft Town, which may be as close as they will get to the draft for some time.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told a group of Associated Press Sports Editors last week that the draft will “very likely” take place elsewhere in 2017, after two years in Chicago. Ruthringer, however, didn’t rule out a draft road trip. “It depends on how far,” he said. “I wouldn’t go to New York or anything for it.”

But he and Yeiger said they were grateful to participate in this year’s festivities, even if they couldn’t see Goodell present jerseys to their favorite teams’ picks. “It’s fun to have it so close,” added Yeiger.

Jeff Meyer and Ryan Eichler, Chicago residents and longtime Bears fans dressed in custom-made, three-piece orange suits with white pinstripes, said they would consider traveling for the draft under the right circumstances.

“I love Florida State and I love Alabama, so if we got top guys from those two schools in the first round, you care about them going early and jump-starting their careers,” said Eichler. “There are some great Florida cities. Tampa Bay could be awesome for the Draft. I also think Orlando, you could put on a great event there.”

Like true Bears fans, they draw the line at heading into Packers territory. “As long as it’s not in Wisconsin, we’ll go there,” Meyer joked.

One group of fans, decked out head-to-toe in San Diego Chargers gear, has followed the draft to Chicago from New York.

“This is my 20th year,” said James Ebo. “I’ve been there since Madison Square [Garden], Radio City, and now it’s on the road.”

His friend, Rudy Flores, whose Chargers ensemble included a royal blue superhero’s cape and white mask, said this was his fifth time at the draft. “First time in a getup, though,” he said

Despite Goodell’s announcement, Eichler remained positive about the chance of the draft returning to Chicago. “I think they’ve now realized after coming to Chicago, this can become a fan event, versus 500 fans in a room,” he said, referring to previous drafts in New York. “Everyone can come and celebrate this.”

Photo at top: San Diego Chargers fans Josh Casillas (left) and Rudy Flores (right) take on NFL Draft town in Chicago Thursday afternoon (Julia Cardi/ Medill).