Sprawling NFL Draft Town consumes park

Fans at Draft Town
Fans at Draft Town on Thursday. (Julie Woon/Medill)

By Tim Penman
Video by Julie Woon

A carnival-like atmosphere marked the first-ever NFL Draft Town held in Chicago’s Grant Park on Thursday. Fans in jerseys emblazoned with every imaginable team logo strolled the 319 acre expanse known as the city’s front lawn, thrilled to be taking part in the first draft held here in more than 50 years.

“This is like Graceland for me here,” Rams fan Brian Catanzaro said. “I live and breathe the draft.”

As part of hosting the draft, Chicago’s iconic park was transformed into a sprawling theme park with multiple stages, team tents, a draft tavern, a 40-yard field goal kicking area and other amenities all designed to provide a great fan experience for the 100,000 people expected to participate in the festivities over the three days.

Half of the layout was devoted to fun areas for kids, who could take snaps, throw at rings, kick extra points or run through training drills. Video game areas and NFL scouting combine drills allowed the youngsters to demonstrate their speed and agility. An NFL Play 60 mini field was set up and filled with scores of kids running around coaches in an excited frenzy.

“It’s mammoth,” longtime Packers fan Steve Tate said. “I’m still trying to get my bearings.”

Tate, who appeared in full Packers’ uniform complete with an NFL hand warmer, four replicas of championship rings and a cheese head that read “NFL Owner,” said he was so happy that he could finally make it to a draft.

The NFL decided to move the draft from New York to Chicago after a scheduling conflict arose with Radio City Music Hall. It is the first time the draft was held outside of New York since 1964, when it was held in Chicago at Sheraton (now the Intercontinental Hotel) on Michigan Avenue.

“I think it’s great that they moved it out of New York,” Clevelander Thad Kilgore said. “It’s been there for so many years and to move it out here, to the middle of the country, it’s a great location.”

Fans seemed especially drawn to the Selection Square area, where team representatives were posted as picks were announced. About 1,000 lucky fans won tickets to observe the proceedings. Fans waving signs and chanting broadcasters’ names also crowded in the space behind the sets for both the ESPN and NFL Network TV broadcasts, hoping for a chance to be seen during the three hour telecast. SiriusXM NFL Radio also broadcast live, for any fan who wished to stop and watch at their tent.

Both Draft Town and Selection Square feature huge screens for fans to watch and keep track of what pick is up, and what team is next on the clock. Most fans wandered from venue to venue or tent to tent, checking out various Super Bowl rings on display, posing for photos or enjoying the camaraderie of fellow fans in their team’s tent, each outfitted with a NFL-sized locker with jersey and flat screen TV.

Other fans gravitated toward the sounds of old school hip-hop being played by a disc jockey on a nearby stage. Before long, a giant dance circle formed, led by a group of raucous Buccaneers fans clad in skeleton masks and giant inflatable helmets. “Captain Bones” led onlookers into the circle, enticing them to show off their moves.

“I drove four hours to get here,” Catanzaro said. “This is like Mardi Gras, but with all football fans.”

Inside the Jets team tent, green and white jersey-adorned fans started a very loud “J-E-T-S” chant, as they got ready for the beginning of the draft.

“I’m just in awe of everything,” Chiefs fan Jose Rivera said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s almost like a Super Bowl environment, with the fan experience. The city of Chicago has always done a great job with events.”

Catanzaro said he hoped the draft will come back to the Midwest, if not next year, then sometime in the near future.

“If it’s within six or seven hours [driving] of me,” Catanzaro said. “I’d do it every time.”

PHOTO AT TOP: A Packers fan and a Rams fan at Draft Town on Thursday.(Julie Woon/Medill)