By Brandyn Campbell
In just over one week, the lives of scores of young men will be transformed as they are drafted into the National Football League. It will be a culmination of the hard work and talent that drove them to become the best in the college ranks and soon, in professional football.
It’s an inspiring but stressful times for families. There are a host of changes before them, many of them a mystery. In the midst of it all, life must go on. This extraordinary event happens on top of the ordinary dealings of everyday life. Parents of soon-to-be rookies arrange travel logistics to the draft, while working with their jobs to ensure they can take the time off to be there. Taken individually, the tasks are exciting signs of what is to come. Taken together, they can be almost too much to manage.
While the specifics of each drafted player’s entrance into the league vary, the lead-up to the event is remarkably similar. There is the excitement of being days away from having a dream fulfilled, and the anxiety over what that ultimately means. Which team, which round, which place? These are the questions that fill the heads of players, agents, and parents alike as they await the big moment.
At events in advance of the draft over the past few years, the existence of the Professional Football Players Mothers' Association (PFPMA) is made known as a resource for families as they prepare to share a momentous event in their sons’ lives. But who was there for them before they knew about the support system that PFPMA provides?
For most, the answer is no one. Agents walk families through the process at a general level, but so many questions remained. There was no advice on how to manage the emotional toll of the process. How did they make it through?
Though her son Donovan was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles sixteen years ago, Wilma “Char” McNabb, affectionately known as Mama McNabb to many, remembers the stress and elation of the experience as if it were yesterday. Much has been written about the reception McNabb received by a small but boisterous collection of Eagles fans at Radio City Music Hall when he was selected second overall in 1999. But this is a story about the shared journey of all players in the moments before they cross the threshold of the draft to become NFL rookies.
McNabb remembers Donovan being calm in the lead-up to the draft, a stark contrast to her disposition. “He wasn’t nervous, but I know I was,” she said. “I was apprehensive on how this situation was going to play out and all of the things you need to do. You see it on TV, but you never see the background, behind the camera.”
Rodney Bailey, a defensive end, was a 6th-round pick for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2001. His mother, Dianne, was a calm voice during his preparation for the draft. “I remember saying to him, ‘This is corporate,’” said Bailey. “A lot of people think it’s all glitz and glory and yes, this does not happen to a lot of people. But there’s a business side to this.” Bailey continued, “I was a compliance officer at the time so being in that realm and being in that mode, I was the centered one. I was the one that had to say, hey, everybody, just chill. Be cool.”
With Rodney projected to be a later round pick, his family didn’t travel to New York. Instead, they watched the draft on television in Columbus, where Rodney had recently graduated from Ohio State. That experience yielded the biggest piece of advice Mrs. Bailey has for families awaiting their own draft stories.
Bailey’s extended family watched the first day of the draft, held on a Saturday, with excitement, anticipation and plenty of food. They waited, and waited…and nothing happened. The next day, Bailey went about her usual Sunday routine and went to church. About an hour later, Rodney received the call from the Steelers.
“Live your life,” is Bailey’s advice to the families of soon-to-be rookies. “Once you get the call, then start the celebration.”
Similarly, McNabb knows that managing the uncertainty the situation yields is the hardest aspect of the process. “It’s not in your control,” said McNabb. “Take a glass of wine, that should help you to relax. Enjoy it. Try to enjoy it as much as you can. It’s going to work the way it works.”
In the minutes and hours following the draft, the families of NFL rookies finally begin to come to terms with the ride that they have endured. After her son had been whisked away to Philadelphia to meet with the Eagles, the McNabb family shared some quiet time over dinner. “You just kind of mellow out and say, ‘well it’s done now, it’s over,’” said McNabb. “He’s there. It was something that you just couldn’t imagine. You have reached this level, and it’s unbelievable.”
Bailey shared a poignant memory regarding the moments after Rodney received the call from Pittsburgh, expressing the significance of her son’s accomplishment. “My dad sat down on the back steps and he just started to cry. It was so overwhelming for him to know that now, he had a grandson in the National Football League,” she said.