Selection Son Day

Hall of Famer's Kid Takes a Cavalier Approach to NFL Draft

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 26, 2008; Page E01

NEW YORK -- When his son was born, Howie Long told his Oakland Raiders teammates that he would never play football. Howie knew the toll the sport took on his body. When Chris Long arrived at Virginia on a football scholarship as a defensive end despite his father's early misgivings, he initially wanted to study sports journalism. Professional football did not register as a career option until the start of his junior season, and even then he didn't give it much thought.

Midway through Long's junior season, reporters and friends began wondering if he might skip his senior year and enter the NFL draft. "Are you leaving?" someone asked him. "Leave for what?" Long replied. "The Army?"

The public perception hovering over Chris Long is that he envisioned this moment his entire life, that he had assumed he would hear his name called in the NFL draft since he crouched into his first three-point stance. Of course, the son with the Hall of Fame father would vault into the NFL, his ascension to the top of the draft a virtual birthright.

Saturday, Long will indeed be one of the first players chosen in the draft, but the day will bring more awe than affirmation. Despite his bloodlines, becoming a football star hit Long as a sudden revelation.

The surprise has allowed Long to enjoy the trappings of becoming a top pick -- signing on as a Sprint pitchman, appearing on NBC's "Today" show -- with the carefree nonchalance of a player who feels pleased, not destined, to be here.

"I didn't think I'd play in the NFL at all, especially when I came to college," Long said. "People were like, 'Do you want to play in the NFL?' I was like: 'No. Even if I had the chance, I wouldn't.' I didn't think it was going to be a possibility.

"I didn't make this choice. It kind of just happened. And it happened quick."

On Thursday, Long held court with reporters for nearly an hour at a media luncheon at the Chelsea Piers, laughing his way through nearly every question. He didn't care if he was the second pick -- a distinct possibility -- or the 102nd. He didn't mind all the questions about Howie. And, surrounded by other projected top picks he befriended over the past months, he didn't take the scene for granted.

"When he was a gangly seventh-grader, he wasn't thinking about this," said John Blake, Long's high school coach at St. Anne's-Belfield in Charlottesville. "That's been him. He's enjoyed growing up and doing it along the way. Do I think he's been trained to do this from a young age? No."

On April 17, Long toured New York for a media junket with Sprint, his first official act as an endorser. He appeared on 19 television shows, from ESPN's "SportsCenter" to CNBC's "Power Lunch."

The night before, Long ate dinner at Seppi's with his agent and two Sprint spokesmen. Over a plate of ravioli, he peppered the Sprint folks with questions about his new role. His first appearance would be early in the morning on "Fox & Friends," which airs live. Long wondered what questions the hosts might ask him and how he should properly display the phone when on camera.

"He was really concerned about that," said Dave Mellin, one of the Sprint spokesmen who worked with Long. "He was very prepared. He did not go into this halfhearted. He is definitely focused on his playing career. On that part of the day, he was focused on his job he had to do in his role as a Sprint spokesman. He very much wanted to be good at it."

Despite the arduous schedule, bouncing around the city to hop in front of one camera after the next, Long savored the opportunity. He carved out a break in between all the interviews to lift weights. He competed with an assistant from Sprint in the cellphone game Bejeweled.

He sat in a make-up chair for the first time in his life, and listened as the makeup artist explained she could give him a better tan if he liked. "Whatever you need to do to make me look good," Long said, chuckling.

"It's like an out-of-body experience," Long said. "I'm like: 'Is this real? Who wants to hear what I have to say?' I mean, I was [on] 'Today' this morning. But it's been fun. I can tell my boys back home, 'Hey, watch this show.' We can't believe it."

Although the St. Louis Rams seem to be deciding between choosing Long or Louisiana State defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey with the second selection, Long also could last until the sixth pick. Though at one point his name was bandied about as the possible first pick, Long doesn't fret over the prospect of falling out of the top five .

"Oh, the sky is falling, I'm a first-round draft pick," Long said. "Do you know what I mean? Jeez, life is terrible, I'm going to be in the NFL. No matter what happens -- I could fall out of the first round, I could be picked in the third round -- I don't care. I just want to play football."

While Long considers the uncertainty of his future and shrugs, Howie has become a nervous wreck. Earlier this week, Chris watched Howie prepare his sixth peanut butter sandwich of the afternoon.

"Dad, you're still hungry?" Chris asked him.

"I'm just so wound tight, I got to eat something," Howie said.

Chris told his dad to put down the peanut butter and go for a drive. Howie has purposefully remained out of the public spotlight, not wanting to place any further pressure on Long, who has contended with comparisons to his father his whole life, who dealt with murmurs of, "Oh, that's just that rich kid with the famous father," since he began playing football.

Chris has learned to accept the comparisons, using them as fuel. "Pressure is good," he said. He may face a mountain of it, because it's possible the Raiders will take him with the fourth pick -- the only teams Long visited were the Rams and the Raiders. Long called it "an honor" to meet Oakland owner Al Davis, but playing for the same team his father starred for would neither bother him nor particularly excite him.

"It would just be special to play in the NFL," Long said. "I love my dad. He's a great dude. But it's not in my personality to say, 'Wow, I'm wearing the same helmet my dad wore.' People around me keep telling me how hard it would be. I'm not afraid of it. I think a challenge like that would be fun."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company