INDIANAPOLIS — “Welcome to the Underwear Olympics,” New York Giants General Manager Dave Gettleman declared late Wednesday morning, standing on a riser in front of a pack of reporters in a cavernous hall inside the Indiana Convention Center.
Gettleman had come here with the rest of the NFL universe for the annual scouting combine, an event that has exploded into one of the marquee weeks on the league calendar. It didn’t even used to be an event, really. A small contingent of reporters would come to observe prospects — who perform testing drills in tight shorts and sleeveless shirts — and chat up NFL types. Other reporters saw the value in the unique access, and the country became more obsessed with the NFL, and now the combine is covered by more than 1,000 media members.
In a sign of our national football affliction, the drills will be aired this weekend on network television. One coach said rumor has it that next year the NFL will move the sprinting, throwing, jumping and bench pressing to a night time slot, to turn the Underwear Olympics into a prime-time show.
But those drills are just a sliver. While the football world ostensibly descends on Indianapolis for inspecting and interviewing draft prospects, the combine entails so much more. It is a convention, a trade show, a spring break. Team executives talk trades with each other and discuss potential deals with agents. Reporters are everywhere, outnumbering the folks they’re here to cover by an overwhelming magnitude, hoping to make contacts and scrounging for news.
Everything happens in the convention center or Lucas Oil Stadium, which are affixed to hotels by a web of hallways and skywalks. A hotel valet explained that, aside from the overcrowding of a couple of downtown hot spots, locals barely notice the presence of the entire NFL universe invading their city. “They go to Lucas Oil, they come back here, they go to Ruth’s Chris, and they come back,” he said.
When you’re in that pocket of town overrun by the combine, it can feel as if you’re living inside your television on a Sunday afternoon. On Wednesday night, Kyler Murray, in full sweats-and-sneakers combine attire, sauntered through Harry and Izzy’s, weaving between tables of sinus-blasting shrimp cocktail and slabs of beef. Track jackets with team logos were everywhere. “I just waited on Dan Marino before you guys,” a waitress told one table.
Nowhere does this strange football dreamworld burst more vividly than after midnight at Prime 47. Jerry Jones announces his presence inside the swank steakhouse and bar with the monument to tackiness parked outside: his full-size bus, painted white with the Dallas Cowboys star splashed all over, flashers on, ESPN on two flat screens inside, visible from the sidewalk. The JerryMobile will sometimes crawl a few blocks, park outside another establishment and declare the latest spot to party. Mostly, late at night, it’s stationed outside Prime 47.
Everybody calls it “Prime.” In the course of conversations regarding later plans, you’ll hear voices quiver with a mix of excitement and resignation, saying something like, “Yeah, I think this is a Prime night.” Agents, reporters, coaches, executives pack the place, swapping rumors, trading information and tipping back heavy glasses filled to the point of surface tension. It stays open past last call, often until around 5 a.m. It’s hard to get a drink. It’s a faux pas to wear a credential, even if everyone has one back in their hotel room, if not their back pocket.
Bob LaMonte, a high-powered agent who represents more than his fair share of head coaches, reserves a corner table, round and covered in a white tablecloth. He has been coming here for three decades, knows everyone and keeps his glass full of red — it’s crowded at the bar, but the table means he gets a server. He’ll shout to a newcomer, “You’re in my house tonight!”
One night this week, Steelers Vice President Omar Khan walked away from the corner table, a near-empty glass of red wine in hand, to meet with an agent. New York Giants Coach Pat Shurmur’s face appeared on a television, a sound bite from the morning, as the real-life Shurmur sipped a drink in the middle of the bar. Most bold names headed out before the wee hours — except, wait, isn’t that Jay Gruden? Yup, sure is. Just wobblier.
There is a lot of burning the candle at both ends. On Friday, agents filtered into a ballroom for a 9 a.m. meeting with the NFL Players Association. Reporters lurked in the hallway, hoping to make connections or harvest information. Agent Leigh Steinberg strode in wearing an undershirt, visible through his button-down, emblazoned with the phrase, “Greed is good.”
A main attraction for all the cameras and notebooks comes when quarterback prospects give news conferences, spending their 15 minutes on a podium, then bouncing between radio shows. Murray, perhaps the most compelling player in the draft, arrived at his riser and saw a horde of reporters that had been gathering for more than 20 minutes. As he weaved through the crowd, he walked past a reporter, noticed her leopard-print boots and remarked, “Nice shoes.”
The disorientation of the combine hits once you leave it. Walking through an airport on a layover, you might see a guy wearing a Steelers sweatshirt and start squinting to see whether it might be, say, Pittsburgh’s special teams coach. Then it hits you — you’re in Chicago, and the guy in Steelers gear is just a guy in Steelers gear. Once you leave the combine, it takes a while for the combine to leave you.