For the first time in its 75-year history, the NFL Draft went prime time, its first round taking place on Thursday night, going up against television powerhouses. And the results? Ratings gold.
More than 8 million people tuned in to coverage of the draft on ESPN and the NFL Network, beating out hit network shows like The Office, 30 Rock, and Fringe. The spike in viewership testifies to the resounding health of a league that has become the dominant product in the American sports landscape. Over the course of the entire three-day affair, the draft drew some 45 million television viewers and sparked another 12.5 million visits to NFL.com.
Fans were not disappointed. The hyped storyline of whether some team would gamble on collegiate superstar Tim Tebow in the first round played out with drama worthy of the time slot. Denver used its 25th overall pick on the Florida quarterback, inspiring gasps from many analysts who had projected Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen as a more NFL-ready prospect and likely opening-round pick. Cameras in Clausen's living room captured his real-time reactions to every selection as he slid all the way to No. 48.
But for all that drama, the most compelling storylines may well come from players left off the three-round draft board. Players like defensive end Brandon Crawford from Ball State, a 33-year-old former Marine who earned an invitation to the New York Giants minicamp despite going undrafted. Once a high-school football star in the 1990s, Crawford squandered his college football hopes when he was arrested for palling around with friends in a stolen car.
The setback placed him on an alternate life course that led to a four-year stint in the Marine Corps. Upon discharge, he enrolled at Ball State and walked on to the football team as a 29-year-old freshman, older than many of the coaches. No matter. In four seasons, he helped the Cardinals to a pair of bowl games and earned an all-conference selection en route to a degree in criminal justice.
Now, should he overcome the long-shot odds and secure a spot on the Giants' final roster, he will be the oldest NFL rookie since 1946. Just to have that opportunity is impressive enough for a player who took a decade off from football but never gave up on his dream.
Such lesser-known stories abound in professional athletics. Shame, most will never make prime time.
On Oct. 13 last year, up-and-coming U.S. soccer talent Charlie Davies violated team curfew rules and nearly lost his life. An auto accident on the George Washington Parkway killed a fellow passenger and left Davies with three fractures in his right leg along with a broken nose, elbow, and eye socket.
Six months later, the dynamic striker is back on the pitch and quickly regaining the form that endeared him to U.S. soccer fans in last summer's Confederations Cup. Davies received medical clearance in late April to resume full training with his club team, FC Sochaux. He now holds an outside chance of rejoining his U.S. team comrades in time for the June 12 opening-round match with England at the World Cup in South Africa.
Via his Twitter feed, Davies reports that his speed is returning. And the absence of established American stars at the striker position may well afford him the chance to join the 30 players invited to training camp. Should he make the final roster, the comeback would stand among the most improbable in U.S. soccer history.