It’s a tradition unlike any other. And it, too, like the 2020 NFL draft in Las Vegas, was upended by the coronavirus pandemic — rendering NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell remote and his celebratory bear hugs virtual and imaginary. If only for that one weekend.
But rest assured, when New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson emerged from the green room in Cleveland last year as the first draftee on location, he would be ready with arms wide open. Just like Goodell, who hugged and patted the No. 2 pick on the back.
Not once, not twice, but three times during their embrace.
You. Made. It.
Sometimes the hugs are awkward. Sometimes they’re memorable. But the “I made it” sentiment is what Goodell’s hugs have come to signal since their organic inception during the 2010 NFL draft. A list of 21 attendees comprised of likely first-round picks was unveiled last week.
All surely prepared for their three- or four-second exchange with the NFL’s 63-year-0ld commissioner.
“It’s funny. I meet with all the draft-eligible players the day before,” Goodell once told Sports Business Journal. “They always ask, What’s that moment like? These kids have been dreaming about this and working toward this. This is their moment. They’ve finally made it into the NFL.
“For me to be part of that is a cool thing.”
Former Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell was the first player drafted during Goodell’s tenure as commissioner. And he was greeted with a jersey and a handshake. Perhaps there was a slight lean and embrace of the shoulder, but their interaction was devoid of the affection we see today.
Such was the standard for other top picks like Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford, save for occasional quick, informal half-hug.
But that would change with six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, then the top defensive prospect in the 2010 draft who would unknowingly begin the tradition that April afternoon.
The Tampa Buccaneers tabbed him the No. 3 overall pick and he gleefully emerged from the green room with his arms spread wide and a grin across his face as he strolled across the stage toward Goodell and their fateful embrace.
“I asked him if we’d get in trouble or fined if we do something crazy on stage or whatever, and he was like, ‘Obviously man, you get this one time, it’s your one day, you need to show emotion and show your feelings and show how excited you are. I wouldn’t mind that at all,’” McCoy told ESPN, detailing an interaction before the draft with Goodell.
“Once I got out there, you know, it was just my reaction,” said McCoy, who played in 2021 for the Raiders. “I was just overwhelmed with emotion and it all came out in that big hug. That hug was like a thank you for allowing me to be in the league, everything. It all came out. He just happened to be the one to receive it.”
McCoy’s hug lasted six or so seconds. The very next pick, McCoy’s Oklahoma teammate Trent Williams, embraced Goodell for five.
Tradition started, like it or not.
Melvin Ingram’s hug in 2012 was preceded by an elaborate handshake. Danny Shelton was so excited in 2015 that he lifted Goodell up off his feet, displaying the strength that powered him toward a seven-year career as a defensive tackle.
Awkward? Maybe. Endearing? A little bit. Genuine in the moment for Shelton? Probably, and that’s all that really matters.
This year’s class will have its opportunity to meet with Goodell beforehand, perhaps coordinate a hug or a handshake the way McCoy and Ingram once did.
Blame McCoy. Or thank him.
“When I was hugging him, he said, like, ‘You’re crushing me right now,’ and he kind of gasped for air like I was squeezing the life out of him, which I was,” McCoy told ESPN. “I take pride in it, as far as draft-day trends. … Why not?”