Today is the first day of the NFL Draft. It’s one of my favorite days of the year, if not my very favorite. Anybody who knows me, knows that I am obsessed with “my football team,” the Pittsburgh Steelers. I’ve been that way since I was about 8 years old. I don’t know why, I’ve just always been that way. Growing up, all I wanted was Steeler stuff, black and gold. It’s good to have a team.
Don’t get me wrong. As much joy as I’ve gotten from football, there’s been a lot of anxiety and pain too. That’s what happens when you allow yourself to get so invested in it. The actual games on Sunday can be torture sometimes. One of my best friends is a Dallas Cowboys fan (I know, but we can’t all be perfect), and text messages between us on Sundays often go something like this:
“I can’t believe he dropped that! I hate football!”
“I know, it’s like my team is actually trying to kill me.”
“I mean, just CATCH IT!”
“This can’t go on. I have to stop watching this stupid game.”
“I’m serious. I’m done. I’m going to learn quilting or something less stressful.”
“Okay, well the second half is about to start. Gotta get back.”
“I’m gonna go smash my TV and then watch the rest of the game on my phone.”
Sometimes I honestly don’t know how I make it through these games.
But then there’s Draft Day.
I’ve always been extremely interested in the annual draft, where teams choose new players coming out of college. In the beginning, my interest in the draft had solely to do with who my team would pick. And I’m still psychotically interested in that part of it. But the main reason that I’ve come to look forward to this day all year is the way that it changes so many lives in an instant. To me, it is so much fun to watch the overpowering explosion of joy and relief that floods out of these young men when they get picked by a team. It almost makes the stress of watching the actual games worth it.
A lot of these kids, probably most of them, come from really hard childhoods. They grew up dirt poor. The main thing that had in their favor is their natural athletic ability, and their incredible drive to make something out of it. These kids work harder than anyone else I’ve ever seen in my life. Far more hard than any Wall Street billionaire.
Take one example. JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was drafted by “my team” in 2017. When he was a little kid, his parents both lost their jobs, and they ended up moving into his grandmother’s garage, where he slept on the lightly padded concrete floor for 8 years, right up until he left college and was drafted into the NFL.
I had no idea who he was when they announced his name. I was actually a little bit irritated because I thought they should have chosen one of those other names that I’d heard about in the media for months. I was never so glad to be wrong. He turned out not only to be an incredible player, but just a really good person. The kind of person you look at and think, “I wish I could inject into my veins whatever that kid has inside him.”
Like most players, he lost it emotionally when he finally received the call on draft day. “My team” became “his team” too. Then he made his whole family run out and dive into the ocean with him in celebration.
Then when he moved to Pittsburgh and began his professional career, one of the first things I learned about him is that he didn’t yet have his driver’s license. So he rode his bike to practice. Not his bike, as in motorcycle. His bike, as in bicycle. And it wasn’t in a “hipster riding around with his man bun and avocado mochaccino (is that word?)” kind of way. It was more of “fourth grader who puts baseball cards in his spokes to make a cool sound” kind of way.
That’s just one of the many reasons why I love JuJu Smith-Schuster so much. And why I love “our team.” And why I love the draft. What’s better than witnessing a lot of major life-changing moments happen for a bunch of JuJu Smith-Schusters as they all get to join “their teams.”