Watching the movie “Draft Day” with two roommates was surreal for Rock Hill’s Jibrille Fewell.
Fewell, a former South Pointe Stallion laboring through the final weeks of the NFL Draft process, got to see the NFL front office perspective of the draft, even if it was a fictionalized version starring Kevin Costner. Having been through the gauntlet of picking an agent, playing in an all-star game and performing in front of scouts at Liberty University’s pro day, Fewell could appreciate the movie’s script more than most sitting in the theater.
All except maybe Khalil Mack, the highly-rated linebacker from the University at Buffalo who is almost certainly a top-10 pick in the May 8 draft, and was seated next to Fewell in the theater.
One of “Draft Day’s” main football characters is Vontae Mack. He looks like Khalil Mack, has the same haircut, and his girlfriend in the film even looks like Khalil Mack’s. Vontae Mack’s emergence as a draft prospect in the movie comes because of a big game against Wisconsin with highlights eerily similar to Khalil Mack’s real-life breakout performance last fall against Ohio State.
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But as weird as that was – you better believe that’s been joked about at the apartment in northeast Buffalo, N.Y., called Maple Court where five former college teammates and NFL hopefuls live – the past three months have been even more surreal for Fewell and the group.
“Draft Day” may have enlightened Fewell to the stresses front offices are feeling, but the movie shed no light on his own prospects. The most constant source of irritation in the last month for the Maple Court roommates has been the lack of information surrounding potential pro football opportunities.
“That’s the thing that’s stressful about it – you don’t know what’s going on,” he said last week. “You don’t know if teams like you or what. It’s just been a little frustrating.”
Last year’s draft began on April 25 at Radio City Music Hall. But this year’s draft was pushed back to May 8 – the first time since 1984 the event will be held in May – because Radio City Music Hall was scheduled to produce an Easter dance show. That shift added more than two weeks to a process that has surprised Fewell with its length and mental taxation. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters last year that “we think there’s great benefits” to moving the draft into May. “We think that’s a good change for the fans and for football,” he added.
The sanity of draft hopefuls clearly wasn’t a priority. And Radio City Music Hall’s dance production, riddled with problems, was canceled in late March.
“Draft Day” only half the story
Casual NFL fans may think that for the players, the draft involves selecting an agent, performing for scouts at a pro day and then getting picked by a team. Fewell admitted he thought something similar.
There’s so much more than that.
Fewell’s pro day, essentially an audition before NFL scouts, was held in early March, over 50 days ago. In what other field of work could you have an interview, not hear a peep from the potential employer, and still have a shot at a job?
The stress can be unbearable. Imagine how quarterback prospect Teddy Bridgewater, who played at Louisville, feels as his ability is dissected every day and new flaws are superimposed nationwide on ESPN. Put yourself in former South Pointe star Jadeveon Clowney’s cleats as unnamed NFL general managers call him lazy and question his desire to play. Even worse, take a walk in former Clemson Tiger Brandon Thomas’ steps – but to do that right now, you’d probably need crutches since he tore his ACL during a private workout with the New Orleans Saints.
“Draft Day” only showed moviegoers half of the emotionally and physically grueling draft process.
The pressure on top prospects like Mack is crushing. But at least they’re nearly guaranteed of getting picked, with a big payday on the horizon.
It’s arguably worse for an unheralded prospect like Fewell, or his roommate Ben Kargbo, a safety from Southeast Missouri State. The pair started at Buffalo with their roommates in 2009, but transferred away for different reasons. They haven’t had the exposure that Mack got this past fall, and they have little-to-no information about what may happen to them after the draft.
NFL teams don’t want to waste draft picks on players they think they can sign as free agents. But teams also don’t want to alert competitors about the best free agent prospects. So they keep everything quiet, even from the prospect and his agent. With no information to work with, a player can be riddled with doubts and what-if’s.
“Khalil’s stress is a little bit different,” said Proformance Sports trainer John Opfer, who has been working with the Maple Court group since January. “It is weird. We had a talk to our guys about being careful of where our minds play tricks on us. It’s been hard for our guys. Khalil’s been flying out somewhere every week and they’re waiting for just the first call.”
It’s brutal. And it comes to a head.
Time to refocus
For the Maple Court crew – which includes Fewell, Mack, Kargbo, former Buffalo running back Branden Oliver, former Buffalo linebacker Willie Moseley and former Toledo running back David Fluellen, all players that started at Buffalo together in 2009 – the head popped Monday of last week. The group, gathered at Buffalo’s Proformance Sports for its daily workout, didn’t touch a weight or do an exercise that day. They had drawn the ire of Opfer.
“It irks me to see a guy come in with talent who’s got his head between his legs because he’s not sure which way he’s going,” said Opfer. “It’s a blessing that we’re worried about chasing a game; we can say it’s a job, but we’re really chasing a game. It got to a point where they were like, ‘what are we doing this for?’ ”
Opfer “definitely lost it.”
“I felt offended,” he said. “Jibrille at 308 pounds is a better athlete than I was at 190, as scary as that is. For him to have his head between his legs because he has a cousin (Clowney), who could arguably go maybe one through five, and other family members that are great football players. I tell these guys, ‘you got it all wrong. Put it in perspective and go do what you can do with the body you’ve been given.’ ”
Some of the group cried, and some probably cursed. The frustration flowed like melting spring snow.
“I laugh at it now,” said Fewell, “but it was something we needed to do. Everybody is at that point where we don’t know what’s going on, so it’s easy to get down, depressed.”
As Kargbo said, “You’ve got to be patient, everything’s not gonna happen on your own terms.”
Fewell now calls Opfer “Dr. John.” Opfer, as much a mental coach as a physical one, was there for him during a tough week.
“I’m at peace about it now,” Fewell said. “I just give it up to God, trust my faith. I got this far.”
House of hopefuls
If Opfer is the part-time shrink, then the housemates are the full-time support group. Outside of focus-renewing therapy sessions at Proformance, the group doesn’t talk about the NFL Draft. They play video games and spades, grill steaks, or try to find something to do in Buffalo, a town where Fewell says there is nothing to do. Their anxiety may derive from different things – Mack particularly doesn’t like to talk about the media-driven scuttlebutt surrounding him – but they are all yoked by its weight.
“We just try to encourage each other every day,” said Fewell.
“The good thing about this is that we all know each other from back then,” said Kargbo. “At the end of the day, we all have to let each other know that we’re going for one goal right now. Only a small group of people get the opportunity to do what we’re doing. At times we need to remind each other of that.”
The housemates have been in and out during the last few months. While Mack jets across the country visiting and working out with teams, the trips have been far fewer for some of the other residents, including Fewell. The former Liberty University defensive tackle attended a late March regional combine in Orlando, Fla., but wasn’t selected to compete at a super regional combine in front of NFL scouts. While in Florida, he visited the Miami Dolphins’ facility with his agent James Peterson, but didn’t meet any coaches.
Fewell has received interest from a few teams. The Carolina Panthers got in touch with Peterson, and Fewell heard he was on the Minnesota Vikings’ undrafted free agent list, but besides that, nothing. Well, other than the kind of pressing silence that makes his ears feel like they might burst.
“You just don’t know what’s going on,” said Fewell.
He’s tempted to call Peterson nearly every day seeking an update; instead, he talks with him about once a week.
“Your agent could be telling you stuff that’s good; he could be telling you stuff so you’ll stop bothering him,” said Fewell. “You’ve got to trust him.”
The real draft day
By the end of this week, the two-story brick apartment in the Maple Court cul-de-sac will be empty except for Fluellen, who is a Buffalo native. Everyone will go their separate ways until after the draft, when their near-term fates will be etched out more clearly. Fewell and his roommates can’t wait. Good or bad, they just want to know something.
“It’s gonna be like a little kid waiting for Christmas,” said Kargbo with a laugh.
Fewell chuckles when he thinks about the naive perception of the draft process he held back in January when this leg of his mazy life first began. After being kicked off the South Pointe team his senior year of high school, transferring away from Buffalo, and finally landing at Liberty, Fewell realizes it was silly to think reaching the NFL would be any easier or more direct.
“I was thinking this is gonna be an easy process, go through pro days, wow some scouts, work out. Oh no,” he said, laughing. “A lot of people were just thinking it was gonna be so easy. You have to go through the process to understand.”
Opfer and the housemates have witnessed four months of progress for Fewell, both in his 40-yard dash times and his spiritual and mental makeup. The anguish and self-doubt have eroded Fewell’s weaknesses, leaving a granite core capable of coping with life’s challenges that was not evident when he first signed documents to enter the draft in December.
Still, the final two weeks – the climax of this real-life “Draft Day” – might be the most nerve-jangling for Fewell and the hundreds of other prospects in this year’s draft pool.
“I’m just so ready to get this process over with, man,” he said. “So I can know what’s gonna happen. I know I’m gonna be all right regardless, but I just want to know. This is a test of my faith, but I’m gonna be all right.”