Source: USA TODAY
NEW YORK — Tyrann Mathieu raised his voice only once on Thursday night in the crowded restaurant basement, where more than 50 people gathered to watch the first round of the NFL draft, hopeful the defensive back with a checkered past would be selected.
When quarterback E.J. Manuel of Florida State went 16th overall to the Buffalo Bills, a shock to draftniks and Mathieu, the 20-year-old cornerback yelped with a mix of incredulity and enthusiasm: “Woooot!”
It surprised everyone but Manuel, whose night of fulfilled dreams at the Radio City Music Hall unfolded just eight blocks away from where Mathieu waited, and waited.
Mathieu, the 5-foot-9 former LSU defensive back, and Manuel, the 6-foot-5 passer, know one another only by highlight reels. But for a night, they were co-stars in the NFL’s great offseason drama.
Theirs is the story of Draft Day: Mathieu, the guy hoping he would go in the first round, but knowing he probably wouldn’t, and Manuel, the confident kid who came out of nowhere to be the first quarterback selected.
‘It’s not a party’
The basement was bustling when Mathieu arrived at Southern Hospitality, situated on the corner of 9th Avenue and West 45th Street, just moments before NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell read the name of the first pick of the 2013 draft.
Friends of Mathieu and friends of friends, acquaintances and downright strangers sipped cocktails and half-yelled over the hip-hop tracks of Justin Timberlake, the restaurant’s owner, before Mathieu walked in around 8 p.m., with his two best friends from high school, his girlfriends of two years, his high school football coach, a manager, a marketing assistant and an agent.
The room grew quiet, the music was cut off, and Mathieu made his way to a brown leather couch positioned in front of a projection screen, which showed ESPN’s draft coverage. On the wall to the left of the projector was a portrait of Johnny Cash, screaming and flipping the bird, a guitar slung over his shoulder.
Would this be the night Mathieu would be drafted, then give his critics the same pose, if only figuratively?
Three ESPN cameras focused on Mathieu, just in case a team defied the pundits. Aware the focus was on him, Mathieu asked a promoter to put the music back on. No need to listen to Goodell yet.
That’s when the marketing man broke the ice: “Check your phone to make sure you’ve got reception,” Alex Guerrero told Mathieu. “You got enough bars? All you need is one!”
Guerrero, 29, is a former Boise State lineman who had stints with three NFL teams before turning to the Arena League. Football over, he founded a brand management company for athletes, and his biggest client is Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson, who shares an agent with Mathieu.
By the time Peterson’s Cardinals picked at No. 7, however, Mathieu was digging into spinach dip with tortilla chips and chowing on hot wings. Guerrero joked again: “Take a picture of this and post it, so they know it’s a dinner and not a party.”
First round? Really?
Mathieu’s trip to the city went sour before the wheels touched down Wednesday afternoon. With an NFL Players Association function Wednesday, he planned to stay another night and, before heading home to New Orleans, throw two parties — a gathering at Southern Hospitality (Timberlake’s place in Hell’s Kitchen) to watch the first round of the draft, and another at a Manhattan nightclub, SL.
A promoter working with Mathieu’s agent organized both parties with a plan to promote them quietly, but someone got overzealous and created a flier for the nightclub party that touted the host as a “first-round draft pick.” Mathieu, who said he overlooked the text, posted the flier on the picture-hosting web site, Instagram — instantly creating a furor, because …
Mathieu won’t turn 21 until next month.
Mathieu was not expected to be a first-round pick.
Mathieu has a history of partying too heavily.
He spent 2012 out of football after multiple failed drug tests at LSU and was arrested in October for marijuana possession, quashing any hope of returning to the team after a stellar sophomore season in which he was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.
So, when Mathieu and crew touched down in New York, his phone choked on text messages – 50 of them, his agent said. Media, including USA TODAY Sports, had picked up his seeming boast. The second party was cancelled.
But the, uh, dinner lived on.
Mathieu, it turns out, might have finally met Manuel had the SL party remained under wraps. Manuel’s camp was planning a post-first-round visit to SL as well, provided he was chosen in the first round. And they were pretty sure he would be.
Manuel’s agent, Malik Shareef, and his agent’s partner, Josh Hare, had been confident for weeks the Bills were going to take their QB at No. 8, or trade down in the first round and select him in the Nos. 15-to-25 range, Hare said.
The Bills were one of three teams that had visited Manuel in Tallahassee and invited him to a workout on their own campus. (The other two were the Eagles and Browns.) Plus, the Bills had maintained constant contact with FSU coach Jimbo Fisher, and seemed set on their man.
That’s why Hare found it amusing when national media voices, citing unnamed sources, pegged the Bills to choose at No. 8, former Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib, a former protégé of new coach Doug Marrone.
A “smokescreen,” Hare said. “They were pretty adamant early on that E.J. was their guy. The whole Nassib talk was funny, because I know what they had been telling E.J., me and Jimbo.”
So Hare and Manuel and his family planned on a night on the town – no fliers or Instagram pics, just family and close friends. But the first round changed everyone’s plans.
Meanwhile, Mathieu was watching intently. He leaned in for the announcement of each pick. He grew especially tense when the choice of his hometown New Orleans Saints at No. 15 was announced: Texas defensive back Kenny Vaccaro.
“They didn’t want to go with the hometown kid?” Guerrero asked Mathieu, who shook his head. “You’re telling me they’re not breaking rules at Texas? How many tattoos he got on? Fifteen? Twenty?”
Next up: The Bills at No. 16.
Manuel knew he’d be a first-rounder, but he got a phone call in the green room Thursday night a lot earlier than expected.
Typically, if a player has accepted the NFL’s invitation to attend the draft, a representative from the selecting team will call that player’s cell phone when he’s about to be selected. This year, several teams instead called the land lines resting in the center of the tables surrounded by each player’s family.
About 30 minutes into the draft, the Eagles were on the clock with the fourth pick when the phone on the table rang. Manuel answered cautiously. Was he going this early? Turned out, the caller was a former coach of No. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan who was calling to congratulate him, but he got the wrong number.
Manuel laughed it off.
Two choices later, the Cleveland Browns – one of the teams that took a hard look at Manuel – were on the clock, and the phone rang again. It was the same guy.
Two picks later, the Bills – the club Hare is banking on — traded their No. 8 choice to the St. Louis Rams, collecting second- and seventh-round picks to move back eight spots.
“I just told him, ‘Don’t worry. They love you,’” Hare said.
Another hour passed. Across the room, Geno Smith waited, too. The Bills were about to take a match to everyone’s mock drafts. The phone rang again. This time it was Bills general manager Buddy Nix.
“Congratulations,” he said. “See you tomorrow.”
The Honey Badger
Back in Hell’s Kitchen, Mathieu had polished off a po’ boy sandwich (he was drinking only lemonade, by the way) and was about to dig into a Chocolate Molten Lava Cake when the Pittsburgh Steelers took Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones. And just as soon as Goodell made his way off stage, he was spun around to deliver the San Francisco 49ers’ decision.
Mathieu froze. This is where he believed he would go. The defending NFC champions need to replace free-agent defector Dashon Goldson at safety, and could use a corner as well. But the 49ers, picking at No. 18, selected LSU safety Eric Reid.
The Mathieu party cheered for former LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo when he went seventh to the Browns, but they weren’t so enthusiastic for Reid. After a few quiet moments, Mathieu was smiling again.
The picks roll on. The Giants take a tackle. The Bears grabbed a guard. Cincinnati picked a tight end. The music was off now, and for the first time, ESPN analysts Jon Gruden and Mel Kiper discussed Mathieu — mentioning Janoris Jenkins, the former Florida cornerback, booted for failed drug tests, who was drafted by the Rams in the second round last year.
Gruden praised Mathieu: “This kid’s magnificent as a football player. Every secondary coach I talk to all say, ‘the Honey Badger.’” Gruden implored the Vikings: “Do the right thing and take this kid before he falls to far.”
The Vikings take a defensive back at 25: But it’s Xavier Rhodes of Florida State.
By the time the Cowboys picked at No. 31, the party had thinned and the cameras were off. There was one last hope for a happy ending: The Ravens, in need of secondary help, held the final pick of the first round. They took Florida safety Matt Elam.
Mathieu weaved through the remaining crowd and into a black Chevy Suburban parked illegally at the corner. He declined an interview request. His girlfriend, Sydni, clutched his left arm and rested her head on his shoulder. And they were off.
Immediately after meeting the commissioner and donning a blue and red Bills cap, Manuel wept in an interview with NFL Network’s Deion Sanders. His mother, Jackie, beat breast cancer in February.
“It’s been tough because as a football player you just want to focus on football, but when your mother is sick, she’s doing better now, you think about the journey,” Manuel said. “From when I was a kid, the ups and the downs, everything. When this moment comes, you get that call, it’s just amazing. I’m just so happy.”
Several interviews later, Manuel was eager to join his mother, father, his two grandmothers, his older sister and Hare in celebration. But the Bills wanted Manuel on a private jet, which was waiting at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.
While Manuel made the media rounds, Hare went to his office in Harlem to pick up a clean suit. He was back at the Hall by 12:15, in time to scoop Manuel, take him to the hotel to shower and pack. They were on the plane by 2 a.m. But before takeoff, there was one more interview.
“Were you surprised that you were the first quarterback taken?” Manuel was asked.
“No I wasn’t,” he said. “I said all along that I was the best quarterback in this class.”
PHOTOS: All 32 first-round picks
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