Let’s go ahead and introduce you to the man who is about to become the most famous equipment manager in the world.
His name is Jackie Miles and he’ll be wearing a new suit, bought specifically for the moment he’ll hand in the card with the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft for the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night in New York.
As television leads us into the moments before the pick, you’ll see plenty of Miles. He’ll be at Carolina’s table with a helmet in front of him. When the time is right, he’ll hand in the pick that will shape the draft.
Kind of ironic because Miles is the kind of guy who doesn’t like attention. His humble beginnings came working in the equipment departments of the Philadelphia Eagles, the United States Football League’s Philadelphia Stars and the University of Pennsylvania. He was one of the first people hired by the Panthers before the expansion team started in 1995 and, quietly, he’s been injecting South Philadelphia into Charlotte since then.
Millions will see him, but Miles already is downplaying his role. First, he wants to make it clear, he’s not the guy handing the card to Commissioner Roger Goodell.
“That’s a myth,’’ Miles said. “When we’re on the clock, there will be two league employees behind our table. I’ll hand the card to one of them and that person will walk the card up and hand it to the Commissioner.’’
If Miles sounds like a man who knows the process, it’s only because he’s been Carolina’s man in New York for every draft since the team came into the league. The difference this year is that the Panthers have the top pick and that puts Miles on center stage.
“Don’t let Jackie sell you short on what he does,’’ Carolina general manager Marty Hurney said. “He is our eyes and ears at the draft. He’s a smart guy and he’s invaluable. He knows how to watch the room and he’s got a pretty good sense when there’s a trade going down or the clock is getting ready to run out and he alerts us to things like that. We can get a grasp from television. But Jackie’s right in the middle of it and there’s nobody else I’d rather have in New York.’’
Miles will be in the middle of Carolina’s table, surrounded by assistant equipment manager Donnie Toner and video assistant Jeff Mueller. I know most of the people who work for the Panthers, and, if I had to pick two guys to be my wing men on a road trip, they would be Toner and Mueller. They’re sharp and they’re there for more than show.
“Jackie’s our point guard up there,’’ Hurney said. “There’s no room for mistakes. We trust him, Donnie and Jeff as much as anybody in our building. That’s why they’re there.’’
Miles will wear an earpiece hooked to a speaker phone in the room where Hurney, all the scouts and coaches will be sitting in Charlotte. The line is open throughout the draft and Miles can hear everything that’s said from Charlotte. In New York, Miles is the only one who can hear what’s coming out of Charlotte.
Toner’s on one side and his job is to monitor the trade phone. The details of any transaction are given to all teams at the same time. It may come only a minute before the announcement is made on television. But it’s up to Toner and Miles to get information back to Hurney as soon as they get it because every second is precious.
Mueller sits on the other side of Miles and he’s got a list of correct spellings, positions and colleges for every player in the draft, including a couple hundred guys who won’t get drafted. Mueller’s job is to make sure Miles has the correct information when Hurney tells him to make a pick.
“I don’t want to be that guy that screws up and becomes a part of NFL lore for all the wrong reasons,’’ Miles said.
Miles never has messed up and there have been a few times he’s saved the Panthers. Take the time back in 2003 when the clock was running down on Minnesota’s first-round pick with Jacksonville on deck and Carolina in the hole.
“I started saying “Marty, we’re at 30 seconds and they don’t even have a card ready. Give me a pick’’,’’ Miles said. “I could hear them saying it was no big deal because Minnesota would get the pick in. I said, 'No, this thing is running out and Jacksonville’s ready to pounce. Let’s be ready, too.'"
Hurney listened. The clock ran out. Jacksonville made its pick and Miles immediately handed in a card with Jordan Gross’ name before the Vikings could jump back in.
The most nerve-wracking moment came in the seventh round in 1997. As instructed, Miles handed in the card for pick No. 228 with the name of tight end Kris Mangum.
Someone back in Charlotte was on a line with Mangum, who was on his cell phone and just heading into a tunnel. The connection was lost and, fearing a worst-case scenario, people in Charlotte told Miles to pick someone else.
“I was like, 'Guys, I’ve already handed in the card. It’s too late,'" Miles said. “(Former general manager) Bill Polian was on the other line, screaming 'No, go grab it. Get it back.'"
About the same time, Mangum emerged from the tunnel, called the Panthers back and assured them he was fine. Things went happily ever after as the tight end had a long career with Carolina.
The stakes are higher with the top pick, but the Panthers aren’t worried. Hurney will say the word whenever he’s ready or perhaps tip Miles off several hours before the draft.
Once the pick is made, Miles will spring into another role. As of late last week, Miles didn’t know the pick, so he planned to take several jerseys to New York. He’ll present the appropriate one to the player and say a few words.
“Whoever the player is, I can tell you already what my message is going to be,’’ Miles said. “I’ll just tell him that he’s coming to a great place and we’re going to take good care of him.’’
At least for those few moments, the No. 1 pick will be in the very trusted hands of the world’s most famous equipment manager.