"Oh man, it was great," Amukamara said this week in a phone interview. "They had us posted up in the W Hotel in Times Square. Riding the subway, going to a Yankees game. ... We got to go to the New York Stock Exchange and ring the bell. It was great to be a New Yorker for a week."
They don't get enough attention, but these next couple of days are the best part of the NFL draft, if you step back and let them be. After months of scouting combines, pro days, mock drafts, information leaks, smokescreens and analysis upon analysis of who fits where and why, the top prospects in the 2014 draft have arrived in New York City for the week of their lives.
This is a chance to step back from the cascade of minutiae and engage in the wonder that our sports at their best offer us. Watch these young men closely over the next couple of days, and you'll appreciate just what the draft means through the eyes of the people at its heart. Thursday night is about dreams coming true. The days leading up to it are about celebrating that.
On Wednesday at Chelsea Piers, the draft's top prospects will host a football clinic for kids. They'll get their picture taken atop the marquee at Radio City Music Hall. They'll sit with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in his corner office (which has a wraparound balcony!) high above Park Avenue. On Thursday, they'll visit kids in a pediatric cancer ward at Mount Sinai and get a feel for the power they'll have from now on as NFL stars to make a kid's day. All of it leads up to a red-carpet entrance and a green-room star turn before they get to take that walk across the Radio City stage, hug the commissioner and put on a cap bearing their new team's logo.
"Definitely remarkable," Amukamara said. "Picking out the perfect suit, knowing who you can bring in the green room, worrying about whether you gave teams the right number to call. ... The anticipation really makes it special."
These are kids, just a few years out of high school, having the time of their lives at the center of the universe. And they do have fun with it. In 2010, as the top prospects sat with Goodell in his office, Oklahoma tackle Trent Williams asked the commissioner if he'd announce him by his nickname, "Silverback," when he was picked. The room broke up in laughter at the lunacy of the idea, but when the Redskins picked Williams No. 4 overall, sure enough Goodell announced the pick as "Trent 'Silverback' Williams, tackle, University of Oklahoma."
Shortly thereafter, I was interviewing Williams' college teammate, Sam Bradford, who'd been the No. 1 pick, and I asked him what that was about. Bradford hadn't heard the announcement, and his eyes got huge. "Oh, he did NOT!" Bradford exclaimed, and then laughed throughout his explanation.
You don't even have to be in New York to invite the world to your moment. Justin Pugh was at his parents' home in Pennsylvania last year when the Giants picked him in the first round. After the draft, NFL.com posted a video of Pugh talking on the phone with Tom Coughlin and other Giants officials, while his friends waited to lose their minds once he hung up.
"Just the elation of having your name called, the relief at finally hearing it," Pugh recalled. "And knowing where you're going to be. My mom was worried I'd be picked by Seattle and play all the way across the country and she'd never see me again. ... The rest of the night, we just kept sitting around saying, 'The Giants. The Giants!' like we couldn't believe it," Pugh said. "My friends were telling me to call my agent and find out how much I was going to get paid. It was a great night. One of the most rewarding I've ever experienced."
It was raw joy, broadcast for the world to see. It was a 22-year-old who couldn't believe how awesome this was. It was so much that's great about sports, and really what's truly the greatest about the NFL draft.
"It was definitely something I dreamed about and put a lot of thought into," Amukamara said of his 2011 experience. "And then your name is called and everything happens so quick, you sort of forget it all. Your name is called, you shake the commissioner's hand, you're interviewed by Deion [Sanders], then there's a whole bunch of media in your face."
And after that, you're a pro football player, subject to all the criticism and scrutiny that entails. After that, you have to listen to people wonder where you fit, whether you can start right away, whether you'll be a "bust." It's not as though a pro football player's life is devoid of wonder, but it's definitely different, being the new fish in the big, scary pond with everyone watching to see how well you swim.
That's what makes these next couple of days so much fun to watch. This is these players' chance to be something other than pieced-together bits of film study, 40-yard-dash times and names on a "SportsCenter" touchscreen. This is a chance -- maybe the last chance -- for these guys to be kids with eyes full of wonder at how great this whole idea really is. It might not be a bad idea for the rest of us to put our mock drafts down for a few minutes Wednesday or Thursday and join them.