'Agony and ecstasy': The art of the draft call

PITTSBURGH -- Ryan Shazier and his family got the tip from agent Jimmy Sexton, who was on the phone with the Dallas Cowboys from inside the green room during the 2014 NFL draft.

"The Cowboys are going to take you," Sexton told the table.

Shazier's father, Vernon, and Luke Fickell, Shazier's defensive coordinator at Ohio State, started firing off texts to loved ones about Shazier's new NFL home. Seconds later, Shazier got the call everyone assumed was from Dallas with the 16th overall pick.

Vernon was about to hit send when his son's words froze his thumbs.

"What's up, Buckeye?" said Shazier to the person on the other line, then-Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, an Ohio State running back in the '50s.

"I was going to tell my brother he won since he's a Cowboys fan, but I got to erase that text and say that I won," said Vernon, a longtime Steelers fan.

The NFL draft is wrought with front-office posturing, misinformation and debates about whether millennials will ask too many questions in team meetings.

One draft practice will never be tainted: the call.

At least 250 times next week, head coaches or general managers will reach a player by phone and rock his life with the news that he has been drafted.

The buildup is brutal, until the grip of the phone is gleeful, or sometimes awkward.

"Roller-coaster ride," said Brady Quinn, who should know after falling to No. 22 overall in the 2007 draft. "Changes your life forever."

"Agony and ecstasy," said longtime NFL agent David Canter.

"Something you've been working your whole life for," Chargers defensive end Melvin Ingram said.

The rules have changed a bit. Teams mostly use cellphones instead of landlines. Players can follow draft day trends and news on social media.

But these calls are too important to text. Team executives love making them, agents love passing them along, and players love weeping over them.

Everyone has a story, and so many are far from routine.

Keep your gold Nokia ringer on if you ditch your draft party for a Trick Daddy concert, because Denver is calling ...

Clinton Portis had enough. He saw three running backs go ahead of him in the 2002 draft. Once he heard DeShaun Foster's name at No. 34 overall, he hugged his mom, left his family barbecue in Gainesville, Florida, and hopped in his white and silver Cadillac Escalade EXT with his cousin.

Trick Daddy and the Nappy Roots were performing at the Kappa Alpha Psi luau at Florida State, Portis recalls, so he zoomed up Interstate 75 to clear his head and catch some live music.

Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan called. After turning down T.I.'s "I'm Serious" album inside the Escalade to answer, Portis realized he was still salty.

"I'm like, 'Man, what pick am I?'" Portis said. "He said, 'You're the [19th] pick in the second round,' and I said, 'Why didn't y'all draft me with the first-round pick?' He said, 'Hey, just be happy I drafted you. You were our No. 1 back. We're glad to have you.'"

Portis told Shanahan he would win rookie of the year (which he did), then hung up and partied at Kappa.

"I knew I had to fly out the next morning, so I couldn't get wasted," Portis said. "Day one, I was ready to prove myself. We couldn't get started fast enough. But we were going to party [that night]."

Going to the bathroom at Dave & Buster's might just jeopardize your draft call

Years of experience as an NFL agent could not have prepared Canter for what happened during the 2009 draft: Bill Parcells calling for a client Canter couldn't find.

Canter had helped cornerback Sean Smith rent out a Dave & Buster's in Pasadena, California. As the Miami Dolphins called Canter with intentions of selecting Smith No. 61 overall, Smith had decided to roam the arcade to expend nervous energy and made a pit stop in the restroom.

Trying to convey that to then-Dolphins executive Parcells went about as expected.

"Parcells just starts losing it on me -- 'Where is Sean Smith? Get him on the phone,'" Canter said. "They say at 1:10 [on the clock], we're passing on Sean."

Smith sprinted down the hall just in time and grabbed the phone. Canter gathered himself after the near-heart attack and gave Smith an emphatic slap on the back.

"I was ready to die," Canter said. "I don't know if I've ever had an emotional release like that. One of the most emotionally draining moments of my life."

Draft lesson No. 1,483: Dave & Buster's is entirely too big for a party.

False starts cost more than 5 yards in the draft room

The Ravenous swoop of the Green Bay Packers' 1996 draft target serves as one example why teams are hesitant to call a player unless they know they have him.

The Packers tried to call their shot for linebacker Ray Lewis at No. 27 overall, before Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome ran interference at No. 26.

Several figures involved recounted the story to ESPN's Jamison Hensley.

"Five picks away [from the Packers' No. 27 pick], I was on the phone with Green Bay and they said, 'We're taking you,'" said Lewis, who was excited about the prospect of playing with Brett Favre. "I'm telling everybody in the suite, I'm like, 'I'm going to Green Bay. I'm going to Green Bay.' When the 26th pick came up, I heard: 'University of Miami, Ray Lewis,' and the phone rang. Ozzie called me at the same time the pick was going off."

Newsome recalls a confused Lewis, who responded with a "Really?" and a "Who?" when told he was Baltimore-bound.

"We came within 30 seconds of getting him," then-Packers general manager Ron Wolf said. "If we would've been able to get him, I would've been considered a genius. We had a guy at the desk with the name on the card and everything. I was patting myself on the back that we got Ray Lewis. Then, wham-o, the Ravens jumped in there and took him. It was awful. It was a terrible feeling. I lost my composure and everything else in the room. That was not my finest hour."

With the 27th pick, the Packers selected offensive lineman John Michels, who played 24 NFL games over two seasons.

Yes, the draft is cruel to even the brightest football minds.

Mike Tomlin might taunt you on your draft call

Most coaches and players exchange pleasantries on draft calls -- 'happy to have you' -- but Tomlin broke code last year when he shortchanged James Conner.

"Hey, look, get in the car and drive down [from Erie, Pennsylvania]; we're not going to reimburse you for your gas miles," said Tomlin to his third-round pick in a video captured by Steelers.com.

Tomlin affirmed he was joking and expressed excitement to include the running back in a championship chase.

But the Steelers coach, who had a relationship with Conner since Pitt shares a building with the Steelers, isn't looking for an easy laugh with these calls.

Each one assumes its own identity.

"To share in that in some way is an honor," Tomlin said. "I've been on a lot of those phone calls in the last 11-12 years; every single one of them is special. You ought to hear the energy, the excitement of the person that's on the other end of that call and the people that are with them."

Pick up the phone, always -- it could be a team or a telemarketer

Last year's fourth-rounder Josh Dobbs was hanging with family on Day 3, playing video games to distract himself, taking the occasional text or call from agent Mike McCartney for potential leads.

When the Pittsburgh Steelers finally called with the 135th pick, the quarterback was hoping to avoid another "opportunity of a lifetime."

"Two telemarketers had called me right before then," Dobbs said, "and one was advertising a vacation to Orlando. I just hung up. But you can't not answer the phone. It's draft day."

An active cellphone for the wrong reasons is the most exhausting part of the draft, said Dobbs, who eventually told friends not to call.

"You're staring at the phone, staring at the TV," Dobbs said. "Video games help you not be so stressed about the draft going on. So I just went into the basement and played."

NFC East teams actually helping each other makes draft day that much sweeter for the player

Being an early, second-round pick can save much heartache entering that Friday night -- especially when the Cowboys swing a deal with a rival to take you.

That's what happened with DeMarcus Lawrence, who knew hours before the second round he would go No. 34 overall in 2014.

Canter, his agent, worked the phones all day as an unlikely trade partner, the Washington Redskins, got involved despite obvious hesitation.

"The tone was, 'Why would we trade with the Cowboys? We're not going to do it,'" Canter said of Washington. "Dallas must have made them a good offer."

Washington received the 47th and 78th selections, and Lawrence had from 6:30 p.m. on to relax at the Palazzo Las Vegas.

When making a splashy move, always call the next guy

NFL general managers must think a step ahead, which for Rams GM Les Snead meant calling one draft pick ahead in 2014.

With the team closing in on the selection of Michael Sam at No. 249 overall, Snead found himself thinking about a center out of Tennessee State named Demetrius Rhaney.

He was warning Rhaney, his 250th pick, about the wave coming his way.

"I said, 'Look, just want you to know, we're going to pull you off the board here in the next couple of picks, but what we do right before you, no one's ever going to know we drafted you,'" Snead said. "So don't get your feelings hurt."

Snead remembers how "jacked" Rhaney was to be a Ram. One of his favorite routines is releasing draft day tension by calling a player who has waited three days to hear from him.

"I can remember how much that call means to that person who's a little shorter, or maybe not as athletic," Snead said. "You can sense the emotion. What happens then is you feel emotion, you can feel the energy, and you can always say, 'That guy, you're probably going to have to run him out of the building.' You can just feel everything inside of him will go into making the team."

Rhaney made the team and is still in the league.

Trade-ups, even common late-round moves, make for the best calls

In an otherwise yawn-inducing move in 2013, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave up a seventh-rounder to move up seven spots in the sixth round for Miami running back Mike James.

Then-general manager Mark Dominik didn't expect what came next.

"[James] was screaming on the other end of the phone, 'They like me so much they traded up for me,'" recalled Dominik, who took James 189th overall. "He was breaking down on the phone, there's crying, they are all fired up, we are all fired up. There's just something about being able to tell your grandkids I was drafted into the NFL. It's a chip they can hold forever."

Don't mistake your quarterback for a travel agent

Steelers guard David DeCastro did that in 2012, and he heard all about it from Ben Roethlisberger entering his rookie season.

Roethlisberger called to congratulate the first-round pick and instead got itinerary instructions.

"It was a call from a Pittsburgh area code, and I needed a red-eye flight so I was kind of nervous," DeCastro recalled. "I didn't even say hello. I asked if I should go to the airport now. He was like, 'Hey, man, this is Ben Roethlisberger.'"

DeCastro remembers feeling like a doofus, but his All-Pro track record protecting Roethlisberger is decent payback.

The confusion was a symptom of the wild phone-passing that goes on for draft picks -- from general managers to secretaries to media relations coordinators. The routine can overwhelm players.

"You don't have a lot of time to think about the life-changing moment that just happened," DeCastro said.

That seventh-rounder might not want to hear from you

Bill Polian thought he had seen every draft scenario during an NFL executive career spanning three decades. He saw Peyton Manning enter his office asking for answers days before the 1998 draft. He pieced together a loaded Buffalo Bills team in the '90s.

But that seventh-round linebacker who basically rejected his draft call still stumps him.

"Linebacker was a position of some strength, and the player said, 'Thank you, but I didn't really want to come here,'" said Polian, who did not recall the name of the player. "I told him we'll give him a fair shot."

Late in the draft, some players prefer choosing their destination as an undrafted free agent over the sentiment of becoming a draft pick.

The player did not make the Indianapolis Colts roster.

Savor the moment

That's the advice from Ted Ginn, the only top-10 pick from the 2007 draft who's currently under an NFL contract.

Ginn doesn't remember exactly what the Dolphins told him over the phone while selecting him No. 9 overall. But he remembers all the family members and friends he hugged, from his future wife to his "muni" youth football teammates.

"The best joy you can get in that moment is showing this is a way [out] for siblings and cousins, a fortress for the family," Ginn said.