Inside the NFL draft waiting game, from a former player who lived it

It was a small draft-day party. Immediate family, some friends. Beers, food, my old man's chili. And nervous energy. Because no one wants to wait for his name to be called.

But I did. Almost two full days under the old-school NFL draft schedule in the spring of 2000. A weekend thing, Saturday and Sunday, with an entire night to think about why I was still on the board. Restless, I woke up for another full day of waiting and hoping for something -- soon.

That Sunday in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, at my parents' house? Long. Real long. Sit and wait. Take cuts on the back deck with my high school baseball bat I found in the basement. Look out the window. Pace around the house, holding that bat. Check my phone battery. Make sure it works. Call my agent (again). Go sit on the front porch. Stare at the TV.

Even the top-tier prospects and the projected first-round picks have to wait a little. Heck, even the No. 1 overall pick has to sit there until the card is turned in, until it becomes official. And for those guys, the top-10 prospects, the money starts to trail off with each name that is called. There's a big difference in the guaranteed cash (and opportunity) between the first five selections and the guy who slides to the back half of the first round.

You can see it on their faces while they sit in the green room. Fear starts to creep in. They become restless in that chair, and they start to question, or doubt, the process.

I did the same thing -- for almost two full days as a late-round guy. And, like the majority of prospects waiting to hear their names called this weekend, I overvalued my own draft stock. Two-year starter at Iowa. First-team All-Big Ten as a senior. Ran a 4.49 at the combine. Maybe late third round, probably early fourth, I thought. You hear things, talk to your agent, listen to family, the college girlfriend, too. Yeah, she thinks you're a star.

Mock drafts? Rumors? Of course I looked at them. Dial-up internet back then. I even read Mel Kiper's draft guide. He gave me a pretty decent grade, I think. And I was sure the league would see me as a mid-round safety. That's decent cash, an opportunity to compete for a starting spot and some security.

But come Sunday morning, after hearing absolutely nothing on Day 1 of the draft, I started to get angry as picks came off the board. That safety? Come on, I'm better than him. He can't run like me. This cat? Nah. He isn't going to make it.

In reality, I was scared. And I didn't know if this thing was going to work out.

As the draft rolled on, I did get a call from the Dallas Cowboys. They told me to be ready for their next pick. I could be the guy. OK, wear that star on the side of my helmet? I love it. Let's go. But that pick came and went -- with no call, no coach telling me I was going to play in Dallas. There was no celebration downstairs with family screaming when my name showed up on the TV. Just nervous chatter. People mulling around the lower level of my parents' house, wasting time, hoping.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were the next team to call. Same message, same drill. Wait for the coach. It's coming. I didn't get that call, either. They picked some dude I can't remember. And my heart sank. I was defeated, mentally, as the last pick of the fourth round came off the board and the card flipped to the start of the fifth.

"But I'll tell you this: I will never forget that moment. It's special for the first pick in the draft and for the prospect who waits until the seventh round. And when it finally happens, and you see it show up on TV, there is nothing better as a football player." Bowen, on being drafted by the Rams in the sixth round in 2000

Anyone there? I'm still available.

With the way the draft is structured now -- in prime time and spread out over three days -- I can't imagine what it's like for the late-round guys to wait. That's painful. And it just creates more time for prospects to question the process, or their college careers or their future.

I was about to lose it after just two days.

We have to remember that this goes much deeper than testing times at the combine and performances at pro days or college all-star games. And it traces back well before the game tape scouts watch for hours, or before prospects even sign letters of intent to play college ball.

For the guys hoping to get drafted this weekend, and for me more than 16 years ago, it's about the dream to play in the National Football League. That's it. Maybe it started in little league. That first day of high school camp. That first time you play varsity football under the lights. This stuff is real. It's the end of the journey you take as a football player. This is the reward -- actually hearing your name called to be selected to play in the NFL.

By the start of the sixth round, I was just floating around the house. Walk downstairs, grab some food, head out to the deck. No luck. I started to think about the possibility that I wasn't good enough. My agent, Jack Bechta, called next. He said I had to start preparing for the undrafted free-agent process. Yikes. That's the long road to an NFL roster with limited opportunity and limited cash, or security, up front.

And for the first time in this process, I started to believe it was over. Time to use that degree from Iowa, I guess. Time to shut down the dream. Move on, right? Be an adult, or something like that. Go to job fairs. Crap.

I wondered what I could have done better. I started replaying college games in my head, thinking if I made this play or that play, I would have already been drafted and drinking beer downstairs. Get the party going. But instead I just sat there, in my parents' bedroom. Alone.

The actual call came late on Sunday afternoon. By that time, I had turned off the TV and stopped watching. On the other end of the line was Peter Giunta, the defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams.

"Matt, we just drafted you," he said.

The living room downstairs erupted when my name flashed across the TV screen.

Maybe it was more about relief for everyone in the house. I don't know. But I'll tell you this: I will never forget that moment. It's special for the guy who goes No. 1 overall, but it's just as special for the seventh-rounder. There's nothing better as a football player. Everything slows down -- finally -- and you can actually relax, drink a PBR with your old man and hug your mom.

Pick No. 198. I was that guy. A sixth-rounder out of Iowa in the 2000 NFL draft. Man, that was a long wait. And even longer for the guy picked right after me at No. 199, that quarterback from Michigan, Tom Brady.

ESPN.com NFL analyst Matt Bowen played seven seasons as a defensive back in the NFL.