'Fantastic to be back': Fans get taste of normalcy at 2021 NFL draft in Cleveland

The 2020 NFL draft went virtual due to COVID-19, but fans were out and celebrating as the 2021 draft got underway Thursday in Cleveland. Phil Ellsworth / ESPN Images

CLEVELAND -- The downpour didn't stop thousands of fans from pouring into downtown Cleveland on Thursday hours before the city's first-ever NFL draft -- and first big public event of any kind in more than a year.

The pandemic, which transformed last year's draft into a virtual event, isn't over yet. (Fans at the event must wear a mask, have their temperature checked and answer a health questionnaire before entering; those in vicinity of the stage have been vaccinated.) But the bustle from FirstEnergy Stadium to the newly erected draft stage set on the bank of Lake Erie was a tangible sign that the COVID-19 era might finally be on the wane.

"You see how many people are here, regardless of this weather," said Sarah Aude, waiting in the rain with her husband, Joe, and father-in-law to peruse the draft experience's Super Bowl ring display. "That just tells you how much Cleveland loves the Browns and loves football."

The last time the Audes were here at FirstEnergy Stadium was to take their engagement photos. COVID-19, however, forced them to scrap the big wedding they had planned last May. Instead, they had to get married in their backyard in front of just a handful of family members.

"Fantastic to be back," Joe Aude said, donning orange pants and a blazer with Browns helmets on it. "And we'll definitely be back in the fall."

For fans of a perennial loser, the draft had always been Cleveland's Super Bowl. But now that the Browns hold Super Bowl aspirations again, the anticipation of the upcoming season manifested in the perpetual reverberation of "Here we go Brownies!" chants and Dawg Pound barks.

"This is important -- you need something to hang on to," said a man donning an orange fedora, identifying himself only as "The Sports Reverend." "I know a lot of people say football is not very important. But spiritually, it is, you know?"

Rayshon Jackson of Cleveland knows, especially given what his family has gone through during COVID-19.

"It's been terrible because we lost a few family members," said Jackson, who brought his two sons, Jeremiah, 10, and Jaylen, 6, to the draft. "Been a tough year for everybody. This is really my first time out with a lot of people. It's so great -- I'm really enjoying it."

They then start debating whom the Browns should draft in the first round. Rayshon wants them to go edge rusher; his sons prefer linebacker.

"It's nice to be doing something happy like this, "Jeremiah chimes in, "for a change."

Austin and Kayla Larkins agree. They had their first child, Luca, during the height of COVID-19 eight months ago.

"It was scary," Kayla Larkins said. "Very scary. But everything worked out."

Thursday, Kayla had Luca strapped to her chest with a Miami Dolphins beanie on his head. Kayla is from Ohio; Austin, from Florida. The couple made a compromise early on: She would agree to pull for the Dolphins if he would cheer for Ohio State.

Since Luca's arrival, the budding family had barely left Camp Lejeune, where Austin is a Marine, in Jacksonville, North Carolina.

"We've been stuck, especially with the military," Kayla said.

Serendipitously, though, Kayla's cousin is getting married in Ohio this weekend. That gave Austin both the opportunity to ask for leave and a chance to wear his new Tua Tagovailoa jersey out.

"We've done nothing," said Austin, who also reiterates that "Tua is the guy" in Miami. "It's great to be able to actually get out of the house and not be stuck in there."

Tommy Darr and Logan Hartsock, of Coshocton, Ohio, were just happy to be talking trash to each other in person again.

Darr, a lifelong Cleveland fan, has had to resort to trolling Hartsock, a Steelers die-hard, over social media, tagging him with highlights of the Browns' playoff victory in Pittsburgh on a weekly basis. Hartsock, however, got the best of him Thursday, taunting Darr for not being able to take a photo with Cleveland's Super Bowl ring, since, well, one doesn't exist yet.

"Such a big relief to be here," Hartsock said. "We've been stuck inside for over a year, and it seemed like there was never any end in sight. We got kind of worried this event wasn't going to happen. Then when we figured out that it was on, it was awesome. The rain was not going to stop us."

The draft is a relief to Kip and Tiffany Deckerhoff, in more ways than one. Long-suffering Jaguars fans, the two are elated about the arrival of No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence.

As nurses at a hospital, they've also had to endure the drain of the pandemic over the past year. But the Jaguars flew the two front-line workers to Cleveland and gave them seats in front of the draft stage to witness perhaps the most important pick in Jacksonville history.

"It's been an interesting year," Kip Deckerhoff said. "But this is awesome."