NASHVILLE -- Roughly five hours before the start of the NFL Draft, perhaps the biggest event in this city's history, the action is already lively at the renowned Lower Broadway honky-tonks. At Crazy Town, bartenders pour $14 well drinks and serve beers that will set you back seven to nine bucks a pop.
Outside, near an overhead traffic light featuring an “N,” “F” and “L,” tourists and locals gawk and take photos of the massive, 70-foot-high stage set up for this Las Vegas-like spectacle. A plane drags a Nudie's bar banner across an overcast sky. Law enforcement is everywhere.
Meanwhile, steps from the Redneck Riviera, where cans of beer form a giant American flag near the bar, 44-year-old Jay White dispenses a spirit of the holy variety. A born-again Christian, the former Tennessee State strong safety is the resident cook at a Nashville homeless shelter for men. From his chair, he delivers the Word of God to anyone who will listen, as well as strawberry lemonade (no charge, donations accepted) from a large thermos covered with illustrations of red roses.
“I am like a watchman out here praying for souls,” says White, a crucifix dangling from his neck. A Titans fan, he’s pumped for the draft. “This will be one of the biggest parties this city has ever seen,” he says.
“I just hope," White adds with a chuckle, "we mind our manners.”
The New Year’s Eve-like scene Thursday is wondrous and bizarre: Fans reportedly began arriving by 3:30 a.m. – no admission is charged. By 5 p.m., a crowd is packed into a four-block area on Lower Broadway. Wearing psychedelic slacks, a late-20ish woman outside Kid Rock's Big Ass Honky Tonk Rock N' Roll Steakhouse reaches into a large bucket marked "Band Tips." Then she hands a man a wad of cash as thick as a slab of meat.
Crazy town, indeed.
Eager for a supreme view of the draft stage, brothers Jeremy and Joey Arnold receive access to the rooftop bar at the Famous Saloon, an upscale joint on Second Avenue that looms over the draft stage at the end of Lower Broadway. A friend of the Arnolds gave them his passes for free. The cost for the brothers' pal: a cool grand. On draft day, however, some pay as little as $100 for the privilege.
To climb to the top of the three-story building, one must have some Sherpa mountain guide in your DNA. It’s nearly 200 steps up flights of stairs to the rooftop bar, a jaunt that can send heartbeats soaring over 120 beats a minute. Near the end of the journey be prepared for a taunt: “You finally made it,” read the words painted on a green wall. “BTW … We have an elevator.”
By the time he reached the top, Joey Arnold is worn out. “I’m a fat guy,” he says, “and I needed a beer.” That’s $6 a round, sir.
And the view? Obstructed and disappointing, the brothers say. Only a small portion of the draft stage is visible from the perch.
"The only reason we came is because we got in free,” Jeremy Arnold says. The brothers plan to watch Rounds 2-7 from Lower Broadway.
No stranger to the draft madness, Buffalo fans assimilate quickly into the Lower Broadway culture, "pre-gaming" with their usual gusto. But as die-hard Bills supporters file into the draft area, settling into their seats in the pit directly beneath the draft stage, one face is notably missing.
Ezra Castro, known in the Bills community as “Pauncho Billa,” is unable to attend. He learned from doctors Thursday morning that he will enter hospice care for his Stage 4 cancer. Instead of announcing the Bills' first-round pick, as originally planned, "Pauncho Billa" watches from his hospital bed in Texas.
A few of Castro's super-fan friends brought his beloved sombrero and place it in his empty seat, hoping its presence brings the Bills a high-quality pick. They also display a poster that includes Castro in full "Pauncho Billa" costume.
“I’m like his second mom – I met him about 10 years ago,” explains a woman holding a #PaunchoPower poster. She describes Castro as “the most sincere, wonderful person there is.”
Although he is not physically in Music City, Castro, 39, still gets a glimpse of the draft. Buffalo defensive tackle Harrison Phillips Facetimes with Castro as the Bills select University of Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver with their first-round pick.
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Thirty minutes before the first pick, a mosh pit of football fans is fully formed near the draft stage. Two-fisted drinkers slam down beers while VIPs atop a rooftop gaze at the massive LED boards on the draft stage. “Repent! Turn to Jesus or Burn,” reads a large sign held aloft in a swirl of Browns, Steelers, Titans, Jets, Eagles and Cowboys fans. As a sky-cam races up Broadway, the crowd roars and points.
While fans jostle for prime positioning, a conversation turns to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Boo him or not? “As a fantasy football commissioner,” says Will Cavanaugh, a 26-year-old account manager from Charlotte, N.C., “I have too much respect for him and all the crap he has to put up with to boo him.”
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Before entering Lower Broadway, some fans submit to a security search. Few peruse the list of official house rules posted nearby for the NFL Draft Viewing Party. Among them: No guns, knives or other weapons. No noisemakers, pop-up tents or sealed containers. No large chains and spiked jewelry. Oh, and absolutely no drones.
And apparently there's an unwritten rule for many fans, too: Thou shall indeed boo Goodell.
From behind a large podium shortly after 7 p.m., the $31.7 million-a-year commissioner smiles, announces Kyler Murray as the No. 1 overall pick of the Arizona Cardinals, and per draft tradition, is roundly booed.
Unsurprisingly, "Captain Jack Rack 'Em" – real name Jay Levy -- joins in. The “Captain” looks as if he just stepped from the darkest, dankest corner of The Black Hole at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. He wears full regalia: pirate hat, Raider sweat pants, a motorcycle jacket adorned with patches, Harley-Davidson gloves, scores of long chains around his neck and a skull-and-crossbones eye patch.
"Hot as f----," he says of the outfit, an “abridged version” of his full, in-season gear that cost him $1,200.
A 54-year-old government analyst from Tampa, Fla., Levy is no fan of Goodell. But he loves his Raiders. Has since 1972, the year of what he derisively calls the "Immaculate Deception" — the miracle catch by Steelers’ running back Franco Harris that sealed Oakland's fate in the playoffs.
A season-ticket holder for more than 25 years, Levy plans to attend several away games this season, too — including Oakland's game in London against the Bears. The Captain, who drove 12 hours over two days from Florida for the draft, is eager to see what the Raiders do with their three first-round picks. "I hope they don't 'F' it up," he says, recounting past Raider first-round busts Robert Gallery and Darrius Heyward-Bey. (Oakland selected Clemson defensive lineman Clelin Ferrell, Alabama running back Josh Jacobs and Mississippi State safety Johnathan Abram in the first round.)
Before disappearing into the crowd, “Captain Jack” inquires about television coverage of the draft. “Hopefully,” he says, “I’ll be within camera shot.”
Not all Lower Broadway is enthralled with football.
As a steady rain sends many fans scattering for shelter in the bars, David McCormick watches from behind the counter at Ernest Tubbs Record Shop. The 69-year-old Tennessee native has worked at the store since 1968; owned it since 1972. Outside the Lower Broadway landmark, a large sign proclaims “Real Country Music Lives Here. Our 72nd Year.” Inside, the aisles are filled with country music albums and memorabilia. Black-and-white photos of country stars adorn a wall.
"It’s a joy for me every day to meet people from all over the world who may find something here they want," McCormick says while a Hank Williams' tune plays in the background. "If it puts a smile on their face, I know I have done something right.”
On the one of the biggest nights on the NFL calendar, a handful of customers peruse the offerings in McCormick's shop. He enjoys the business football fans bring, but he's not enamored with the game.
"I would have to have someone explain to me," he says in a soft voice, "what’s going on out there for me to understand it."