DeMarcus Ware remembers his draft day well.
He knew he’d likely be taken 11th overall by the Dallas Cowboys, or 12th overall by the then-San Diego Chargers. It came down to which linebacker the Cowboys preferred, Ware, a small-school standout from Troy, or Shawne Merriman, a big-school standout from Maryland.
Ware got his answer when he received a phone call with a “214” area code.
“[Coach Bill] Parcells answers the phone … that’s when all the weight just drops,” Ware said. “It’s that time. This is an opportunity of a lifetime. You’ve got to take advantage of it.”
Ware chatted with owner Jerry Jones after the initial call from Parcells, and the partnership couldn’t have been much better.
Ware became one of the best defensive players in the game with the Cowboys, setting franchise records for most sacks (117) and forced fumbles (32). He’s a shoo-in to become a member of the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor one day.
Now Ware is serving as a “community ambassador” for this year’s NFL Draft, which will be held at AT&T Stadium from April 26-28. Ware and former wide receiver Drew Pearson were formally announced as ambassadors during an event Thursday morning at the stadium.
“It’s a great opportunity to use the draft, use football to really make an impact on this Arlington area,” Ware said.
Ware spent his draft day at a hotel conference room with family and friends in his hometown of Auburn, Alabama, instead of going to the draft headquarters in New York at the time.
But the draft has grown exponentially in the 13 years since Ware heard his name called. The draft has become a traveling spectacle after being a longtime staple in New York.
Chicago hosted the event in 2015 and 2016, and then Philadelphia had it last year, drawing a record 250,000 fans. Commissioner Roger Goodell has been greeted by a chorus of boos in recent years at the draft, and would seem to be in line for more after the league's controversial suspension of Cowboys star running back Ezekiel Elliott last season.
Cowboys executive vice president Charlotte Jones Anderson chuckled when asked how she felt Goodell would be greeted.
"I would imagine he would have a nice, warm welcome," Anderson said, smiling.
Regardless, Tarrant County is the draft's home this year and work is being done to make the event bigger than ever.
The Cowboys and NFL officials are still in the planning stages, but the event will be free for fans. Plus, as Anderson said Thursday, they have had the benefit of AT&T Stadium hosting several marquee events – from the ACM Awards to Wrestlemania to major concerts – to know what might work best for the draft.
“During the bid process itself, working with the people at the league, we were able to share a lot of those insights and tell them how our building is best used,” Anderson said. “How other people have seen it and taken advantage of, not only the engineering and the structure itself, but obviously all the technology and everything else that comes with it. Being able to reconfigure it to look different for different events has helped us in this process.”
The Cowboys are making sure to take advantage of the visibility the draft will bring, too, which is why they’ve brought in players such as Ware and Pearson to serve as ambassadors.
Arlington school officials and coaches were on hand at Thursday’s event that focused on multiple outreach programs for youth at every academic level – elementary, middle and high school.
Outreach programs such as a “community quarterback” that is aimed for the six Arlington high schools to execute a service project that impacts their campus, neighborhood or feeder community.
Or the “student-athlete mentorship program” where high school student-athletes across all sports will mentor junior high students on the NFL Foundation’s “InSideOut Character” initiative that aims at changing today’s “win-at-all-cost” culture in sports.
“The NFL Draft experience here in Arlington is going to be a very special time,” Arlington ISD superintendent Dr. Marcelo Cavazos said. “We also know we have an opportunity for our students to participate. So, in partnership with the Dallas Cowboys and the NFL, we are providing opportunities for our students to not only experience the draft that the whole world experiences, but to also make it tangible. Make it real.
“In that, participate in programs where they are able to use their skills and their talents to give back to the community.”