'I'm just an NFL nerd:' A football fan explains why he's in Arlington for the draft

Thousands of football fans invade AT&T Stadium for the NFL Draft

Fans from across the country gathered in packs to root on their respective teams at the NFL Draft at AT&T Stadium in Arlington
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Fans from across the country gathered in packs to root on their respective teams at the NFL Draft at AT&T Stadium in Arlington

Hours before the 2018 NFL Draft actually started, thousands of football fans converged upon AT&T Stadium for some pre-draft partying, in parking lots and at the sprawling NFL Fan Experience.

Never mind that not a single touchdown will be scored, these football groupies traveled to Arlington over the next three days for a good time.

Take Gilbert Alviderez and Joshua Anguiano, who drove in from El Paso and were tailgating at 8 a.m. Thursday.

They are fans of the San Fransciso 49ers and by 1 p.m. had been joined by at least 100 more — from California, Colorado and Iowa — decked out in red and gold.

For a draft.

“We come out here and it’s family,” Alviderez said. “We probably only knew a couple out here. But now we’re all friends.”

The Dallas Cowboys are hosting the 2018 NFL Draft at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. The NFL Draft Experience will be held at the outdoor plazas featuring games, sports network sets, exhibits and more.

Anguiano said the draft is all about football, but without the intensity of a game.

“... It’s social, “ Anguiano said. “We’re just hanging out and having fun.”

The draft has arguably become the biggest sporting event in the world without a game being played, a testament to the NFL's drawing power and marketing prowess.

The first draft was held in 1930s and was a low-key affair and money was sparse. It bounced around before landing in New York in 1965, where it was held annually before a raucous crowd of jersey-wearing fans.

The NFL decided to start televising the draft in 1980 and turned it into a road show in 2016, when the draft was held in Chicago, then last year in Philly.

Now comes Arlington and the NFL's grandest stage: AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys that has has been transformed into a three-ring circus.

An estimated 300,000 fans are expected to attend events at AT&T over the next three days. Officials said more than 100,000 fans visited the NFL Fan Experience on Thursday.

We talked with some of the fans about why the draft is a big deal, at least to them.

Browns fan
Matt Gehman is used to losing as a fan of the Cleveland Browns, but with two of the first four pick in Thursday's draft, he is confident that the future looks bright. Bill Hanna Star-Telegram

Browns' fan: 'This is everything for us'

Matt Gehman was determined to make an entrance.

He stood in the back of pickup bed waving a Cleveland Browns flag as he and his friends arrived.

“This is our Super Bowl,” Gehman said. “Are you kidding me? This everything for us.”

Gehman, a Hurst resident, is the son of Ohio transplants.

“I could have been a Cowboys fan and won Super Bowls but no — that didn’t happen,” he said.

Despite the Browns miserable record and draft busts over the last two decades, Gehman was confident about the Browns prospects.

And who does he want the Browns to select with the first and fourth draft picks?

“Take Saquon Barkley with the first pick and Baker Mayfield with fourth selection, “ Gehman said.

Torey Washington fans photo
Torey Washington, center wearing sunglasses, came to Arlington with friends and family to see who the New Orleans Saints select in the 2018 NFL Draft. Bill Hanna Star-Telegram

Saints' fan: 'The draft is huge'

After Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. Torey Washington became a Texan.

But his allegiance to the New Orleans Saints never went away.

Now a Rowlett resident, Washington was decked out in Saints gear with his friends and family.

“The draft is huge for us,” Washington said. “We were one play away from the Super Bowl and we could one player away this year. We could get that guy tonight.”

Jets' fans
Rob Fulmer and his son, Robby, flew in from Coltsneck, N.J., for the NFL Draft. Bill Hanna Star-Telegram

Jets' fan: 'A bucket list item'

For Rob Fulmer, attending the NFL Draft was “a bucket list item.”

Decked out in New York Jets gear with a Jetman license plate as a necklace, Fulmer was enjoying the friendly vibe outside AT&T Stadium. His son, Robby, was dressed identically but with a license plate that said Jetboy.

“It’s far more friendly than at an NFL game,” Fulmer said. “I just had my picture taken by some Bills fans. That would never happen at a Jets-Bills game.”

Fulmer decided to make the trip two months ago and will be attending all three days of the draft.

Eagles and Packers fans
Four-year-old Philadelphia Eagles fan Henry Sanchez of El Paso poses with Green Bay Packers fan Marcos Garcia of Grand Prairie at the NFL Fan Experience on Tuesday. Gordon Dickson Star-Telegram

“All I brought was Jets gear,” Fulmer said.

He’s staying at the Sheraton in Arlington so he can walk over every day.

“We might find a water park or swing by Six Flags for Robby but we came for the draft,” Fulmer said. “That’s the priority.”

Eagles' fan: 'Nobody has to fight'

Sal Sanchez and his 4-year-old son, Henry, traveled from El Paso to Arlington to take in the draft, something not realistic when it was held in New York.

They are Eagles fans and feeling pretty happy after winning the Super Bowl.

Sanchez said the draft is about having fun and getting along with other fans — even those whose allegiance is to the Cowboys.

“Nobody has to fight with each other or get mad today,” he said. “We just talk to each other about our picks.”

Bills fans
Buffalo native Tom Gillotti and his 5-year-old son, Braden, traveled from Abilene to take in the festivities at the NFL Draft. Bill Hanna Star-Telegam

Bills' fan: 'Feels like before a game'

Buffalo native Tom Gillotti couldn’t pass up the chance to attend the draft even though he doesn’t have tickets.

Walking around outside AT&T Stadium with his 5-year-old son, Braeden, in his arms, Gillotti summed up the appeal of the draft this way.

“I’m just an NFL nerd,” Gillotti said.

A C-130 pilot stationed at Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Gillotti decided to drive in for the experience.

“It feels like before a game,” Gillotti said. “I’ve got the same jitters. I really want to see who the Bills pick tonight. We’ve got the 12th and the 22nd pick.”

And who does he want the Bills to draft?

“A quarterback,” Gillotti said.

Big city, big crowd

Nancy Lovell brought her daughter, Lila and classmate Miranda Jackson from Chillicothe, a tiny town on U.S. 287 near the Texas Panhandle, to Arlington.

Fans from Chillicothe
Miranda Jackson,left, friend Lila Lovell, both high school seniors in Chillicothe, and Nancy Lovell, traveled nearly 200 miles from their home near the Texas Panhandle to experience the NFL Draft. Gordon Dickson Star-Telegram

The crowd quickly got the attention of Nancy Lovell.

“There are more people in this line than in our whole town,” Nancy Lovell quipped while gazing at the hundreds of people waiting for signatures.

They were hoping to get an autograph quarterback Josh Allen, a strong-armed thrower who is expected to be one of the first picks. Allen played at the University of Wyoming, where Lila Lovell plans to go to school beginning in the fall.

Jackson said they also plan to catch drag performer Trixie Mattel at Dallas’ House of Blues.

It's all about a having fun, right?

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796; @gdickson