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The NFL Draft Brings Fans Downtown, Showcases Cleveland In Prime Time

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell crosses the stage at the NFL Draft in Downton Cleveland as the Browns prepare to announce the team's first-round pick, Northwestern University cornerback Greg Newsome II. [Gabriel Kramer / ideastream]
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell crosses the stage at the NFL Draft in Downton Cleveland as the Browns prepare to announce the team's first-round pick, Northwestern University cornerback Greg Newsome II. [Gabriel Kramer / ideastream]

Updated: 12:15 a.m., Friday, April 30, 2021

Fans got the full player experience on the field at FirstEnergy Stadium Thursday – complete with rain and Lake Erie winds on the first day of the NFL Draft in Cleveland.

Undeterred by the weather, thousands of fans headed downtown to the NFL Draft Experience to kick field goals, run combine-style drills, snap selfies and sample some of the city’s favorite foods ahead of the 8 p.m. main event.

Paul Kuzmickas of Olmsted Falls wasn’t fazed by Northeast Ohio’s notoriously fickle weather.

“Cleveland has the draft,” Kuzmickas said. “Of all the places, of all the cities in the world, it’s here in Cleveland. Rain, shine, snow, we don't care. It's going to do it all in 15 minutes anyway. We're here for the draft, we're showing up.”

Clevelander Rahsean Dunn was thrilled to see the draft in his hometown.

“It's great, it's once in a lifetime,” Dunn said. “It might not never be in Cleveland no more in my lifetime, so I'm excited.”

Legendary Browns placekicker Phil Dawson had some early-evening advice for those attempting to put one through the uprights in tough conditions.

A year of COVID-19 restrictions clearly did little to diminish traditional rivalries, as evidenced by the chorus of hometown boos as a Steelers fan attempted to kick a 20-yard field goal.

Tickets are free, and still available, but must be reserved in advance using the NFL OnePass app. Everyone inside the Draft Experience must adhere to the NFL's COVID-19 safety "playbook" guidelines, including mask wearing and social distancing.

Mask wearing was mixed at the stadium Thursday night, with most fans on the concourse masked up, but fewer face coverings on those braving the rain from the seats. Attendees had to fill out a health screening on arrival and temperature checks were required.

Several fans looked at the event as perhaps a turning point in the pandemic.

Rania Abu Alhana made the short drive downtown from Lakewood.

“I’m vaccinated, so I'm totally OK,” Abu-Alhana said with a laugh. “Totally OK being out here. I didn't have a problem with it. It's nice to be out with people and kind of enjoy it.”

Lou Luna had to travel a little farther. He came in from Arizona to spend the long draft weekend in Cleveland, with more than football on his mind.

“Yeah, I think we’re back,” Luna said. “I think this is the beginning of us getting our lives back to normal.”

After a year of pandemic precautions that included limiting attendance or barring fans from the stands, the 2021 draft is more than a celebration of football. Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson earlier in the week called the three-day event a kickoff to a potentially more normal summer in the city.

It’s also the first steps toward recovery for many local businesses. Downtown hotels were expecting occupancy rates between 80 and 90 percent, with some venues sold out for the first time in more than a year. And while local restaurants are not yet calling it a comeback, many have draft specials and watch parties, expanded service options and are bringing on additional staff this week.

Joe McGlynn, general manager at Masthead Brewing on Superior Avenue downtown, said the brewery was at or near capacity from 4 p.m. on, but most people were understanding when service was slow.

“Unfortunately, you get a lot of people coming from other states that are more open we are and we follow every possible health order that we can,” McGlynn said. “Everything, we follow. So we're getting kickback about 'Why I can't have 20 people at a table?'”

While some of Ohio’s coronavirus-relate health orders have relaxed in recent weeks, most are still in force, including limits on groups and masks.

“We've had 50 to 100 people on a wait list and again, that's the big thing, there's no standing room,” McGlynn said. “So, everybody has to be seated.”

Cleveland police were out in force across the city Thursday evening, on foot, bicycles and mounted patrol, to maintain order and help ensure coronavirus precautions were being followed at bars and restaurants.

[Mike McIntyre / ideastream]

“We have two Cleveland police officers here just to make sure, [if] we have any issues with people, making sure, again, we've had to have a talk to about 10 people tonight, asking them 'Please, you guys can't all sit at one table,”” McGlynn said.

McGlynn said too many service-sector employees are taking advantage of unemployment.

“It's an industry-wide thing,” McGlynn said. “People are getting paid, just getting paid extra money to not work. We've been hiring nonstop for months and I'll have 40 people apply and not one person will return a phone call because they're just doing it to keep their unemployment.”

McGlynn said despite those challenges, Masthead had a successful night for the first round of the NFL Draft. The brewery considered staying open later, for the draft but decided to have last call shortly after the Browns’ pick.

Masthead Brewery downtown had a difficult time finding enough staff to keep up with crowds in town for the NFL Draft. [Glenn Forbes / ideastream]

“It's been rough but we're getting through it,” McGlynn said. “I have a really good core of staff that's really loyal and that really works hard for us.”

McGlynn has a message for everyone who's ready to go back out to restaurants again: “If you're ever out in public, realize that everybody is hurting right now to find staff. So, please be patient and the people that are working are working because they want to work.”

As it was, draft watch parties may have come with a little less rowdiness and anticipation for Browns fans this year, since Cleveland had to wait its turn – until No. 26 in the first round – to make a pick after the team’s best season in nearly two decades. It was nearly 11:30 p.m. when East Cleveland Shaw High School senior Mya Tomoto announced Cleveland’s first pick of the draft: Greg Newsome II, a cornerback from Northwestern University.

Still, Browns General Manager Andrew Berry landed a can't-miss prospect early on Draft Day morning as his wife, Brittan, gave birth to their third child, Eden Ruth Berry, the Browns announced.

Fans of Cleveland and football will get more, and perhaps drier, chances to experience the NFL Draft — and the Draft Experience — over the weekend. Festivities continue through Saturday evening. So far the forecast for Friday is a 40 percent chance of rain. On Saturday, there's a chance of sunshine.