I was with Robert Nkemdiche when he got the call. No, not that call -- not the one he received Thursday night from the Arizona Cardinals, informing the former Ole Miss defensive tackle that he would be the 29th pick of the 2016 NFL draft. By then, the green room was mostly empty. Nkemdiche hung up his iPhone and immediately bear-hugged Denzel, one of his two older brothers, perhaps a subtle act of defiance considering that many teams don't want the troubled Denzel around. Nkemdiche walked down stairs and around a corner, grabbed a red Cardinals hat and walked toward commissioner Roger Goodell.
No, I was with him when he got the call from the NFL, offering him the mixed blessing of attending the draft in person. As with most things with Nkemdiche, the call was a little weird. In the two days I spent with him for this story, chronicling his perplexing yet endearing obliviousness in the face of an out-of-control draft evaluation process, the moment when he got the call made me shudder most. Even more than his professed interest in buying a pet panther, attending the draft seemed like a disaster in the making. He was once considered a top-five pick. Now, after an uneven season that ended when he fell out of a hotel room window, nobody knew how far he'd drop. The image of countless players sitting in the green room waiting for their names to be called, checking their phones, pretending to keep it cool, whispering to their agent, checking their phones again -- that painful annual spectacle of a young man being broken on live television -- seemed a certain fate for Nkemdiche. Many thought he'd slide out of the first round altogether, joining the sad list of players such as Geno Smith and others who thought they'd need only one suit for the draft. Nkemdiche was called a "boom-or-bust" player, and so his draft day would be boom or bust as well.
Nkemdiche got the call from the NFL when we were at lunch in Oxford, Mississippi. He was on the phone when we entered a restaurant and a kid immediately spotted him.
"I wear your number in football," the kid said.
"He's on the phone," the kid's mother said as she grabbed her son's shoulders, slightly embarrassed.
Nkemdiche waved the kid toward him.
"It's OK," he said.
They posed for a picture, as Nkemdiche kept talking. He was asking how to book a hotel room for his family and high school coaches at the draft. When he finally hung up, I didn't quite have the heart to ask him if he was setting himself up for ridicule. He was too excited. He seemed oblivious to a lot of things, sure, but one of them was doubt.
That image came to mind Thursday night. He arrived to the draft dressed like a panther, draped completely in black. He felt good. The draft process is intended to sap the most important trait for professional athletes -- confidence -- and more than any other player this year, Nkemdiche had been torn apart, and you could tell it bothered him. It humbled him. Forget that the Cardinals are getting the best pure athlete, according to most scouts. They are getting a player whose skill set is built for Bruce Arians, who believes in attacking on both sides of the ball as an iron law. He will fit in perfectly with the defense, which ranked in the top 10 against the rush last season and will let him grow into the job, rather than rely on him right away. He's going to the perfect locker room, with strong leaders such as Larry Fitzgerald and Patrick Peterson, guys who can let him be himself but push him to be great. His aspiration of a pet panther isn't even a shock, at least for anyone who has seen pictures of former Cardinals defensive end Darnell Dockett with his pet tiger.
"He's just a special talent," said Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, who had a mixed night, what with Laremy Tunsil's drama. "Some of the things said about him, that he'd take plays off, I'd argue that with anyone. That's not accurate. Did he always finish plays as well as he could have? No. But it wasn't a question of effort."
And so what seemed to make little sense at the time -- attending the draft -- actually revealed a lot about Nkemdiche. It was a welcomed return of lost cockiness. And it almost didn't work.
After the Bills passed on him, it looked as if he might slip out of the first round. But Nkemdiche said all along that he had a feeling he'd be picked in the first round. And when he entered the stage to shake hands with Goodell, he raised both his arms in celebration, the kind of move he'd normally reserve for after a sack.
He was the No. 1 player coming out of high school, and he entered his last year of college as the No. 1 NFL prospect. He fell on draft day, but while everyone talked about how the Cardinals had gotten a perfect 3-technique for their defense, they had really gotten Robert Nkemdiche as he was before he fell out of a hotel window. That much was clear when he made the crazy decision to attend the draft, and was obvious when he raised his arms on stage.
When he was asked about the draft process, he chose not to complain. Instead, he called it his "destiny," and for the first time in awhile, nobody could argue.