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Each year, during the first round of the NFL draft, Roger Goodell welcomes every player in attendance with a bear hug, slaps on the back and a personal message delivered lips-to-ear from close range.
It's the one day the league's commissioner becomes the Sensitive Male (at least in public), so a simple handshake or half bro-hug won't do. This is a full-frontal hugfest, the type of display impossible to imagine from Bud Selig, David Stern, Gary Bettman or Goodell’s predecessor, Paul Tagliabue.
Yet for Goodell, who became commissioner in 2006, his annual hugathon has been semi-embraced, so to speak, as part of his persona. He might be the hard-line commish when it comes to suspensions and fines, but when this year's draft begins at 8 p.m. ET April 25 at Radio City Music Hall, he'll be Mr. Softy.
But it wasn't always this way.
• • •
The origin: When Goodell began presiding over the draft in 2007, No. 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell got a handshake and a quick, one-armed, lean-in grab. Same with No. 2 choice Calvin Johnson.
Through the drafts of 2008 and ’09, Goodell went with the flow, offering hugs and half-hugs to some, handshakes to others. No. 1 overall pick Matthew Stafford of the Lions in 2009 got just a handshake and a pat on the shoulder.
In 2010, however, Goodell got his hug on. After Sam Bradford went No. 1 (back pat, slight hug) and Ndamukong Suh No. 2 (handshake, arm pat), the Buccaneers selected Gerald McCoy from Oklahoma.
As McCoy strolled across the stage toward Goodell, the commissioner extended his hand for a shake. But the grinning, 6-foot-4, 300-pound McCoy spread his arms wide, ignoring the hand, and enveloped Goodell in a hug that lasted six seconds.
It was a moment of joy for McCoy, and he had to show it.
“The day before, Mr. Goodell, we were sitting in his office and nobody was talking,” McCoy said of a visit with the commissioner by soon-to-be-drafted players. “We were just sitting there in silence. I’m like, ‘Well this ain’t me, so I’m going to speak up.’ So I started to talk about random stuff and I asked him if we’d get in trouble or fined if we do something crazy on stage or whatever, and he was like, ‘Obviously man, you get this one time, it’s your one day you need to show emotion and show your feelings and show how excited you are. I wouldn’t mind that at all.’
“I was like, ‘Aiight,’ just because I didn’t know what I was going to do. But once I got out there, you know, it was just my reaction. I knew the Bucs had picked me, let me play for them, but Mr. Goodell just called my name, so I guess he got to feel all the love,” he adds, laughing.
“I was just overwhelmed with emotion and it all came out in that big hug. That hug was like a thank you for allowing me to be in the league, everything. It all came out. He just happened to be the one to receive it.”
But McCoy had opened the hug gates. Trent Williams, picked by Washington at No. 4, got an enthusiastic embrace from Goodell, and the hugs kept coming through the first round -- and beyond into 2011 and 2012.
Though Goodell declined through a spokesman to talk about his draft-day hugs for this story, he told Sports Business Daily last year that McCoy was the spark.
“It’s funny. I meet with all the draft-eligible players the day before,” he said. “They always ask, What’s that moment like? These kids have been dreaming about this and working toward this. This is their moment. They’ve finally made it into the NFL.
“There was no surprise for Andrew [Luck]. He knew the Colts were taking him. But when he walked out on the stage, it was that moment of achievement and triumph. For me to be part of that is a cool thing.
“But these guys, they wrap you up. The first guy that did it to me was Gerald McCoy a few years ago. He hit me so hard I thought I was going off the stage.”
“When I was hugging him, he said, like, ‘You’re crushing me right now’ and he kind of gasped for air like I was squeezing the life out of him, which I was,” says McCoy. “I was just excited.”
McCoy claims credit for being a trailblazer.
“Yeah, I take pride in it, as far as draft-day trends,” he says. “Why not?”
• • •
The players’ view: When South Carolina linebacker Melvin Ingram was taken by the Chargers with the 18th selection in the 2012 draft, he added a flourish to Hug Day.
Wearing a pinstripe suit and a Chargers cap, Ingram approached Goodell with a smile and a question: “You ready?”
The two then went through an elaborate handshake that was followed by a long, rocking embrace.
Ingram says he worked out the routine with Goodell before the draft.
“He was all, ‘If anybody wants to do anything,’ to let him know and all that, so I was like, ‘I want to do a handshake,’ and we did it,” says Ingram. “It really didn’t take that long. I just showed him the handshake, we practiced a couple of times, but he messed it up when we practiced. But when we did it on draft day, he did it perfect.”
So far, Ingram is the only player to up the ante on the hug with a shake, but it wasn’t the only memorable interaction with Goodell from the 2012 draft.
The photo of Goodell nose-to-nose in an embrace with 6-foot-3, 350-pound Chiefs nose tackle Dontari Poe won the Awkward Award, and Buffalo Bills draftee Stephon Gilmore had a cheek-to-cheek scene. Then there was Goodell’s nearly eight-second embrace with 6-foot-4, 298-pound defensive tackle Fletcher Cox of the Eagles.
“Cox engulfed Goodell like a Kodiak bear devouring a tasty salmon,” wrote Mike Tanier of The New York Times, who added that Goodell “rarely projects an air of cuddliness, but when it came time to introduce first-round picks, he brought the bromance to Radio City Music Hall.”
As he waited backstage for his name to be called, Gilmore wasn’t sure what to expect.
“I knew he was going to shake my hand, but I didn’t know he was going to actually hug me that long,” he says. “It was just a great moment. Growing up, from a little kid and seeing it on TV and actually going through the situation.”
So what does Goodell say when he’s in man-hug mode?
Gilmore: “He said that I’d love Buffalo and there’s great people there, great fans and hopefully we get it turned around, and good luck with my career.”
Ingram: “He just said congratulations and good luck and if you ever need anything to let him know.”
Is the commissioner strong?
Gilmore: “Oh, naah (laughing). He’s not very strong.”
McCoy: “He had a pretty good hug himself. I’m a big guy, so of course he didn’t faze me none.”
Ingram: “Yes sir.”
And how about his aftershave? Do they remember what the most powerful man in American sports smells like?
Gilmore: “I don’t know (laughing). I didn’t hug him that hard. I don’t really know what he smells like.”
McCoy: “I don’t remember none of that, man (laughing).”
Ingram: “No, no sir.”
When Gilmore thinks back on it, the moments on stage are a bit of a blur.
“There’s so much going on in your head at the moment and you can be emotional one moment and happy and it’s a lot of things,” he said. “It’s a great experience, but it’s also overwhelming.”
Since that draft day in 2010, McCoy and Goodell have met many times -- at the Super Bowl, the rookie symposium, in the offseason and even during the lockout -- and the greetings have been the same.
“It’s an unwritten rule that we don’t shake hands,” he says. “All we do is give each other hugs. It’s like a tradition now.”
• • •
The body language: Patti Wood is a body language expert. She has done extensive research on greeting behavior and says she’s fascinated by hugging, which is a big part of her latest book, “SNAP: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language and Charisma.”
Wood has seen the video of Goodell’s draft-day hugs and says one thing is apparent: He’s enjoying himself.
“I really studied his smile at the end of the hugs, to look specifically at how relaxed his mouth is," she says. "He is. It’s sincere. It’s real and he’s enjoying it.”
What else does she see?
“He tries -- he’s not super-tall compared to the players -- he tries to get that right arm on top, around the neck of the player. And that does a couple of things. It shows his power over them. ... It also allows him to kind of control the hug and bring them in closer, so if they had any desire to kind of [reduce] the space in between the two of them, he’s saying, ‘No, this is going to be a real hug, real close, and I’m in control.’
“The other thing I think is really significant is he has a ritual of doing a double pat at the end of the hug, almost a signal that says, ‘OK, I’m done now.'"
“The rocking is a comforting cue,” she says of some of the hugs. “That to me does a couple of things. ... It comforts, but it also makes the hug OK to linger in, because now you’re saying, ‘I’m the parent and you’re the child.’”
Wood adds that Goodell’s willingness for physical closeness with the players is “what’s cool to me” because front-to-front hugging makes people feel vulnerable, yet she says both Goodell and the players indicate through the hugs that they trust one another.
• • •
The old friend: Jim Roberson was a teammate of Roger Goodell’s at Bronxville High in New York.
Goodell was a team captain in football, basketball and baseball at Bronxville and was selected the school’s athlete of the year in 1977, the same year Roberson transferred in and was his teammate.
When he sees Goodell hugging athletes on draft day, he sees the Goodell he knew back then, not the corporate NFL czar.
“He’s good people, man,” says Roberson, who has coached football and now lives in Great Britain. “So the hugging bit, I think, you know, he was always a bit of a practical joker, you see, so to me the hugging bit is the real opportunity he gets to maybe let a little bit of that out in the job because maybe he doesn’t get a chance to do too much of that.”
Roberson, who said he was the first African-American athlete at Bronxville, says he remembers Goodell as friendly and always smiling.
Though he doesn’t remember Goodell as a hugger -- “we’d be emotional, man, but we were in high school and I don’t know how much hugging we did” -- it seems in character with the guy he played with and worked with for two summers.
“What you see on draft day, I think that’s like him, man,” he says. “I think maybe that’s his couple of days to appreciate the fact that these guys are going to get an opportunity to do something fantastic with their lives. They’re going to make some money. For him to show some appreciation, and the fact he’s the commissioner of the league and they’re coming into it, he wants to welcome you.”
Roger Goodell: Commissioner, hugger ... and prankster?
“Dude left me up a ladder one time,” says Roberson, laughing. “He’s quite a practical joker. Painted my shoes blue. ... Cool people, man. But I’m his friend.”
So too are all the first-round draftees in attendance each April who get the Goodell Squeeze.