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Friday, April 27, 2012
Players lean on their women at NFL draft

By Elizabeth Merrill

NEW YORK -- The party ended here, in a back table at the InterContinental Hotel bar, over cocktails with skinny straws. It was past midnight on Friday morning. Out in the lobby, Robert Griffin III was still shaking hands, aglow over being picked No. 2 in the NFL draft.

Inside the bar, the mood wasn't as festive. Michelle Fleener sat with her daughter Briana and a couple of well-dressed sports agents. Sometime in the next few hours, Fleener had to figure out what she would wear Friday. She'd brought only one dress with her to New York for the NFL draft, for Thursday night. That's when her son Coby was projected to be picked, with one of the 32 selections in the first round.

She wanted this night to be perfect. For 23 years, Coby Fleener has been the perfect son. Michelle knows that every mom says that about her kid. But she insists, swears on a couple of Bibles, that he has never cussed in front of her, never sassed back. He recently grew his hair out, but only so he could cut it and donate his locks to cancer patients.

Coby Fleener
Coby Fleener has had his mom, Michelle, by his side since he started playing football, and she was there to comfort him Thursday night when the Stanford tight end was bypassed in the first round of the draft.

When Coby was a kid and it became clear his family wouldn't have enough money to pay for college, Michelle told him that he'd have to be good enough at something to earn a scholarship. Lo and behold, Coby got into Stanford, became a star tight end catching Andrew Luck's passes and got his degree.

Thursday night was supposed to represent the next step in his life. And it was almost surreal, this kid from Joliet Catholic Academy in Illinois -- alma mater of Rudy Ruettiger -- arriving on the red carpet. The first round of the draft whirled by in a record three hours, but for the Fleeners, it was also agonizingly slow. When it was over, Coby's name hadn't been called. Some players arrived at the draft in a limo. Coby left with his family in a minibus.

"He's fine," Michelle said. "He is always even-keeled. I think if he won the lottery, his reaction would be, 'All right, cool.'"

Of course Fleener was OK. He had his mom beside him. It might sound like a cliché, but on draft day, behind nearly every big, powerful football player stands a powerful woman. Often, they're the quiet force who helped get these men here, and the NFL draft is their moment of validation.

A record 26 players were invited to Thursday's draft on a rainy night in New York and eased up to tables that seat only six. Naturally, it prompted tough choices about whom to include. Their coaches? Agents? Best friends? Many of them opted for the strongest members of their support system, because at the NFL draft, anything can happen.

The wife

OK, so just about everybody knew what was going to happen with the first two picks of 2012. Luck, long ago anointed as the next Peyton Manning, had to go No. 1 to the Indianapolis Colts. And then it would be Griffin, because Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan wasn't about to toss away three first-round picks plus a second-rounder, which he'd traded to get into the No. 2 spot, on a defensive end.

So the suspense started shortly after 8 o'clock, with Cleveland on the clock. More than 30 minutes earlier, the Browns had traded up to the No. 3 spot, and the crowd at Radio City Music Hall was buzzing. Would they pick Trent Richardson, the running back from Alabama? A big screen near the stage flashed to Ryan Tannehill.

Tannehill was considered the draft's biggest wild card. Over a few weeks, the Texas A&M quarterback went from hot to not, from being the subject of a glowing tweet by Colts owner Jim Irsay to getting battered by critics who suggested he didn't even belong in the first round.

Tannehill responded by staying away from TV, newspapers and nearly all media. And if there was something positive that came up, something to boost his spirits, his wife, Lauren, would pass it along.

Ryan Tannehill
Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill and his wife, Lauren, who were married in January, dealt with the suspense together until he was selected by the Dolphins with the eighth pick.

Ryan and Lauren met on spring break three years ago, two über-driven college students with modelesque looks that belong in a department-store picture frame. (Lauren actually is a model, by the way.) It seemed sort of funny that they both attended Texas A&M, both pursuing jobs in the medical profession, but needed to travel 750 miles to Panama City, Fla., to meet at a beach house party. It was fate, really.

When Lauren met Ryan, he was a receiver for the Aggies. She had no idea who he was. Soon they became inseparable, Lauren by his side through everything, including his move back to quarterback and his offseason rise on NFL draft boards after a strong pro day in College Station. They got married in January in Mexico.

Through it all, Tannehill hasn't changed, Lauren said. On Wednesday night, he didn't close down the pre-draft parties. No, the Tannehills wandered around Times Square, taking in the sights like tourists.

"Honestly, for him, I just know he needs me to be the same I am all the time," Lauren said.

"I think this whole thing is such a blessing. It's a dream for him. I'm just excited to be behind him, backing him up."

Wherever Mrs. Tannehill goes -- she became a Twitter sensation this past fall when the cameras panned on her during the A&M-Texas game -- she turns just as many heads as her husband. But Thursday night, all eyes were on Ryan. He was bypassed by the Browns, who instead selected Richardson, then waited while an offensive tackle, a wide receiver and a cornerback were taken.

By the sixth pick, Lauren said, both of their hearts were beating fast. Ryan had no idea where he'd end up. He was in the green room when a Florida area code flashed on his cellphone. He was going to the Miami Dolphins with the eighth pick.

From a historical perspective, it was a significant move. The Dolphins hadn't picked a quarterback in the first round since Dan Marino in 1983. They've been searching for a franchise signal-caller ever since. Ryan downplayed the impending pressure because that's what he does. He kissed his wife and headed off for photos and interviews.

Lauren told him she loved him.

"I can't believe this," she told him.

The girls

Richardson was also surprised Thursday night. Honored, really, that the Browns thought enough of him to move up in the draft at a time when running backs generally linger on the board.

Browns coach Pat Shurmur raved about Richardson's dependability. During Alabama's national championship season in 2011, Richardson ran for 21 touchdowns.

Trent Richardson
Alabama running back Trent Richardson had his "little hearts" -- daughters Taliyah, 5, and Elevera, 3 -- with him to celebrate being taken third overall by the Browns.

But Richardson has long been someone whom others could count on. His daughters, Elevera and Taliyah, were at the draft with him Thursday night. Although they're just 3 and 5 years old, Richardson said they are well aware their dad is about to play in the NFL. He calls them his "little hearts." He writes their names on his wristbands.

Richardson came from meager beginnings, dodging drugs, violence and bad influences in his hometown of Pensacola, Fla. He leaned on his mother, who he said worked two or three jobs to feed her six kids. Thursday night was for the women in Richardson's life.

He talked about helping his mother, who would never have to work again. He thought about his daughters. He kissed them and brought them on stage after his name was called.

Richardson wants to be a role model for his girls. He made headlines a few weeks ago when he took leukemia survivor Courtney Alvis to her prom at Hueytown High School in Alabama. He didn't do it for the publicity. He doesn't need it.

He said he does not tweet and does not do Facebook. It's just not his thing. The only tattoos on his body, Richardson said, are of Christian symbols and his family.

As he left Radio City Music Hall late Thursday night, Richardson was asked whether his girls are happy to be headed to Cleveland. They're happy to be going anywhere, he said.

"This means," Richardson said, "they never have to go through what their daddy went through."

The mom

From the day he was born, Coby Fleener had a connection to the NFL. His mother was in the final stages of pregnancy somewhere in suburban Chicago, watching a Washington Redskins game with her now ex-husband, Bill Fleener. Joe Jacoby flashed onto the screen, and Michelle thought his last name would be catchy for their firstborn.

She had always loved football. She'd bring pompoms to his games at Stanford, and occasionally played catch with her son. But she never thought football would someday change his life.

It probably won't. Fleener bought his mom one thing in the days before the draft: an electric toothbrush. He's sensible like that, doesn't want to get ahead of himself.

But Fleener was considered the top tight end prospect this year, and it was assumed he would be snatched up early by a team hoping to find the next Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham.

As Thursday night winnowed down to the final picks, the Fleeners were still hopeful. The Giants had the final pick of the first round, and they did have a need at tight end. They went with Virginia Tech running back David Wilson instead.

So mother and son rode back to the hotel, and Michelle asked Coby whether he was OK.

"Yeah," he said. "No problem." He went up to his room, in his blue pinstriped suit, and Michelle retreated to the bar. Maybe she'd wear the same dress on Friday, or at least swap with her daughter. They laughed. Then they prepared themselves for another day in New York, another day right beside their man.