Marcus Mariota plans on skipping the experience of a lifetime, attending the NFL draft in Chicago, to honor a previous commitment. Jameis Winston is poised to make a similar decision.
Mariota’s high school friends in Hawaii have planned a huge party in his honor, and the reigning Heisman Trophy winner gave his RSVP last year.
“Mariota has been saying since October that they’re having a class party,” former Dallas Cowboys personnel guru and NFL.com senior analyst Gil Brandt, himself a big part of overseeing draft invitations to the top draft prospects, told USA TODAY Sports. “Mariota feels torn because he’d like to come (to the draft). Yet he has this obligation.
“In Winston’s case, it sounds to me like he’d like to change his mind.”
Winston, the former Florida State star and 2013 Heisman winner who is likely to be picked first overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is leaning toward spending draft night in his hometown of Bessemer, Ala., with his family, including a grandmother who has Type-2 diabetes.
Attending the draft is not mandatory for invited players. But it’s very rare for top picks — especially marquee quarterbacks — to bypass draft week’s festivities, which include media obligations, community events and a red carpet appearance prior to the first round.
“We respect any player’s decision to do what is best for him on draft day, especially when it involves family,” the league said in a statement.
“There have been other top players who have elected not to attend previous drafts. We expect to have about 25 of the highest-rated players in Chicago for the festivities there.”
Still, the league can’t be happy that such visible players won’t be in attendance for an event it plans to rotate around the country. The draft had been held in New York since 1965, but the NFL is taking it on the road to the Windy City and could dangle it to cities that want to bid for it in the future.
“You’re always disappointed when you don’t have the top quarterbacks there,” said Brandt. “But we’ll have a lot of good players there, a lot of players who want to be there. The experience they’ll have in Chicago will be off the charts.
“It’s not going to affect the draft going forward. I’ve got 20 agents calling who want their kids there. … The city of Chicago is going to make this one of the great offseason events ever.
“Deep down both these guys want to come.”
Brandt says Mariota’s dilemma runs deeper than spending draft night with his friends and family.
“Marcus just said that it’s the island culture, and that he owed something to the islands where he was raised,” said Brandt, who discussed the matter with Mariota at Oregon’s pro day last month.
“You admire the guy for keeping his word.”
In concert with NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent and VP of football communications Michael Signora, Brandt was influential in inviting a record 30 players to the 2014 draft. That was seven more prospects than the previous draft.
But other notables have skipped the league’s offseason flagship event before.
Cleveland Browns perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas, the third overall pick in 2007, opted to go fishing with his father, father-in-law and agent on Lake Michigan. Former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, the 25th pick in 2010, opted to stay home in Jacksonville with family members and friends after several of them were unable to make it for the draft celebration in New York.
“It wouldn’t be that big a deal if it wasn’t both of them,” said Brandt, referring to Winston and Mariota. “And it wouldn’t be that big a deal if it were two wide receiver or defensive backs. But there’s so much publicity attention devoted to quarterbacks.
“It’s unfortunate they can’t be there. And we wish they were there. But we also wish them both good luck.”
Mariota and Winston can only hope they don’t reflect on their decisions with regret.
“They are going to be missing out on something special,” Courtney Warmack, mother of Tennessee Titans guard Chance Warmack, told USA TODAY Sports.
She raved about the experience she had with her son, who was picked 10th overall in 2013.
“They’re missing out on a wonderful opportunity, just the camaraderie with their draft classmates who still talk about that experience whenever they see Chance,” added Courtney Warmack, a Fulton County schools administrator in Atlanta.
“For our whole family, the draft experience was memorable. The league treated us so well. It was so well organized, just a class act.”
Chance Warmack had the time of his life in Manhattan — so much so that his mom sent a thank you letter to Brandt and Signora.
“Everybody has their own reasons for going and not going,” Chance Warmack said. “But it definitely was an experience of a lifetime walking across that stage.”