REPEATING to add art note and photo numbers. () -
REPEATING to add art note and photo numbers. () —
(For release Sunday, April 28)
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c.2013 New York Times News Service
This is how football hooks you. You start the day uninitiated and feeling about the National Football League draft roughly the degree of enthusiasm you might if offered a chance to spend a quiet evening catching up on back issues of Cigar Aficionado.
You end it standing in a thundering moshpit of fans at Radio City Music Hall, hanging on the every word of Mel Kiper Jr. — a sportscaster who looks as though his stylist is Eddie Munster — and sharing newfound obsessions with stats and yardage and random subminutiae about people you had never heard of a week ago.
Take Ezekiel Ansah, the Ghanaian defensive end, chosen in the first round by the Detroit Lions on Thursday night. Every football fan but you is aware that Ansah, known as Ziggy, saw his first football game only five years ago. But do those fans know, as you do, that the Gucci shoes he wears are size 15? Take Eric Fisher, the handsome, deeply dimpled offensive lineman from Central Michigan, chosen as the first pick by the Kansas City Chiefs. Do fans know that he had already showed signs of athletic potential in infancy, walking at 9 months and riding his sister's 12-inch Huffy Strawberry Shortcake bike at age 2? They do now.
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And how about the revelation that Jonathan Ogden, the 6-foot-9 former offensive tackle, played in the NFL for 12 seasons and never wore a protective cup? "Nobody in the NFL wears a cup," Ogden explained to this reporter, who took down his words like recited scripture. "The lighter the better on the field."
In the football religion everything signifies, although what precisely is ultimately best left to fantasy football fiends, the adepts and exegetes.
And there are legions of them. They were out in force Thursday, crammed behind police barricades outside the great Art Deco music hall hours before the draft began, many clad in jerseys and caps that transmitted passionate (not to say rabid) partisan loyalty.
''I dress like this to magnify the aura," said Arnold Norfleet, a Carolina Panthers fan who came up from Philadelphia for the first round clad head to toe in his team's signature logo clothing in turquoise blue.
''It's the total look," Norfleet said of his $78 Panthers jeans, $22 Panthers cap, $145 Nike Dunk Panthers high-tops, $100 Panthers leather gloves and "some little beads and cheap sunglasses" found in a thrift shop. His attire was a form of self-branding, he added. "This way," he said, "when the cameras catch you, you can say hi to your mom."
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The importance of self-branding has probably never been more powerful in sports, part of the legacy of Mark McCormack, the lawyer who founded the sports management powerhouse now known as IMG, and who — recognizing early the commercial capability of sports stars — encouraged his clients to think of themselves less as athletes than as potential endcaps at Wal-Mart.
It's the McCormack template one refers to when scanning the array of top prospects parading along the red carpet on the first night of the three-day draft. Where once you might have expected a passel of talented young lugs in baggy six-button suits picked out by their mothers, now there is a parade of fashion plates that might put Oscar contenders to shame.
''I've seen a huge transformation since we first opened," Brian Mazza, a partner in the Ainsworth, the upmarket Chelsea sports bar that hosts one of the hottest draft-night parties, said a few days before the draft. He was referring to a tectonic style evolution in which pro athletes and their fan cohorts gradually shed their Under Armour in favor of suits by Tom Ford and Dior.
''Look at guys like Victor Cruz or Von Miller, one of the most stylish players in the NFL," Mazza said.
Not only is Miller, the Denver Broncos linebacker, on track to break that team's career record for sacks (random fact unknown to this reporter 48 hours ago), he can also readily name-check labels as inside fashion as Balenciaga, Neil Barrett and Saint Laurent.
''I love how the trend is changing, because fans look up to these guys so much," Mazza said. "Because of social media, sports is more and more accessible, and magazines like GQ and Esquire are getting more and more interested."
The feeling is more than mutual, on the evidence of Thursday. Sure, there were fashion bloopers: random bling and hubcap watches and Mark Sanchez alligator shoes in sizes suggestive of massacre at the reptile farm.
Yet far outweighing the style solecisms were well-fitted suits with softly suppressed waists, natural shoulders and pick-stitched lapels, and accessorized with modified brogues or black calf oxfords. Lengths of patterned silk emerged in casual disarray from breast pockets or were folded into tidy "Mad Men" squares. Ties were knotted four-in-hand.
Had the draft picks all gone to style camp for crash courses on how to dress like GQ models? They had not. Nearly to a man, they had a stylist, as who does not these days? "I'm not very talented when it comes to style," said Jonathan Cooper, the North Carolina offensive guard chosen seventh overall by the Arizona Cardinals. "A designer put my outfit together for me." A hairstylist had arranged his microbraids.
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Unlike the Hollywood stylists who dress famous paper dolls like Brad Pitt and Ben Affleck and yet cannot seem to find a tailor to hem a pair of pants, the folks behind the draft prospects neatly pulled off all the important details.
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Xavier Rhodes, the Florida State cornerback chosen by the Minnesota Vikings with their second selection of Round 1, was a paragon in a crisp suit patterned in a subtle Prince of Wales check, and worn with a spread collar shirt, cap-toed black oxfords and statement eyeglasses that lent him a certain resemblance to Andre 3000, the musician and inveterate fashion plate. Tavon Austin, the electrifying (and startlingly small at 5-foot-8 and 174 pounds) wide receiver from West Virginia, chosen by the St. Louis Rams with the eighth pick of the night, was turned out in a natty maroon suit, brogues and a pair of what-me-famous Ray-Bans.
And even Cordarrelle Patterson — the Tennessee wide receiver drafted with the 29th pick by the Minnesota Vikings — managed a kind of wacko, kitchen-sink chic in a black-collared dinner jacket worn with a dress shirt, suspenders, a bow tie, a colored Louis Vuitton belt and a watch the size of the disc on "Wheel of Fortune."
''I'm a huge sports fan, but I have trouble watching the NFL draft," Nic Screws, the fashion market editor at Esquire, said before Thursday's event. "It's a little tragic." If only, she added, athletes — and, for that matter, most average guys — would learn to stop wearing their jackets too big and their pants too long. "They can lose the matching pocket squares," she added. "It's just too much."
Still, some athletes nail it, said Screws, who might have been thinking of a player like the Louisiana State defensive end Barkevious Mingo, drafted sixth overall by the Cleveland Browns. In Mingo, the team got not only a pass-rushing threat but an athlete unafraid of flaunting his physique in a snugly tailored gray check suit, a gold lapel pin, a striped rep tie and an eye-catching flash of orange silk pocket square. "My stylist put it together for me," he said.
While that may be, Mingo seemed at ease in his suit and doubtless capable of dressing himself. The same could not be said of all the draft prospects, as the Alabama running back Eddie Lacy was quick to point out.
''I really don't typically dress like this," Lacy said, a confession greeted by this reporter with a certain relief.
With his mane of braids cascading over a bright blue chalk-striped suit worn with a contrasting striped shirt and striped rep tie (the effect was of a cabana after a windstorm), Lacy seemed distinctly uncomfortable even before learning no teams would call his name Thursday.
Speaking for many of those more comfortable in shower shoes and sweatpants — that is to say, the overwhelming majority of American men — he added, "I can't wait to take it all off and go back to regular clothes."