NFL's 'Die Hards' show true devotion by sitting through all three days of the draft

NEW YORK – The shock isn't that Billy Walsh, in his extra-, extra-, extra-large Joe Montana jersey and golden San Francisco 49ers hard hat, stood outside Radio City Music Hall for almost 10 hours on the day before the NFL draft just to get a wristband to stand in line another four hours the following day.

Or that he waited for another six hours to get in on Friday.

Or that he slept for two hours and returned at 8:30 on Saturday morning to stand for 3½ more hours before the final, endless rounds.

The real surprise is that he didn't have to stand on the sidewalk at all. He had tickets for all three days. He could have arrived right before the draft started and been guaranteed a seat. But to Billy Walsh, a 50-year-old bridge painter from Queens, that would be cheating.

"You got to put in the work," he says, and he sounds very New York as he says it. "You got to stand in line. You got to stand there for hours squashed up like a sardine with all the people waiting to get in."

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Fans have been a constant and essential part of the draft ever since about 200 people drifted into the 1979 selection at the Waldorf Astoria and booed when the New York Giants took a then-unknown Phil Simms with their first pick. They make the soundtrack behind the braying of the analysts. But by the third day the draft has lost its excitement. There's no green room. No players. Commissioner Roger Goodell doesn't regularly walk to the lectern on the third day. In fact, the lectern is hardly used. Those who come to watch Day 3 are essentially looking at an empty stage and a pit filled with team representatives talking on helmet phones.

And unlike the other two nights it goes on …

And on …

And on.

To be here from noon to 8 p.m., you have to want to be here.

And who wants to be here more than Billy Walsh?

"This is like the Super Bowl for me," he shouted as he stood in the concourse outside the mezzanine. He likes the 49ers not because he shares a name with the team's greatest coach, but because he watched Montana throw that famous touchdown pass to Dwight Clark in the 1982 NFC championship game and was hooked.

Last year, when he met Goodell here at the draft, the commissioner chuckled and said, "OK, Coach."

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Walsh would love to see the 49ers play. He would love to go to San Francisco. He would love to see them in New York. Heck, he would love to go to an NFL game, period.

The thing is, he can't afford it. He worked for years as a bridge painter, dangling off most of the city's East River suspension bridges. But a few years back his foot was hit with a sand blaster. This caused nerve damage and has been on workman's comp ever since. Money is tight.

The draft, however, is free. He's been coming since 2000 and he figures this is as close to the NFL as he will get.

The league has a phrase for men like Walsh who sit through every pick of every round. It calls them Die Hards. Several years ago, a league official walked around a nearly empty room at the end of what was then a two-day draft and took everybody's name. It then sent them draft tickets and blue cards that look like hotel key cards with the words "Day 2 Die Hards" printed across the front. The NFL stopped the program now that the draft is three days but still extends benefits – including advance tickets and early entry – to those original members.

To those who have earned them – and let's be honest, you earn a Die Hard card – it is like being handed gold. You do nothing to lose the card. To be sure the Die Hards are still Die Hards, the league posts an official near a designated exit door at the end of Day 3. The Die Hards hand their cards to the official. Those who do get another one the following year. Those who don't lose it forever.

None of them want that.

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Some are like Alan Lieberman, an Oakland Raiders fan from Cranford, N.J., who stands in line for hours just to cheer his team's picks. His son is graduating from college on Sunday. And of course he will be there, but only after sitting through all of Saturday's draft and then driving across Pennsylvania to arrive early Sunday morning. Others come because they like college football and want to see who is going to get picked. A few say they can concentrate on the draft better in person than they could if they were home watching on television.

Then there are those like Arnold Norfleet of Philadelphia, who wears a Carolina Panthers jersey, cap, vest and beads to watch all the selections that he dutifully writes on a chart given to him by the league. He even clutches the paper with a Panthers fleece glove on his left hand, leaving his right bare so he can hold a pen.

"Hey, we are the draft," he said.

Still, the NFL has some 4,100 seats to fill in Radio City and there aren't 4,100 Die Hards on a sunny spring Saturday in New York. Most people have lives. They have places to go. They can't stare all afternoon at an empty lectern waiting for another player they have never heard of to be selected. Strangely, they don't live for their own blue draft Die Hard card.

And so there were people like Amy Liu from Colorado, who applied for a job with the NFL and was offered tickets to Saturday's final four rounds. She brought a friend, Ian Freed.

"I'm filler," Freed said.

Asked if he would stay the whole day, he laughed.

"No," he said.

By late Saturday afternoon, there were maybe 400 people inside Radio City. Outside, on Sixth Avenue, young men wearing official NFL credentials tried to draw interest, shouting to pedestrians, "NFL draft! Check it out inside." Those who did might have seen the four men in their 20s, wearing Giants jerseys, hooting at the Eagles cheerleaders who danced on the Radio City stage between picks. The men were hard to miss. They had a whole section to themselves.

Walsh, having moved down from the mezzanine to a spot next to the stage, had turned gloomy. Round 6 was almost done. The draft was ending. Soon, he would have to leave.

"I have nothing to look forward to," he said sadly. "I'm hurt on the job and I have to stay home. It's boring. I look forward to the NFL season. And I really look forward to this. I love this."

He looked around, at the stage and the countdown clock and the video boards all suddenly so close and he shook his head.

"I hope the league – for just one year – would let the Die Hards come down here for the first day," he said.

Walsh knows it won't happen. The NFL sells the closest seats as part of a draft weekend package. The Die Hards do not buy packages. They are football's version of the bleacher bums and you get the sense that even if they could afford an expensive draft weekend package, they wouldn't do it. They have too much fun in their distant mezzanine seats, where maintaining their Die Hard card is everything.

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Nobody might understand that better than Norfleet. He's been holding a secret he wasn't sure he was going to reveal to the Die Hards around him. But with the draft almost finished he knows he must tell it now or wait another 12 months. His voice is hoarse, his words hard to understand. But he has to say this.

Last year he lost his card.

This happened because he decided to leave early on the last day. He thought he could get away with this. He thought he could head out to the hotel for a rest, have his friend Andre slip his card to the NFL official who collected them at the door. The plan didn't work.

"We were busted," Norfleet said.

He sprinted the six blocks back to Radio City and begged the official to please let him stay a Die Hard.

The league relented.

"I will never screw that up again," he screamed with what little voice he had left.

The other Die Hards nodded solemnly.

Soon the draft would end and soon they would shuffle down Radio City's grand staircases and leave through the door specially designated for the Die Hards, hand their cards to the league official and disappear into the New York night.

Only to come back in exactly a year and wait for hours just to sit and watch a draft.

And hope it never ends.

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