With the NFL Draft in town, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is playing municipal host this week and hoping to throw such a great lakefront party, his guests will have no choice but to do it again next year.
On Wednesday, Emanuel put on a Bears warm-up shirt and joined NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell at a flag football clinic in Grant Park where current and former players and coaches and NFL prospects taught local kids.
That was followed by an announcement about the NFL’s renewed commitment to reach 1 million students, 250,000 of them in Chicago, with flag football “essentials” kits to promote the league’s “Play 60” campaign to boost youth fitness and combat childhood obesity.
During the announcement, some of the kids sat on the ground in front of the mayor and commissioner and started pulling grass out of the makeshift mini-football field.
Twice, an index finger-waving Emanuel tried in vain to get them to stop.
What grows in Grant Park should stay in Grant Park, Mayor Rahm Emanuel reminded a group of children on Wednesday. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times
After that, it was on to an NFL Network interview with Goodell to talk about how a former White House chief of staff whose arm-twisting powers are the stuff of legends had persuaded the NFL to leave New York for the first time in 51 years.
“It’s not politicking. I would just say persuading in the most gentle format that I’m used to,” Emanuel jokingly told NFL Network interviewers Melissa Stark and former San Francisco 49ers coach Steve Mariucci.
Turning serious, Emanuel said the seeds for the Chicago draft were actually planted three years ago. Goodell was at Soldier Field for an event. Emanuel was thinking about the possibility of adding the 8,000 seats to Soldier Field needed to host the Super Bowl. And after realizing that might be a costly long-shot, the mayor lowered his sights to the televised spectacle watched by 55 million viewers known as the NFL Draft.
“I happened to see something about a scheduling conflict, and I said to my assistant, `Get Roger Goodell on the phone and get him on now.’ He has now since switched his cellphone number,” the mayor recalled.
“I was after him about Chicago, the heartland of America, the most American city with 11 teams within a four- or five-hour drive. Bring it here and we will show you a way for your fans and everybody to experience” the draft like never before.
If not for Emanuel’s notorious powers of persuasion, Goodell said, the draft could have gone elsewhere. There was “a lot of interest from a lot of cities,” the commissioner said.
“He was so committed to it. He saw the vision for it. He wanted to make this happen for Chicago. And as I’ve said many times, he’s overdelivered on it,” Goodell said.
“We are coming back to our roots . . . We did the draft here 51 years ago. The last time we went out of New York, we went to Chicago. I think what it’s caused us to do is to reinvent the whole experience, the whole three days. We have a lot more events.”
Pressed on whether the draft would return to Chicago next year, Goodell said, “If you give the mayor that opening, he’ll take it.”
On a picture-perfect Wednesday tailor-made for the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, Emanuel joked that he had guaranteed a temperature of 66 degrees and “not more than three clouds-an-hour” for the three-day draft.
“Here’s my goal: When you get on the plane and put your first foot on the step when you start to leave the city, you’re gonna think one thought: ‘Why did we not do this sooner?’ And I said, `Remember. You’re in your mother’s arms. We’re gonna take care of you,’ ” the mayor told Goodell.
By the time the last player is picked, Emanuel said, he expects “north of 100,000 people” will take advantage of the free concerts and other hands-on events associated with, what the NFL is calling, “Draft-a-pallooza.”
And that’s not counting the television audience for an event that, Emanuel hopes, will help deliver on his ambitious goal of boosting the number of annual visitors to Chicago past the 55 million mark.
Asked whether he’s given up on ever hosting the Super Bowl here, the mayor said, “I’m a one-event-at-a-time [guy.] . . . My goal, as I’ve said from Day One, is that when Roger and the NFL leave the city, they say, `Why do we not bring this back to the city of Chicago?’”
Bears President George McCaskey said he’s hoping the NFL Draft in Chicago becomes an annual event.
“My charge to the Chicago Sports Commission was to make it such a rousing success that it would be impossible for the NFL to move it out of here,” McCaskey said.
“One of the things I’m concerned about is that, if Los Angeles gets a team as early as 2016, we might lose out to L.A. no matter how successful it is here in Chicago.”
What about the possibility of someday expanding Soldier Field enough to win the Super Bowl for Chicago? Is it out of the question?
“No,” McCaskey said. “I wouldn’t put anything past the mayor. He’s a very determined individual.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (left) and Mayor Rahm Emanuel get ready for a taped interview on the NFL Network about this week’s NFL Draft, which is being held in Chicago. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times