Waiting is hardest part about NFL draft
In the days before everyone had cell phones and before Twitter users were informing the world of real-time events 140 characters at a time, Danny Clark sat nervously by the telephone at his mother's Country Club Hills home waiting for a call from an NFL team.
The year was 2000 and the former Illinois linebacker was told he'd likely be selected in the second round of that year's draft. The phone was ringing a lot, but NFL representatives weren't the ones tying up the phone lines.
"Everyone was calling my house 'Did you get drafted yet?' I would tell them all 'No, this is the same phone line that NFL teams are supposed to call,' " Clark said. "Every time the phone would ring I'd get so excited and it was someone asking if I got drafted yet. It was totally disappointing. My mom was having a meltdown that day."
The first day of the draft — three rounds — went by without Clark being selected. He'd eventually go on the second day, in the seventh round to the Jacksonville Jaguars. He was the 245th pick overall.
"It was dreadful, totally disappointing," said Clark, who retired from the NFL in August after 11 seasons in the NFL playing for the Jaguars, Raiders, Saints, Texans and Giants. "I always called draft days the best and worst days of my life because I got calls throughout the third round, fourth, fifth and sixth rounds with teams saying they were gong to get me next and it just never happened for whatever reason. I'm not sure exactly what it was, it was probably just that my measurables didn't match up with the next guy. There's no science to it, I'm living proof of that."
Chances are another former Illini will have a story similar to that of Clark's when this weekend's NFL draft concludes. For every Whitney Mercilus — a projected first-round pick — and A.J. Jenkins (second round), there are others who are going to sweat out the three-day selection process that begins with Thursday's first round.
Offensive lineman Jeff Allen has been projected to go anywhere from the second round to the fourth round, defensive back Tavon Wilson is likely a sixth- or seventh-round pick and a handful of potential free agents, headlined by kicker Derek Dimke, potentially won't be picked at all.
"It really doesn't matter to me when I go," Allen said. "Of course, you want to get drafted high but just to be there is a blessing, and to get the opportunity to play at the next level is something I'm looking forward to."
Of the 54 starters in the Pro Bowl last year, 21 were drafted in the third round or later. Some even went undrafted. And there are plenty of examples of former Illini drafted after the third round who have gone on to have productive NFL careers. Since the NFL draft was cut to seven rounds in 1993, 26 Illini have been selected in the third round or later. Notables in that group include John Holocek, Neil Rackers, Clark, David Diehl, Brandon Lloyd and Tony Pashos.
"Those guys have all done a great job making it after not being picked high. They're good guys to look up to," Wilson said. "Dave Diehl was a fifth-rounder and he's got two rings, been to a Pro Bowl. When you get that chance you just have to show what you can do, because once you get there everyone is on the same level as far as making it."
For Wilson, a versatile defensive back who has played cornerback and safety during his four years at Illinois, making it might mean becoming a standout special teams contributor. That's how Clark made his impression with the Jaguars as a rookie.
"At Illinois, the only special team I played on was the punt team just a little bit with Coach (Greg) McMahon," he said. "I never played kickoff team, kickoff return or punt return, but special teams was my only way to make the ballclub and I had an amazing coach, Fred Gansz, and he taught me what it meant to make special teams your way of life until I got another opportunity. And I did it."
That's the approach being taken by Wilson, who joked that he'd play offensive line if it meant getting on the field. But unlike his Illinois contemporaries, Wilson wasn't invited to the scouting combine in February and he's aware that the deck is already stacked against him in that regard.
"If you see me on film, you can see that I'm a good player. I feel like I have a little chip on my shoulder because I feel like I should have been there, but that's how I have always prepared," he said. "I always feel like I have to prove to everybody that I'm better than they think I am."
Wilson hasn't made plans for where and with whom he will watch the draft, but he did say he's going to watch every pick made on television.
"I just want to take it all in," he said.
Allen is taking a different approach.
"I'm just going to head home with my family (in Chicago) and treat it like a normal day," he said. "When I find out, I'll flip to ESPN and try to catch it because you usually get the phone call before they make the pick."
Regardless of what happens this weekend, Allen, Wilson and Dimke will get an opportunity to make an NFL roster. The trick will be sticking around to make a career out of it.
"These guys coming out now need to understand it's hard to get into the NFL but it's even harder to stay. The cliche is NFL stands for Not For Long. It's a privilege, it's not a right," Clark said. "The NFL is a business, it's not a game. When they took that scholarship to Illinois, they were no longer playing a game, they were operating in a business. They have to understand they are their own businesses and their bodies are their temples and they need to make sure they optimize every opportunity. The more you can do, the longer you can stay."