Raiders’ Waller, Ferrell meet Air Force members before draft

LAS VEGAS (AP) — At their place of business, which just happens to be Allegiant Stadium, Darren Waller and Clelin Ferrell welcomed 100 members of nearby Air Force bases for a Thursday pre-draft luncheon and discussion.

Waller and Ferrell seemed as much — or more — in awe of the service members as the men and women of the military were of the two Las Vegas Raiders.

Brought together by USAA, which sponsors the Salute to Service award given annually to an NFL player for his dedication to the military, both players spoke of their deep appreciation for what American soldiers do on a daily basis.

“There’s the type of composure you have to have when danger is present,” said defensive end Ferrell, the youngest of nine children of two military officers. “The experience of meeting people in the services, I’m a product of it. My dad would put on his uniform and shine his shoes daily, and then train soldiers to go to war.

“When I meet people in the military, they open up (because of his background) and it puts a good presence on the experience.”

Waller, one of the NFL’s finest tight ends, spoke of being at an Air Force base and hearing explosives go off during training exercises.

“And loud. I asked, ‘How do you put up with that on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “You can see how that can take a toll on them in later life.”

Waller plans to be involved in wellness and personal health care after his career. Because of some similarities between the military and football such as teamwork, competitiveness, work ethic, and always having an opponent, he feels he has much to offer service members and their families — particularly when their military careers end.

“It’s OK for it to be hard, to not know what you’re going to do,” he said. “People are there to support you.”

A VISION REALIZED

The smile on Peter O’Reilly’s face was as bright as the desert sun.

The man in charge of putting together the NFL draft, an event in some ways as difficult as staging a Super Bowl, stood Wednesday near the theater built exclusively for these proceedings. Nearby, 20 prospects were involved in football activities with youngsters from the area. Behind O’Reilly, the NFL executive vice president of club business and league events, was the High Roller, an iconic Ferris wheel just off the Las Vegas Strip.

“This feels great and we couldn’t be more appreciative,” O’Reilly said. “We’ve had a core vision that has been three years in place. We’ve learned a ton on how it can evolve and grow.

“There will be a sense of accomplishment and some relief when we are past Mr. Irrelevant (the final pick in the draft on Saturday) and the Marshmello concert.”

In 2015, after a dispute with Radio City Music Hall in New York, the league opted to turn the draft into a road show.

From Chicago to Philadelphia, from the Cowboys’ stadium near Dallas to Nashville, it has turned into a massive party.

Two years ago, that party was held virtually, hosted by Commissioner Roger Goodell from his home because of the coronavirus pandemic. Last year, it was held in Cleveland but was not a full-scale operation.

This one appears to be no holds barred, from adopting the character of Las Vegas to the entertainment that seems to be a part of all major NFL events these days.

“It’s become a pilgrimage event by NFL fans,” O’Reilly said. “And we’re in a destination market. The fans come in and connect with each other, and they all feel that hope, which is the single most (accurate) word for a draft.”

O’Reilly hopes to enjoy the three days while always looking ahead. The 2023 draft in Kansas City, Missouri, already is deep into the developmental stages. Plans for 2024 in Detroit also are being formulated.

And, he points out, 20 NFL cities have expressed interest in hosting, including several that already have done so.

MATTHEW AND AIDAN

Super Bowl champion quarterback Matthew Stafford was the top overall choice in the 2009 NFL draft. Michigan edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson just might go No. 1 on Thursday night.

So it seemed natural that Stafford, who spent his first 12 pro seasons with Detroit before joining the Los Angeles Rams last year — and winning a title — would be offering some advice to Hutchinson when the two held a question-and-answer session with fans.

“Aidan seems to have a good head on his shoulders,” Stafford said at the Courtyard by Marriott “Bistro & Banter” event with fans. “I would tell him to enjoy, it’s a special day for him and his family. Embrace where you are going, there will be good and bad times, like I have gone through on the journey. It’s kind of the beginning of a journey of something really special.”

Hutchinson listened intently as Stafford spoke, then broke into a smile while offering that “maybe me and Matt will get together soon.” Meaning, of course, Stafford getting sacked by the rookie.

Unlike Stafford, Hutchinson had a star player as a father. His dad, Chris, made some All-America teams at Michigan in 1992 and was inducted into the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame as a scholar-athlete that year.

“I never thought of measuring up to his legacy, and I had fun with it,” Hutchinson said. “So that way, no pressure. It was one nice thing we had as father and son.”

He then acknowledged that while in elementary school, he danced. His sisters and he danced competitively, though he made football his main commitment after five years of dancing.

“It definitely helped with balance and flexibility,” he said. “I can bust some moves.”

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