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The NFL draft makes the move to prime time with the first round taking place Thursday April 22 at 7:30 eastern. The NFL draft has become a huge ratings draw for ESPN.

However, when they first started airing the draft in 1980, it wasn’t at all obvious how popular it would become. According to ESPNDB.com:

At the time, the Draft was held in a hotel and was a low-key affair, which led then-commissioner Pete Rozelle to question why any network would want to televise the draft. Eventually, ESPN’s televised coverage of the draft led to it becoming a larger event, necessitating a move to the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden and, in 2006, Radio City Music Hall.

In 1988, the first day of the draft was held on a Sunday, and ESPN drew a 3.6 rating during its seven-hour coverage of the draft. Over the last 20 years, the NFL Draft has consistently drawn more than five million viewers on American television.

Looking back at that first televised draft, the first three picks produced a good player, a great player and a bust.

The Detroit Lions took Oklahoma running back Billy Sims with the first overall pick. Sims won the Heisman Trophy as a junior in 1978 and was runner-up as senior. With the Lions, Sims was a three-time Pro-Bowler before a devastating knee injury ended his career in 1984.

After trading the 13th and 20th picks to move up to second, the Jets selected Johnny “Lam” Jones, from the University of Texas. Jones was a sprinter who won a gold medal in the 1976 Olympics as part of the 4 x 100 relay team. He was fast and could beat any defensive back.

“They had Wesley Walker at the time and I guess they just envisioned frightening defenses with two guys with Olympic speed,” said Rich Cimini, who has covered the Jets for more than two decades, first with Newsday and now for the New York Daily News. “I know they felt teams were starting to shade toward Wesley and they wanted to put another guy on the field to help him.” Thirty years ago: Johnny Lam Jones

The problem was he couldn’t catch and he was injury prone. He played 5 mediocre seasons, spent two seasons on IR, was traded to the 49ers in 1987, released, picked up by the Cowboys and released again, ending his career in 1987. He ranks pretty high on the Jets draft bust list.

Cincinnati took USC offensive tackle Anthony Munoz with the third pick. Munoz went on to become, perhaps, the greatest offensive tackle in the history of the NFL. In addition to football, Munoz was a baseball star for the Trojans, pitching for their national championship team in 1978.

When the Bengals drafted him, it was a much bigger question mark than either Jones or Sims. Munoz struggled with knee problems throughout the last two years of his college career and many questioned his durability. Munoz turned out to be the best selection of the three, playing in 185 games in 13 seasons, elected to the Pro Bowl eleven times and voted into the Hall of Fame in 1998.

Since that draft in 1980, the draft has turned into a major media event. Not only does the draft air on two different stations, but shows about the biggest draft busts and best draft picks can be seen on every sports station. And the first three picks from 1980 elicit emotional responses from their respective cities. Sims and Munoz are still popular in Detroit and Cincinnati, while just the “Lam” makes Jets fans cringe.

On Thursday, some people will cheer and some will boo and some will question the sanity of some GM. But like, 1980, no one knows how it will turn out which is what makes every draft so exciting.

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April 11, 2010 represents a silver anniversary celebrated by only me. Sure, a lot of people will be forced to recognize this momentous occasion with me but it’s really my celebration. It is, at once a point of pride and a moment of tragedy. It is one of the most important days of my life, but one that most participants probably don’t remember.

It is the 25th anniversary of the day I became a die-hard Mets fan. A little background first. In 1984, my dad, knowing my affinity for strawberries, tells me there is a guy playing baseball named Strawberry. Awesome. A guy named after my favorite fruit. I’d never watched a baseball game but he was already my favorite player. We go to a game or two that summer and I enjoyed it as much as a six-year-old can.

As the 1985 season approached, I won a radio call-in contest to become honorary batboy for the second game of season. I wouldn’t actually perform the duties of batboy but I would get to hang around before the game. I put on my ballpark finest, which included a full Mets uniform, wristbands, a satiny Mets jacket and a blue Mets hat way too big for my head, and headed out to Shea Stadium.

When I got to Shea, a Mets representative presented me with an official 1985 yearbook and ushered me and my dad into a tunnel located deep in the bowels of the stadium. Because of a light rain, most of the team was hitting in an indoor batting cage and we stood outside of it. As the players came and went, most stopped to say hi and sign my yearbook.

George Foster took a photo with me and Keith Hernandez knelt down and put his arm around me for one of my most cherished photos of all-time. In his first game as a Met, Gary Carter hit a game-winning homerun the day before. When he came by I said, “nice homerun yesterday.” He tossled my hair and said “Thanks kid.” That homerun was a huge moment for Gary and the Mets.

We had a little time before the first pitch and so I went out onto the field and sat down in the dugout. Darryl Strawberry was sitting there and he looks over at me and says “How ya doin kid?” “Good,” I said to the man who had become, and still is, my favorite baseball player, despite all his troubles and all his Yankees rings.

Then it was time for my big-screen debut as I smiled and waved on the Diamond Vision screen. I’ve been a die-hard fan ever since. Short of moving from NY or changing their name, I’ll always be a Mets fan. On my fanwalk brick outside of CitiField, it says “Batboy for a day, Mets fan forever.” Twenty-five years later, I still have that yearbook filled with autographs. I have that Keith Hernandez photograph on my bookshelf and I’ll keep watching no matter how bad they play or how mismanaged they might seem.

Opening Day is always a time for hope and optimism. For every team except the Yankees, last year was a disappointment. But no matter how bad your team was last year there is always the chance this year will be different. Opening Day lets everyone start over. If Opening Day is a preview of what’s to come for the rest of the season, Cleveland Indians fans must have been ecstatic to see their ace, Bob Feller, no-hit the White Sox in 1940.

Bob Feller/Sports Illustrated

The old adage goes that pitchers are ahead of hitters early in the season and on April 16, 1940 Feller used a changing delivery, a vicious fastball, some veteran wile and a little sparkling defense to stymie the White Sox. It was the only no-hitter ever on opening day and the first of three Feller would throw over the course of his career.

By 1940, the 21-year-old Feller was already a 4-year veteran with a 55-30 lifetime record. He had burst onto the scene as a 17-year-old phenom in 1937. According to the biography at the Bob Feller Museum:

No teen has ever matched Feller’s explosive debut on the major league scene. The seventeen – year – old rookie vaulted into the headlines when he struck out eight St. Louis Cardinals in three innings during a July 1936 exhibition. For an encore, the kid struck out fifteen batters in pitching the Indians to a victory over the St. Louis Browns that August. In September, the rookie blazed his 100-mile-per-hour fast ball past the Philadelphia Athletics to strike out seventeen batters. This performance put “Rapid Robert” Feller beside Dizzy Dean as co-holder of the major league strike out record. Before the 1936 season was over, the New York Times reported that Feller’s name was “on the tongues of a million fans.”

The fanfare for Feller grew. Time put Feller on it’s April 19, 1937, cover. NBC radio jumped on the Feller bandwagon, covering the young player’s graduation from Van Meter High School “live” on its national radio network. His fastball starred in newsreels, racing against a speeding motorcycle.

Feller was already hard to hit but the cold temperatures and harsh winds made it impossible for the White Sox. The only chance they had was that Feller was wild, walking five batters during the game. The last walk came with two outs in the bottom of the ninth when Feller intentionally walked future Hall-of-Famer Luke Appling to keep the no-hitter alive. He then got a sparkling defensive play as second baseman Ray Mack tracked down a ground ball in short rightfield and threw out the White Sox last chance, Taffy Wright.

Feller went on to one of his best seasons. He had a record of 27-11, the most wins he had in any one season. His 2.61 ERA led the league and was the third lowest of his career. He finished second in AL MVP voting. Cleveland won 89 games in 1940.

On December 8, 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Feller enlisted in the military and missed three years of baseball during his military service. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962.

Since the NCAA started seeding teams for the annual basketball tournament in 1979, the five seed has made it to the Final Four only seven times. Of those, only two have made the Championship and neither of those teams, Florida in 2000, and Indiana in 2002, won the title game.

This year, a five seed is guaranteed to make the title game as Midwest Regional Champion Michigan State takes on West Regional Champion Butler. As improbable as it seems that two 5s would make the Final Four, it is not the lowest pair of seeds to make it to the last weekend.

That honor goes to eighth-seeded Wisconsin and eighth-seeded North Carolina in 2000. Both lost their Final Four match-ups (Wisconsin to number-one seed and eventual champion, Michigan State; North Carolina to number five seed Florida,) but the run they made through the tournament was a prime example of why people love March Madness.

Wisconsin, a team some people called boring and ugly, exemplified the “anything is possible” aura of the tournament. Their talent was mediocre but they overachieved in the tournament with their slow tempo and suffocating defense that allowed them to overcome more talented teams and keep on winning.

Mike Kelley/AP Photo

The Badgers took out #9 Fresno State, #1 Arizona, #4 LSU and #6 Purdue behind players like G Mike Kelley, who shut down just about everyone he faced, and G Jon Bryant, who seemed to hit every shot he took, (until he couldn’t get an open look against Michigan State.) Teams not used to their style of play really struggled. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, they ran into a conference foe who knew their style in-and-out and had already beaten them three times.

North Carolina, was a very different team: a traditional powerhouse who always recruits talented players. A team that included six McDonald’s All-American’s and future NFL star Julius Peppers, North Carolina was having a bit of a down year and was the definition of an underachiever. After losing 14 games and finishing third in the ACC, they were finally able to put it together to make a strong run to the Final Four.

This year has the same dynamic. The overachieving Butler Bulldogs are in the Final Four for the first time ever. Their surprising victory over Syracuse showed the world that this team is for real.

On the other side, there is the underachieving Michigan State. They went to the National Championship last year and they had the Big Ten locked up until an injury to Kalin Lucas tripped them up and dropped them all the way to a five seed.

Unlike 2000, one of these low-seeded teams will play in the Championship. Will it be the overachiever or underachiever?

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