INDIANAPOLIS — At 1:12 a.m., my phone lit up with a text. It was one of my spies telling me the party had arrived.
“Michael Irvin and Sean Payton talking,” the message read. “It’s on.” Then, a moment later: “And the Jerry bus is here. Jerry walking in.”
I was about to head that way anyway, but this was what I needed to hear to get my ass moving. “The Jerry bus” is the infamous Dallas Cowboys party bus. “Jerry” is Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. “Here” is Prime 47, a downtown steakhouse that unofficially functions as the nightlife headquarters for the NFL scouting combine. It was on.
The scouting combine is known to the general public as what its name suggests: a one-stop proving ground for NFL prospects in the run-up to the draft. It’s the place where decision-makers from every team poke and prod future pros, having them work out and perform position-specific drills in a standardized setting.
But the combine is much more than prospects showing off. With so many NFL types—scouts, coaches, front-office personnel, agents, unemployed scouts and coaches, media—gathered in one place, the week is also a gigantic carnival of behind-the-scenes activity. All the agents are typically here, in part because of the annual NFLPA meeting they’re required to attend, in part because combine week presents an opportunity for easy face-to-face meetings with team representatives in advance of free agency. For reporters, it’s one of the few times all year that offers easy access to most of the league’s power brokers without the annoying interference of a PR handler or a scheduled media availability.
The combine is always in Indianapolis, which means the many bars, restaurants, and hotel lobbies within walking distance of the stadium and the convention center are always the places to glad-hand in a relentless hunt for information—or to just hang out and booze. And nighttime, from the evening into the wee small hours, is when a lot of this rapport-building and genuine merriment goes down.
The combine is basically one giant party. It’s not always the most hospitable place for women working in the industry. And it’s not all that rowdy. It’s just where everything happens.
When I got the text about the Jerry Bus, I was a few blocks away, at the hotel bar at The Conrad, where Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Todd Haley was sitting with a group that included ESPN’s Suzy Kolber. Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers GM Mark Dominik walked in a few minutes later. But it was time for me to go.
The five-minute walk from The Conrad to Prime 47 betrayed nothing about the NFL’s takeover of this city’s downtown. The streets were dark and quiet. I arrived at Prime 47 to find the Jerry Bus, in all its tacky splendor, parked outside. Inside, the place was stuffed to the gills. And there, just inside the doorway, were Irvin, Jones, Payton, Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, and Washington head coach Jay Gruden. The night was just getting started.
As the NFL’s popularity has grown over the past few decades, the combine has transformed an overlooked footnote on the offseason calendar to a major event broadcast live on the league’s own television network. Across four days, as draft prospects in shorts run a three-cone drill or a 40-yard dash, hundreds of thousands of people tune in to watch.
This growth, fueled by the public’s ravenous interest in the draft—itself a byproduct of the league’s relentless, year-round marketing machine—has led to a parallel expansion behind the scenes. Not too long ago, scant media attention was paid to the combine. ESPN’s Rich Cimini, who has covered the New York Jets since the mid-1980s, told me he and a small handful of reporters used to wait in the lobby of the Crowne Plaza hotel, where the team interviews take place and the prospects stay, to get quotes. “The hotel wouldn’t even give us chairs,” he said.
As the years went on, more reporters discovered the value in the kind of access an event like the combine provides, which goes well beyond the opportunity to talk to a few prospects before the draft. That so much of the league’s cognoscenti are confined to a relatively small part of this city for an entire week creates far more opportunities for source cultivation than the standard bullshit access teams and the league offer for most events. In short, if you want to cover the NFL by getting to know the people who make the NFL work, you have to be at the combine.
The league eventually established an organized media credentialing process and work spaces. And the growth has only accelerated. The first time I covered the combine, in 2014, the media center was set up in the concourse area of the Colts’ stadium. Now, the Indiana Convention Center across the street serves as a dedicated media headquarters. This year, the NFL issued more than 1,300 credentials.
The combine at night can feel overwhelming for first-timers. But it quickly becomes easy to figure out where to go. Downtown Indy has the sterile, boxy charm of an old Soviet city. The JW Marriott on South West Street, a 34-story glass tower that sticks out like an oversized blue projection screen, is the nerve center. It anchors a complex of five interconnected hotels that are linked by pedestrian walkways to the convention center a few blocks away. Plenty of other bars, restaurants, and hotels are all within a 10 to 15-minute walk. That compact proximity—along with Indy’s centralized geographic location—has made this the ideal event city for the combine.
Meeting and greeting an NFL type in these settings can be daunting. When I used to approach people cold during my beat reporter days, everyone seemed to look familiar, but it was always so difficult to identify anyone with certainty. Is that the Bengals’ defensive coordinator? I think that dude’s a scout for the Giants, but I’m not totally sure. Wait, what’s the name of that one line coach for the Chiefs? Is that him? FUCK. The best reporters have a natural feel for these interactions, and can navigate them with seemingly little effort. But at times it can feel like trying to hit on someone. A few years ago, I approached an agent thinking he was an entirely different agent, and said the other guy’s name out loud as I stuck out my hand. The dude was a good sport about it, but in that moment I wanted to crawl inside the nearest trash can.
A lot of NFL types stay at the JW, so the lobby and the two hotel bars are obvious places to try to find someone, or to just post up in the hopes of seeing something. During combine week’s morning hours, it’s not uncommon to spot an owner like the New York Giants’ John Mara or a GM like the San Francisco 49ers’ John Lynch waiting on line for a caffeine fix at the Starbucks just one flight up the escalator from the lobby. At one of the two bars downstairs, a superagent like Jimmy Sexton might be seated at a table having lunch. A spy told me former Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema spent an evening this year at High Velocity, one of those JW bars. Another night, I found myself on the escalator behind ex-Arizona State head coach Todd Graham.
A couple of blocks east of the JW is The Westin, which has another giant lobby and a Shula’s steakhouse on the second floor. Shula’s has a small bar, with a wall that partially separates that bar from the dining room. This used to be a spot where a lot of coaches would gather; in 2014, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, former Bucs head coach Greg Schiano, and former Browns GM Mike Lombardi sat together for hours one night at a table not far from the bar, which led to speculation about whether Schiano would be joining Belichick’s staff (he didn’t). Later that same night, Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, then in the same role with the Jets, stood for a while at the Shula’s bar in an overcoat, slurring his words a bit as he made polite conversation. I once stayed up till 5 a.m. just sitting in The Westin lobby listening to Bus Cook, Brett Favre’s agent, tell old Favre stories to a group of stragglers.
I first met one of my best sources at The Westin a few years back; we’ve met for dinner every year I come back to the combine. This year, just off the lobby, I had a brief meeting with another source, mostly just to get face time, but also to pull string on some details for a future story or two. I once took care to meet with a sensitive source at an out-of-the-way bar. Information is everything for reporters, which incentivizes the need to guard where that information comes from. The combine has a way of encouraging people to talk and to stay silent at the same time.
One year, at the Hooters on West Georgia Street, Rex and Rob Ryan made an appearance and took a photo with the restaurant’s wait staff that delighted the internet. The Ryan brothers being the Ryan brothers, they returned to Hooters the very next night to watch a UFC fight, with Washington owner Dan Snyder, Fox’s Jay Glazer, and former Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears head coach John Fox all also in the house. Another year, the bar Champps, a few blocks east of The Westin, was stuffed with assistant coaches—including some wearing their team jackets. (This year, Champps was closed for construction.)
These obvious appearances by coaches and others are no longer the norm. “Coaches don’t want to have someone take their picture and post it or anything like that,” one reporter told me. Another reporter who’s been covering the combine for a decade told me, “It used to be that it was 90 percent NFL people here, and, like, 10 percent media. Now it feels like it’s 90 percent media and 10 percent NFL people.” That dynamic used to make for a more freewheeling environment; the reporter told me the upstairs room at Prime 47 used to be where the real mischief went down, back when the place was called Mo’s. Alas, this year, the upstairs was closed all three of the nights I was in town, and a grand piano was blocking the stairwell.
Two years ago, Conor Orr, then writing for NFL.com, chronicled how much the combine party had begun to wind down for the Serious NFL Men. “A quick survey of several current NFL position coaches, head coaches and executives found that the preference in Indianapolis is to find an out-of-the-way joint for dinner or drinks,” Orr wrote. “The prevalence of social media and citizen journalism is scary enough during their everyday lives.”
Which isn’t to say no one was out and about this year. You just had to look closely. Or simply hang at the right spot long enough.
St. Elmo is an old-school steakhouse on Illinois Street. It’s known for its shrimp cocktail, in which the shrimp are submerged in a cocktail sauce so loaded with horseradish it clears your sinuses. It’s not unusual to spot a familiar face or three there. Of my three nights in Indy this year, I ate dinner at St. Elmo twice. I was all set to hit another dinner spot the second night, until an Uber driver informed my companion and me that the Jerry bus was parked outside St. Elmo. So back we went, and there it was:
Jones and his crew had a private room downstairs, so we never actually saw him. But we were seated near a group that included former Panthers receiver Steve Smith and former San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson. The Jerry bus was still parked out front by the time we left.
Another night, a spy told me that a few coaches were hanging at Kilroy’s, an Irish bar with a big room that’s usually packed with 20-somethings. Sure enough, at a booth in the back, there was a group of Pittsburgh Steelers coaches: head coach Mike Tomlin all the way on the inside, his hat worn low to partially conceal his face, drinking something from a rocks glass with a swizzle straw. Linebackers coach Joey Porter was seated at the open end of the booth, and defensive line coach Karl Dunbar had pulled up a chair to join them. On the other side of the bar, at a large round table, was a group that included Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel and Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who also wore a hat that made him difficult to recognize. No one bothered any of these guys, and they didn’t appear to be doing much besides having a few. Just another night at the combine.
But it’s Prime 47, on the ground floor of the historic Majestic Building a short walk around the corner from Kilroy’s, that remains the main hub of combine nightlife. What distinguishes Prime 47 is its willingness to stay open very late; I was there till after 3 a.m. on the first two nights of this year’s combine, and until 5 a.m. on my last night in town. I wasn’t the last person out the door, either.
Prime 47 is where most reporters wind up because it’s also where a lot of coaches, agents, scouts, and executives still congregate. Ex-Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez was there this year. Agent Mike McCartney, who just got Kirk Cousins all that guaranteed money, was there one night, too. Barstoolers Big Cat and PFT Commenter stood around awkwardly at one point (though not as awkwardly as I did trying to take this all in). I spotted Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay at Prime 47 multiple times this year. On one of those nights, McVay chilled into the wee hours with a small crowd that included a handful of reporters. After he left, most of the others at the table filed out too.
Prime 47 frequently gets so crowded it can be difficult to move, let alone get a drink. There are lots of bro-shakes and bro-hugs. There are lots of necessary conversations between reporters and sources (or potential sources), along with nervous talk between reporters debating whether to approach potential sources. There is plenty of routine barroom banter among people just looking to hang out and relax. There’s a lot of vapid, “Oh, how are you?” chatter between folks who only see each other once a year. And there’s a lot of people looking over each other’s shoulders as they talk, aware that there might be someone else, someone better, to talk to. If it weren’t for work, it would be hell.
It can be fascinating to watch the scoop hounds prowl around Prime 47, bouncing from group to group or person to person making casual conversation with this scout or that coach or this agent. Whatever one might think of the reporters who cover the NFL or their methods, there is no doubt that many of them work like hell to develop a level of trust with their sources. The combine in general, and Prime 47 in particular, provides a window into how that process plays out.
A mainstay of Prime 47 is Bob LaMonte, an agent who reps a significant number of coaches and team execs, including McVay. LaMonte typically reserves a giant round table in the corner of the room for several nights during the combine, and it’s not unusual for a few of his clients to drop by. One night this year, Jets GM Mike Maccagnan—a LaMonte client—joined him for a good while. LaMonte likes to operate in the shadows, and he’s fond of using the word “Omerta”—the mafia’s term for its code of silence—when dealing with reporters. As a result, it’s amusing to watch him at Prime 47 as reporters who deal with him invariably work their way over to pay their respects, not unlike the way guests seeking favors visited Vito Corleone on the day of his daughter’s wedding. On the night before I got there this year, according to a spy, LaMonte wore a shirt that said “Omerta” on it to Prime 47.
David Canter, a prominent player agent, reserves an adjacent large round table for several combine nights to conduct business. “An unbelievable amount of information gets passed out,” Canter told Sports Illustrated’s Jonathan Jones. “That’s the key. That’s why I do it. I don’t do it because I want to spend all that money to be egotistical or arrogant. I do it because I want to get information.”
Combine attendees are overwhelmingly men, with the occasional female reporter. Unsurprisingly, those women have to endure occasional unwelcome advances from NFL men who either don’t realize who they are, or who simply don’t care.
One night, one reporter came over to tell me that an assistant coach had just been “handsy” and “creepy” with her. (The reporter was talking to me as a colleague; she did not know I was working on a nightlife story. I later followed up with her, and she agreed to allow me to use this anecdote on the condition that I not name her or the coach. Doing so, she explained, could compromise her job.) She told me the coach likely didn’t know she was a reporter. “We’re out, like everyone else, because we have to get information,” this reporter explained during our subsequent (sober) conversation. “And, yeah, we’re drinking, just like everyone else. But we get judged for it. It’s ridiculous.”
Another woman reporter told me about a time when another woman she knew tried to talk to a different assistant coach. “I’ll tell you, but you have to kiss me,” the coach told that woman at one point.
My last night in Indy, I randomly sat at the bar at Prime 47 next to a woman reporter who repeatedly placed a cocktail napkin atop her drink between sips, just to make sure no one would slip anything into it. When a former NFL backup quarterback who had been talking to her for a while got up to leave, his goodbye made the steady progression from handshake to hug to kiss on one cheek to kiss on both cheeks to an attempt at a kiss on the lips, which was rebuffed. Later, another man—I have no idea who he was—drunkenly kept trying to talk to the same woman, after she made clear she had no interest. After a while, when he didn’t take the hint, she tapped my leg and implored me to “be a friend,” which I did by awkwardly jumping into the conversation. But this guy still didn’t get it. When he finally went to leave, he gave the woman a hug. After she turned back around to face the bar, he attempted to kiss her face by sloppily leaning in from behind, at which point several people spoke up to tell him to get lost. Just another night at the combine.
Not long after I got to Prime 47 based on the tip about the Jerry bus pulling up, Michael Irvin took off. Jason Garrett and Sean Payton did, too. Jay Gruden stayed for a bit; an agent stopped him on his way out to talk briefly about the possibility of a client playing for Washington.
But Jerry Jones, whom I had tried to find at St. Elmo earlier that night, stuck around. He held a rocks glass filled to the brim with brown liquid and ice, holding it aloft and taking care not to spill as the crowd mingled around him. In that moment, Jones looked less like the NFL’s shadow commissioner than some happy grandfather out on the town for a few pops. My spy told me Jones was drinking a double of Johnnie Walker Blue on the rocks—his go-to—and that a reporter who covers the Cowboys had been dispatched to the bar to purchase it with a $100 bill supplied by Jones. (The spy declined to say who the reporter was.)
“You should go talk to him,” the spy said of Jones. But just when I decided to do it, Jones began to head for the door, shaking several hands along the way. It was 2:21 a.m. when he disappeared into the night. I still had plenty of hanging to do. I talked to an agent who agreed to stay in touch, did some more people-watching, and tried to help the woman reporter being harassed. It was close to 5 a.m. when I finally decided to leave, grateful that my flight home wasn’t until 11:30 that morning. “What time do you close?” I asked the bartender as I paid my tab. “We’re not open,” he said, walking away.