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'Punch the Commissioner': An oral history of the NFL Draft's most storied tradition

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This feature was originally published on Feb. 13, 2014. Every year at the NFL Draft, a player gets drafted, walks onstage, and punches commissioner Roger Goodell in the face. Here's a look back on the most time-honored tradition in football.

On May 8th, 2014, one of the NFL's proudest traditions was born. And like most great traditions, it seemed to come out of nowhere.

Roger Goodell, NFL commissioner:

I guess it was 2014 ... God, it's been 17 years since the "punch the commissioner" thing started, huh? It's a fun thing. The players get a kick out of it, and everyone watching has a laugh. It's just a fun tradition. It's one I'm happy to pass on to the next commissioner, and, you know, I'm proud that it started with me.

Derek Carr, 2014 NFL Draftee:

So I'm up in New York with my boys, I'm at the draft. And I'm on the phone with [Fresno State running back and former teammate] Marteze Waller. And he's like, "dude, when you're drafted, you should just walk up there and punch him."

I'm like, "what do I want to punch him for?" I didn't have anything against him at all. Plus, you know, I figured I'd probably get arrested on the spot. But Marteze is like, "yeah, I know, but it'll be funny. If you do it I'll give you a dollar. Straight-up just give you a dollar." I didn't really care about the dollar, but I told him I'd think about it.

Marteze Waller:

I was dead serious about that dollar.

Jon Gruden, NFL analyst and retired coach:

Breaking Madden

Yeah, apparently Carr's teammate offered him a dollar to punch Goodell? I think I heard that. The thing about it is, if you have one dollar, that's really only enough to buy a pack of gum or some candies at the counter of the drug store. But if you start getting hold of more dollars, suddenly you have enough to buy a bucket of army men or a few apples. Once you get to 20 dollars, you're in the territory where you can start thinking about getting a decent frying pan, or The Taking of Pelham 123 on DVD.

So after that, what I like to do, is I put that 20 dollars somewhere safe where folks won't find it or try to take it -- usually somewhere inside of my house. So while it's in my house, I'll leave and try to go get more money. After a few days, you might have like 50 or 100 dollars. And then you can buy a bicycle that is as large as the Earth. I have no use for anything like that.

Carr:

So I end up getting picked 18th overall. They clip a mic on me and give me a Vikings hat, and I'm thinking, "there's no way I'm punching him." Then I walk onstage and look at him. He just looks so nice! He's smiling, and he's happy for me, and he's holding my brand-new jersey. So it's like, "God, I can't believe the thought of even punching him was funny."

Then I realized that that was exactly what was funny about it. So, you know ...

2014 NFL Draft attendee:

Ol' boy got lit up! Just went like, "blapppp." Ass on the ground.

Goodell:

The strangest, and most common, question I get asked is, "did it hurt?" Well, of course it did. Hurting somebody is basically the point of punching somebody.

Carr:

Since nobody had ever done it before, I didn't have to be sly about it. I just reared back and decked the shit out of him, right in the face.

Goodell:

I was just so damned surprised. All of a sudden I'm on the ground. I didn't know anyone could hit so hard.

Goodellpunch_medium

I wasn't mad. I went straight from, "holy shit, I just got punched!" to "that was hilarious." I just sat on the ground and laughed my ass off. I saw people restraining Derek and I was like, "no, no, he's fine." And he and I just start laughing, and the crowd's laughing. None of the commissioner-punchings are as special to me as that first one.

Star-divide

Throughout his tenure as NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell has weathered a tremendous amount of criticism from all sides, and one might be tempted to think that commissioner-punching is a cruel custom enjoyed out of spite. According to fans, players, and the commissioner himself, this just isn't so.

Finesse Middleton, 2016 NFL Draftee:

By the time I was drafted, everyone had set up a few unwritten rules for commissioner-punching. There had to be rules. If every player just walked up and punched him, it'd just be weird. If everyone punches a guy in the face, nobody does, you know?

Man, I mean, I hadn't really been in a real fight before. I'd never tried my hand at boxing or anything. What did I know about punching? -Go.com Parker

So we decided that at some point in the first round, one of us would punch him. He had no idea who. It could be the 3rd pick, or the 25th pick, or whatever. They decided I would punch him that year. The last couple guys to punch him were smaller than me, and I was like, "I'm 260 pounds. You sure I should punch him?" And they were like, "yeah, yeah, it's gotta be you."

I was the 19th pick. I think I kinda telegraphed it. As soon as I went up to him, he put his hands up and sort of staggered backwards, like he'd been punched already. But he hadn't been, so while he was still falling backwards I just ran and caught up to him and punched him in his face.

Goodell:

[laughing] That hurt so bad.

I mean, all this seemed weird to people at first, but I don't think it's any weirder than the Gatorade bath. That was around for decades before commissioner-punching, and people just accepted it as normal. Why? Why would you dump 20 gallons of liquid on your boss when it's 20 degrees out?

It was just a communal sort of thing. I got punched in the face once a year. It was fine.

Middleton:

The Commish and I are friends. We laughed about it right when it happened, and we still laugh about it now. I just punched the absolute shit out of him is all.

Goodell:

I was falling down already but then my face got punched. Then I fell down.

Star-divide

A good punch requires a fair amount of technique that the layman does not possess. This has resulted in a few miscues throughout the years.

Goodell:

Man, I remember the 2021 Draft Punch. That had to be the worst one.

Go.com Parker:

Man, I mean, I hadn't really been in a real fight before. I'd never tried my hand at boxing or anything. What did I know about punching?

Goodell:

God, it was embarrassing.

Parker:

I went on stage and sort of tiptoed up to him. And I was like, "OK hold on. Hold on. Hold on." And I stretched my palm out and was like, "OK hold on." Then I slowly just kind of mashed my palm into his face.

Goodell:

Then I was like, "OK, stop." And he was like, "hold on, wait, hold on." And, like, my feet were planted in the same place on the ground, but the rest of me was leaning back because he was kind of just pressing his hand against my face.

Mike Mayock, NFL draft analyst:

It wasn't really even a punch. If it was, it would basically be the worst punch.

Parker:

Then I tried to put on my hat, but it was too big and it had a hole in the top.

Goodell:

He kept calling his jersey his "hat."

Star-divide

All over YouTube, there are supercut compilations of Roger Goodell getting punched onstage. If you ask most fans, though, last year's was the most memorable.

Goodell:

Everyone knew Carver was gonna be the first overall pick. I mean, by consensus, he was the best player in the draft. Six foot five, 260 pounds. He broke bench and squat records in college, ran a 3.6 40. As a defensive end, he averaged 12 sacks a game in college.

We'd just never, ever seen anyone like him. He was a god.

FanHouse Carver, No. 1 overall pick in the 2030 NFL Draft:

Punched him.

Spergon Wynn, Cleveland Browns owner:

I got a call from the green room that night. They decided this was finally going to be the year. Ever since the whole punching thing started, no No. 1 pick had just walked up there and decked the commissioner at the very beginning of the draft.

On one hand, you didn't want to do that, because you wanted to keep the viewers tuned in. It was usually the 15th pick, or the 25th pick, or something. Once that happened, fans usually changed the channel, because there isn't really any other reason to watch the NFL Draft. Every player is pretty good, you know? It doesn't really matter who's drafted.

But on the other hand ... man. It was magic.

Goodell:

Right at the very start, I call his name, and I'm waiting for him with his Browns jersey, and I'm smiling, because there's no way he's gonna punch me.

I flew 10 feet in the air, I think. I landed on the dais, completely smashed it to pieces.

Mayock:

I don't know if I've ever heard a crowd pop like that. It sounded like Steve Austin had just ripped off his blazer and pulled a Stunner. The whole building just shook.

Goodell:

He punched me so hard that a couple minutes later, my face still hurt. It was just an incredibly, incredibly hard punch. It was the last punch of my tenure as commissioner, and I really couldn't have asked for a better send-off.

Wynn:

We converted him to a long-snapper. He was so strong that he could snap the ball 40 yards, which was great, because that way we could get to the 10-yard line and then try a 70-yard field goal.

Then we finally got around to designing a logo. It's hard to see the helmets close-up on TV, but basically, it's of a child who is crying because he spilled his porridge, and there's, like, this big log in the sky that's about to fall on him. Sorry about the tangent there. Listen, you kind of called me at a bad time. I was just in the middle of boiling my laundry, and it requires my full attention. You have to keep stirring it, like a fine steak.

Goodell:

When I first became commissioner, I told myself, "Roger, don't leave anything on the table." I might have made some missteps, but I didn't want to regret the things I didn't do, the things that didn't happen.

I guess if I had to name one thing, it would be that I didn't get punched in this part of my face. Like the little part on this side. Nobody punched me there. Every other part of my face got punched, though, except for that part.