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Column: Major theme of this year’s NFL draft plays well in host city Philadelphia

The NFL draft has come to this city, and the theme is a natural.

From the locale of the event — the Rocky steps — to the “Gonna Fly Now” soundtrack that has been on an endless loop at league headquarters for the past few weeks, to the against-long-odds stories of some of the top prospects, there’s no escaping the underdog overtones.

There’s Corey Davis, perhaps the best receiver in this class. He played at unheralded Western Michigan, and went on to make three miles’ worth of catches. His 5,291 yards are a career record for Football Bowl Subdivision schools.

“I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder and my mind-set has always been different because of that,” said Davis, who is attending the draft and, along with the other top prospects, visited ailing kids Wednesday at Shriners Hospital for Children. “Coming out of high school, I only had one offer, from a Mid-American Conference school. I thought I deserved more, but the teams didn’t. I kind of took that and ran with it.”

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The Cleveland Browns will kick off the 2017 NFL draft with the first pick. (April 25, 2017) (Sign up for our free video newsletter here http://bit.ly/2n6VKPR)

There’s tackle Ryan Ramczyk, who out of high school wanted to become a police officer. He bounced around a few small schools, almost playing football as an afterthought before winding up at Wisconsin. After one season there, he found himself one of the top line prospects in this class.

There’s Philadelphia local Haason Reddick, an outside linebacker who played four games as a high school senior because of injuries, went largely unrecruited, and had to talk his way onto a bad Temple team as a walk-on. He figures to go in the first round.

And there’s Garett Bolles, a top offensive tackle whose life was careening out of control during his teen years. He was expelled from five schools, kicked out of his house by his father, did drugs, and spent time behind bars for vandalism. Eventually, he got his life in order, spent a year on a Mormon mission, and played one season at Utah. Now 25, and with a wife and an infant son, Bolles said he’s reformed and headed in the right direction.

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“It doesn’t matter what conference you played in, small school, big school,” Bolles said. “It matters if you’re ready to take this leap to playing with the big boys.”

Those stories will be told and retold in the new hometowns of those players, who won’t know where they’re heading until NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell steps to the microphone and reads their names.

The NFL’s marquee off-season event moved to Philadelphia after being held in Chicago the past two years, and in New York for decades before that. Every year, the spectacle grows. This year, the league has taken over the 72 stone steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the ones Sylvester Stallone famously charged up in “Rocky.”

The league’s temporary theater includes a tented space large enough to fit a football field, although it will be outfitted with 3,500 seats for ticketed spectators. Representatives from 15 NFL cities will attend, plus Pro Football Hall of Fame home Canton, Ohio, hoping to host next year’s draft. (Although Los Angeles has bid on the event before, and likely will land it when the Inglewood stadium is finished, it will not be among attending suitors.)

Southern California schools will be represented in the players’ green room, with USC’s Adoree’ Jackson and UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley accepting invitations to attend.

Like many of his fellow prospects, McKinley embraces the underdog ethos and, now that he’s about to take another major step in his football career, relishes looking back at the winding and difficult path to this point.

“I just tell people, ‘Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do it,’” he said. “In high school, I wasn’t a five-star [recruit], four-star, three-star, two-star, one-star. I was unranked. So I had a lot of doubters. Regardless, I didn’t let that stop me from being who I was going to be.”

And now? Gonna fly.

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sam.farmer@latimes.com

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer


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