The call that never came
AURORA, Colo., -- Alijah Halliburton's small notepad featured eight NFL franchises all in a neat row down the left-hand side of the front page. Personnel from each had reached out to the former Wyoming safety over the past month.
It was titled "Biggest teams."
Atlanta showed the most interest. Jacksonville buzzed him, too.
Inside room 717 of the Radisson Hotel, just miles from his childhood home in the Denver area, Halliburton perched himself on the right side of the couch. There, it was easier to jot down notes.
On the coffee table in front of him, his Cowboys' helmet -- dings, scratches and all -- sat in the middle of noise makers and empty plastic glasses. On the left end table, his Arizona Bowl Defensive MVP trophy was on display. His state championship rings from Overland High School are close by. So is the one he earned in Boise, Idaho, when Wyoming knocked off Central Michigan in the 2017 Potato Bowl.
His latest bowl bling hasn't arrived yet.
His college road jersey hangs on the wall above him. You remember that infamous top. The name across the chest reads "Wyomimg," a snafu that made headlines after the season.
Halliburton has an idea who is responsible for the misprint, but he won't tell.
A handful of his closest family and friends roam around the hotel suite, snacking on a counter filled with brownies, cupcakes, potato chips and fried chicken.
There's a bottle of champagne on ice.
"That's for later," his mother Timika Halliburton smiled.
Much like his former Wyoming teammate, Logan Wilson, a night prior, Halliburton's eyes were glued to a flat screen hanging on the living room wall. With each selection in the 2020 NFL Draft, he would peer down at his notes. If it was one of the two teams listed above, or the Giants, Redskins, Seahawks, Bears, Rams or his hometown Denver Broncos, he would write down the selection.
Occasionally, his phone would ding. Other times, a light would flash. He always looked down immediately.
"Yeah, it does," Halliburton said of his heart skipping a beat with each vibration.
"Mine does, too," said his girlfriend, Abby Gray.
Halliburton was informed by his agent before the fifth round began that Atlanta was no longer an option for the man who tallied a Mountain West Conference best 130 tackles in 2019. They were all set defensively.
Focus quickly shifted to the Jaguars, who owned the 12th and 20th selections. What made this team even more intriguing is one of its current safeties is Halliburton's former college teammate and a player he sat behind on the depth chart for the better part of three seasons in Laramie, Andrew Wingard.
"I have talked with him, Carl Granderson and Marcus Epps," Halliburton said, referring to fellow Wyoming players who are currently in the NFL. "We mostly talked about the process and what it's all about."
With the 12th pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Jacksonville Jaguars select: Daniel Thomas, safety, Auburn.
It was back to the drawing board -- literally. Halliburton, emotionless, scratched the Jags off his list.
Timika only got one hour of sleep the night prior, she said, shaking her head. For her, it was time to take a walk around the hotel.
"I'm nervous," she said. "These teams have been calling for weeks."
Four more safeties came off the board in the sixth. So did teammate, Cassh Maluia, who was selected by New England 204th overall. The Rams are the latest team to get the wrong end of Halliburton's ball-point. Just 41 picks remained and the silence of his cell phone was deafening.
Still, he looked.
His family tried to lift spirits. Jokes were told and plenty of laughs were had. Even the old debate came up about who's better: Jordan or LeBron? Halliburton says it's James, but his mother had to announce it. He was still silently fixated on the television. Demeanor unchanged.
Shot after shot showed players -- cell phone to the ear, smiles across their faces -- with their families celebrating in the background.
The final round of Day 3 of the draft saw five more safeties taken. Even a placekicker and a punter heard their names called.
"Are you OK? Timika softly asked her son.
There was never an answer.
"Mr. Irrelevant," the traditional final pick of the draft was announced. It wasn't Halliburton. His mother quickly reached for the remote. She couldn't turn the TV off fast enough.
Halliburton slowly lifted off the couch, turned the corner and disappeared into the back room. His support group was vocal about their disappointment.
Had he done enough?
Why would these teams act so interested?
What else could he have done?
"This is a heart breaker," Timika said. "I felt like he proved it. He deserves so much more. He's a good kid. He's a good student. He went and got baptized on his own. He isn't out on the streets, he's home. He's working out."
His mother couldn't help but reminisce at that moment. She talked about the pee-wee football titles and the traveling basketball success her son had. When Halliburton was in the third grade, he finished second in the local science fair.
He used a stopwatch to time a pair of hamsters, running down florescent tubes. Which one would get to the end first: The one with food in its stomach, or the one without?
"That's when I knew I had something special," she said with a kind smile.
Halliburton reappeared in the room. He shook hands and somberly thanked his guests for spending the afternoon waiting with him. He leaned up against the food counter. It was clear he was ready for this day to end.
His phone, still silent.
"I'm pissed," he said quietly inside the hotel hallway. "I'm sad. I can't control any of it. That's the worst part."
He has questions, too.
"I thought I had a great season," he said. "But one year was probably not good enough for a player from the Mountain West. I have a little faith still. I just want a shot, that's all.
"Honestly, I don't see why not," he continued. "Show me why someone is better than me. Tell me what I haven't done or need to do better. Then, I'll understand. I just don't understand right now."
This hotel room was supposed to be the scene of a celebration. The bottle of champagne was supposed to be popped. Instead, slowly, everyone said their goodbyes and shuffled outside as Timika began to clean up.
To make matters worse, Halliburton turned 22 years old on Thursday. This was also his birthday party.
"I'm just ready to go home," Halliburton told her.
She agreed, adding that she was proud of him.
"It's hard, but as a mom, I have to be strong," she said. "He's been working so hard for this. We are hoping for the best and trying to keep a positive attitude."
A free agent contract could still be extended Halliburton's way. His agent informed him the call might not come until Monday -- if not later. The reasoning? COVID-19, a worldwide pandemic, has forced the NFL to go virtual. Scouting departments are working from home. So are general managers and head coaches.
Tyler Hall, another one of Halliburton's teammates at UW, is offered by those same Atlanta Falcons just minutes after the conclusion of the draft. Halliburton's girlfriend saw the announcement on Twitter.
It's yet another bittersweet moment in a day filled with confusion and heartache.
Emotions were high, but rational thinking was still very much a part of the equation before the lights went out in that seventh-floor suite. Timika still searched for a silver lining as the door shut behind her son.
Halliburton waited three seasons before earning a starting safety spot in Laramie.
He wasn't extended an invite to a post-season senior showcase.
The NFL Combine, yeah, that call never came either.
Yet, she said, her son continues to fight.
"He's going to prove everyone wrong," she said. "He's going to get his chance. He never gives up ... he's the strong one. He has a lot of heart and is competitive. He's also humble.
"We are going to keep hope alive."