On Thursday night, the NFL Draft returns to Philadelphia, the city of its birth, for the first time since 1961.
The league is preparing for the 2017 NFL Draft by invading the center of the city of Philadelphia in preparation of hosting a three day party for an estimated 200,000 visiting football fans
It’s easy to imagine how the party atmosphere will look like to those in attendance, as well as to the approximately three million watching on television. Now take a minute to imagine how it all looked in 1936 at the first NFL Draft league history. Picture the scene…
The crowd was buzzing in anticipation at Philadelphia’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Banks of phones sat at the ready on tables where representatives of the nine NFL teams sat while waiting for messages to begin streaming in from their team’s war rooms. A dozen of the previous season’s top college players sat nervously off to the side of the room, wondering when their names would be called.
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NFL President Joe Carr walked to the center of the stage, took a deep breath and, as the second hand swept past 12 stated, “I now declare the 1936 NFL Draft officially open. The Philadelphia Eagles are on the clock.”
Carr began his walk off the stage, but stopped when he saw Eagles owner Bert Bell approaching him. Carr took a slip of paper from Bell’s hand and walked back to the mic, saying, “Philadelphia selects the winner of the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy (renamed the following year as The Heisman Trophy) halfback Jay Berwanger, University of Chicago.”
Berwanger, an ear-to-ear smile on his face, rose from his seat and made his way to the stage. Once there, an Eagles jersey with “Berwanger 1” on the back was handed to him and a baseball cap set on his head. The hall quickly filled with blinding white light as photographers burnt through flashbulbs in an effort to commemorate the very first draft pick in NFL history.
Except it didn’t happen that way — nowhere near it, unless a Hollywood producer gets an idea to shoot the story and decides the reality too dull to put on film.
What the draft room did look like that day was more along the lines of the movie 12 Angry Men, minus the anger.
On May 18, 1935 the NFL owners met in Pittsburgh for their annual meeting. The league had wrapped up its 15th season of existence the previous December and, as usual in those early years, most of the NFL’s nine teams were walking a financial tightrope in an attempt to stay alive. College football was the king of the gridiron during the NFL’s growth years and the league was always fighting for the table scraps of money and attention that remained after Saturday’s games
Bell was particularly desperate. In their three seasons of existence, the Eagles had amassed a 9-21-1 record. With his financial strength limited, Bell was finding it impossible to attract top talent to Philadelphia to improve the team’s situation.
At that meeting Bell put forward a motion for a player selection system that at its core remains the same process that will be put in motion on Thursday night. The two owners at the meeting that would find their recruiting efforts hurt the most by this change threw their considerable weight behind the motion.
Chris Wills of NFL Films interviewed many involved extensively in a piece entitle “The First Draft.” In it, George Halas, owner of the Chicago Bears, said later (via TonySoftli.com):
"“I thought the proposal [was] sound. It made sense. Tim Mara also approved. He and I had more to lose than any other team. With our support the proposal was adopted,” recalled Chicago Bears owner George Halas."
Mara spoke along the same lines, also per Wills:
"“People come to see competition. We could give them competition only if the teams had some sort of equality, if the teams went up and down with the fortunes of life. Of course, that meant that no team would in the future win a championship every third year and people would start saying, ‘What’s happened to the Giants? They aren’t the team they used to be.’ That was a hazard we had to accept for the benefit of the League, of professional football and of everyone in it,” commented New York Giants owner Tim Mara about the new arrangement."
What remained unsaid by both was an equally important reason to put the new process in motion by the league. It would eliminate bidding between multiple teams for available talent. A draft would be an ideal way to keep payroll costs under control. Unless sold or traded, players could only play for the team that drafted them.
On Feb. 8, 1936, the owners gathered in Philadelphia for their annual meeting and got down to the business of putting the first NFL Draft in motion. Each team submitted a list of players and Carr wrote the 90 names on a blackboard. With that many players to choose from the owners decided to expand the selection process from five rounds to nine.
As owner of the 2-9 Eagles, Bell selected first, taking Berwanger, even though Bell knew he would never be able to sign him. Word was out that Berwanger would be asking for $1,000 a game to play professionally, and Bell usually topped out at about $150. Fortunately for Bell, though, Halas wanted the local college star for the Bears and traded veteran tackle Art Buss to Philadelphia for Berwanger’s NFL rights.
Before considering playing in the NFL, Berwanger wanted to finish his studies at the University of Chicago and also had his eye on a spot on the 1936 U.S. Olympic Team as a decathlete. After failing to make the cut, Berwanger turned his attention towards negotiating with Halas.
In an interview with the New York Times from 2002, Berwanger had this to say of the time:
"”He asked me what I wanted,” Berwanger said years later. ”I said $25,000 for two years and a no-cut contract. We shook hands, said goodbye, and he and I have been good friends ever since. They just couldn’t afford to pay that kind of money. But if I was getting out of school today with the kind of publicity I had then, I’d be playing pro.”"
Actually, a college player bypassing the NFL wasn’t unusual for the time. After graduation, college players were expected to take their degrees and leave games behind. According to Pro Football Reference, only 28 of the 81 players selected in the 1936 NFL Draft ever played in the league. Ironically, the Eagles were the only one of the nine teams that failed to sign even one of their picks.
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Of the 28 who did play, four had Hall of Fame careers. The Bears selected tackle Joe Stydahar out of West Virginia with the sixth-overall pick. At the end of the second round with pick No. 18, the Giants hit the jackpot with fullback Tuffy Leemans out of George Washington University.
It took six more rounds for another Hall-of-Famer to emerge. At No. 65, the Boston Redskins selected end Wayne Millner from Notre Dame. Finally in the ninth and final round, the Bears grabbed guard Danny Fortmann out of Colgate.
Here are a couple of final tidbits from that first draft. The third selection overall was playwright/poet Bill Shakespeare by the Pittsburgh Steelers — wait, scratch that. Actually, this Shakespeare was a halfback out of Notre Dame, but he may as well have been the one from Stratford-upon-Avon, England. Both played the same number of games in the NFL: zero.
A true notable from that draft, who also never played a down for pay, was end Paul “Bear” Bryant out of Alabama, taken in the fourth round by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Bryant became an assistant coach at Alabama for the 1936 season. After four years, he moved on. You may have heard, however, he returned to the Crimson Tide in 1958 as head coach where he won six national titles in 25 years.
The NFL Draft has grown into a three-day event that that needs an NFL built city in the center of Philadelphia to contain the television, radio and internet media outlets that want a part of the festivities. It didn’t have an easy birth, but there’s no arguing with its success for the league as the draft returns to its origins.