The first NFL draft
Today, the NFL Draft is a prime-time event. The multi-day extravaganza is preceded by months of mock drafts, dedicated draft publications and people making a living solely analyzing the draft. However, the first NFL draft was held in relative obscurity.
Bert Bell, the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles and future NFL Commissioner, came up with the idea as a way to keep the league from going broke. He introduced the concept at the league meeting in May of 1935. His thought was that the stronger teams would always attract the best college football players. Since Bell’s team had struggled – they had only won 9 games since their inception in 1933 – he wanted a shot at top collegiate talent.
The official league minutes state:
SUNDAY, MAY 18, 1935 at the Fort Pitt Hotel, in Pittsburgh: Motion by Bell, seconded by Marshall, that the following rule relative to the selection of players entering the National League for the first time become operative beginning with the season of 1936:
(1) At the annual meeting in February and each succeeding year thereafter, a list of first year eligible players to be presented by each club and their names placed upon a board in the meeting room for selection by the various clubs. The priority of selection by each club shall follow the reverse order of the championship standings of the clubs at the close of the preceding season; for instance, the club which finished last in either division to be determined by percentage rating shall have first choice; the club which finished next to last, second choice, and this inverse order shall be followed until each club has had one selection or has declined to select a player; after which the selection shall continue as indicated above until all players whose names appear on the board have been selected or rejected.
(2) Any first year player who was not chosen or whose name does not appear on the list referred to above is eligible to sign with any club in the league.
(3) If for any valid reason it would be impossible for a player to play in the city by which he has been selected, or the player can show reasonable cause as to why he should be permitted to play in a city other than that designated for him than through such arrangements as can be made by sale or trade with another club, he shall be permitted to play in the city he prefers if the president of the league approves his reasons as valid. (The fact that a job is to be secured for a player in any city as an added incentive to sign a contract shall not be considered sufficient reason for his transfer from the club by which he has originally been selected.)
(4) In the event of controversy between a selected player and a club, the matter shall be referred to the president and his decision shall be accepted by all parties as final.
(5) In the event a player is selected by a club and fails to sign a contract or report, he shall be placed on a Reserve List of the club by which he was selected.
(ALL CARRIED UNANIMOUSLY)
The first draft was held February 8-9, 1936 at the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia. Approximately 90 players were on the board. After the first five rounds, Bell moved that the draft continue for an additional four rounds. George Preston Marshall of the Boston (now Washington) Redskins seconded the motion. The motion carried unanimously.
The Eagles had the first draft pick, as a result of their 2-9-0 record in 1935. They selected Jay Berwanger, the All-American halfback from the University of Chicago. Berwanger won the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy after the 1935 collegiate season. That trophy was renamed the Heisman Trophy, after the club’s athletic director: John W. Heisman, who passed away in 1936. Along with the trophy, he won a trip for two to New York City. According to the National Football Foundation, Berwanger said, “No one at school said anything to me about winning it other than a few congratulations. I was more excited about the trip than the trophy because it was my first flight.”
However, the Eagles had a problem with their first pick. Berwanger was hesitant to play professional football. First, he wanted to finish his studies at Chicago. Next, he wanted to maintain his amateur status in order to try out for the 1936 U.S. Olympic team. He had aspirations of becoming a decathlete at the Summer Games. According to the Associated Press, Berwanger said, “I haven’t decided what I will do. I may play professional football next fall, because of its practical advantages. I might take a coaching job, although it is my ultimate intention to enter business in preference to making a career in professional athletics. For the time being, I am mainly interested in finishing my courses at Chicago, graduating next June, and then trying to win a place on the Olympic team.”
After failing to make the Olympic team, Berwanger started negotiating to play professional football. Rumors leading up to the draft had Berwanger asking for $1,000 per game. The average at the time was approximately $200 to $250 per game. The Eagles’ best offer was $150 per game. Failing to reach an agreement, the Eagles traded his rights to the Chicago Bears for tackle Art Buss. A report came out in 1948 that the trade was actually arranged before the draft. According to the report, Halas knew that the Eagles needed players and would not be able to pay Berwanger his asking price. Halas would send a player or two to Philadelphia if the Eagles drafted Berwanger. In exchange, the Bears would get the local star.
Now that the trade was finalized, it was George Halas’ turn to try and reach a deal with the star player. Berwanger reportedly asked for $25,000 per year to play for the Bears. Halas balked. After additional negotiations, Berwanger dropped his asking price to $15,000 per year. Halas never went above an offer of $13,500 per year. A deal was never reached and Berwanger never played professional football.
From 1936 through 1939, Berwanger coached football at the University of Chicago. He also wrote a column for the Chicago Daily News. He died of lung cancer in 2002, at the age of 88.
Over the history of the NFL draft, Berwanger was one of only two first picks to not play a down in the NFL regular season. The second was Ernie Davis, the Syracuse star running back. In 1962, Davis was selected by the Washington Redskins, as well as the Buffalo Bills of the rival American Football League. He was diagnosed with Leukemia in 1962 and passed away in 1963.
The second selection of the draft (and the first draft pick to play professional football), was Riley Smith out of Alabama. The versatile All-American could play practically any position. He was selected by the Boston Redskins. According to Bob Barnett of the Professional Football Researchers Association, Smith said, “I signed because I wasn’t ready to quit playing ball. I just wanted to keep playing. I signed for $250 a game and a little bonus. We won the Eastern Division championship twice and made the NFL championship once in the three years I played and the most I ever got was $350 a game. I made more money in the off-season. I quit in 1938 and took a coaching job at Washington and Lee for a lot more money. But we had it good because some of those fellas down in Philadelphia were playing for $60 and $70 a ball game.” Smith’s career was cut short by injury. After retiring from coaching football, Smith became a real estate developer. He passed away in 1999.
The Eagles failed to sign any of their 1936 draft picks. After going 1-11 in the 1936 season, they again had the first draft pick for the 1937 draft, which they used to select Sam Francis out of the University of Nebraska. He did not sign with the Eagles, either. Their second pick was used to select Fran Murray out of the University of Pennsylvania. He did sign, as well as their third pick Drew Ellis out of TCU. The remaining seven selections never played a down of profes sional football in the NFL.
Four future Pro Football Hall of Famers were selected in 1936: Joe Stydahar, Tuffy Leemans, Wayne Millner, and Dan Fortmann.
In 1976, Halas was quoted to have said, “The National Football League college draft has been the backbone of the sport and is the primary reason it has developed to the game it is today.”
Here is how the 1936 NFL Draft played out:
Ken Crippen is the former executive director of the Professional Football Researchers Association. He has researched and written about pro football history for over two decades. He won the Pro Football Writers of America’s Dick Connor Writing Award for Feature Writing and was named the Ralph Hay Award winner by the Professional Football Researchers Association for lifetime achievement on pro football history.
Follow Ken on Twitter @KenCrippen