THE FIRST NFL DRAFT
Andy Reid Didn't Invent Bad Eagles Drafts
The first NFL draft was, in many ways, a grand success for Bert Bell.
The Eagles' patrician owner had devised the idea nine months earlier, selling it to his colleagues as a way to maintain a competitive balance and, not insignificantly, hold down salaries.
It eventually would be successful and was a major step on Bell's journey to the NFL commissioner's post, a job he assumed a decade later.
Still, Feb. 8, 1936, ended up being a pretty lousy day for the man who founded, owned, named and coached the Eagles.
Bell's Eagles, you see, couldn't sign Jay Berwanger, the No.1 overall selection and the winner of the first Heisman Trophy.
They couldn't sign their second pick either.
Or their third and fourth.
In fact, the Eagles signed none of the nine players they drafted that day, 72 years ago yesterday.
Bell responded by signing 12 free agents - five from area colleges - to stock the team he would coach in 1936 and for the next four seasons.
It didn't work. The Eagles, 2-9 under Lud Wray in 1935, finished 1-11 in 1936.
Concerned by his team's 9-21-1 record in its first three seasons, Bell sought a way to help the Eagles compete with richer clubs that could better afford to buy the best college talent.
In May 1935, he proposed a draft. Teams would pick college seniors in reverse order of the teams' finish. The other owners, eager for a way to stop bidding wars, agreed.
Since it was Bell's baby, that first draft was held in Philadelphia, in a conference room at the grand hotel that stood across Broad Street from the Bellevue-Stratford.
The drafting bore little resemblance to the quasi-science it would become.
The nine men who sat around a large table that brisk Saturday morning - including Chicago's George Halas, New York's Tim Mara and Pittsburgh's Art Rooney - had little firsthand knowledge of players they were about to select.
"We used to go down to the train station on Saturday night and buy the out-of-town newspapers to read about the college games," Rooney once told a writer. "We also looked in the press books of various schools, read magazines and all-American lists."
Bell knew Berwanger, a University of Chicago halfback, had won the initial Heisman - then awarded to the best player east of the Mississippi - so he took him with the first-ever selection.
But Berwanger had an opportunity to get into a new plastics venture in Chicago and was reluctant to sacrifice that opportunity for the kind of paltry salaries the NFL was paying.
Riley Smith, a back from Alabama who was the No. 2 overall pick, by Rooney's team, then called the Pirates, signed for $250 a game. Several of Bell's Eagles were earning $65 to $75 a game.
Bell phoned Berwanger, who was insistent about not coming East - at least not for anything less than $1,000 a game. Eventually the Eagles' owner became convinced and, later that same day, traded the pick to the Bears for a tackle named Art Buss.
Comedy of errors
In many ways, the first draft was a comedy of errors, perhaps an apt title for the event since Rooney's Pirates made Bill Shakespeare, a Notre Dame back, their No. 1 choice.
Shakespeare signed, but of the 81 players taken in nine rounds, 49 did not. Only 24 were on the opening-day rosters of the nine teams. It reflected pro football's status as something not far removed from pro wrestling.
Among those who couldn't come to terms was an end from Alabama named Paul "Bear" Bryant. The future Crimson Tide coach was the fourth-round pick of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The last player taken, Holy Cross guard Pat Flanagan, the ninth pick of the New York Giants, also didn't sign.
"Owners often compiled their draft lists from well-worn copies of Football Illustrated magazines," wrote Bob Barnett, a Pro Football Researchers Association member. "Then they got ready to talk contract in the low four figures."
The owners did get a few things right. Four future Hall of Famers, only one from the first round, were selected that Saturday in Philadelphia: tackle Joe Stydaher, the Bears' first pick; back Tuffy Leemans, drafted second by the Giants; end Wayne Millner, chosen eighth by the then Boston Redskins; and guard Dan Fortmann, taken ninth by the Bears.
Halas later acknowledged the choice of Fortmann was pure luck. He said he liked the sound of his name. Fortmann decided to play only when the Bears agreed to let him attend medical school.
Bell's idea hadn't helped his Eagles much, and it wouldn't help his hotel, either. It, and every Ritz-Carlton except the flagship in Boston, would close by the end of the decade, victims of the Depression.
In Philadelphia the next morning, the papers reported little on the unusual new event. Draft coverage was even more scant in papers elsewhere.
"Neither the fans nor the the players knew the draft was taking place," wrote Barnett, "and frankly [they] did not care."
Berwanger, meanwhile, got rich in Chicago. Until he donated his Heisman to his alma mater before his death in 2002, he used the trophy as a doorstop.