February 8, 2011

1936: First NFL Draft Held

The NFL’s annual draft of college talent has become a big and highly-anticipated offseason event. The brainchild of Eagles owner Bert Bell (who would go on to become league commissioner; pictured at right), the first one was held at Philadelphia’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel on February 8, 1936.

Bell’s Eagles had come into being in 1933 and were a struggling club. With teams free to sign any player coming out of college that they wanted, strong clubs had an advantage in the bidding for talent and Bell recognized that this was bad for the overall competitive balance of the league. His suggestion that the NFL organize an annual draft, in which the weaker teams would get first choice of the best talent coming out of the college ranks, was adopted by the owners on May 19, 1935. While the format of the draft has changed over the years, the basic element in which the teams draft in inverse order of their finish during the previous regular season has remained the same.

The first draft consisted of nine rounds, with the Eagles, owner of the NFL’s worst record at 2-9 in 1935, going first and the Giants, who had gone 9-3, choosing last (Detroit had won the Championship game over New York, but had a lesser regular season record at 7-3-2. Currently, the NFL champion drafts last in each round, regardless of regular season record).

With the first overall pick, Philadelphia chose the Heisman Trophy-winning back from the University of Chicago, Jay Berwanger (pictured at left). Berwanger had no interest in playing pro football, and the Eagles ended up trading his rights to the Bears, who also had no luck in signing him.

The second choice, HB Riley Smith from Alabama, did play two seasons for the club that drafted him, the Redskins, but his career was cut short by injury. The first five picks were all backs (Bill Shakespeare of Notre Dame by Pittsburgh, Iowa’s Dick Crayne by Brooklyn, and Jim Lawrence of TCU by the Cardinals). The first lineman chosen was tackle Joe Stydahar by the Bears, with the sixth overall selection, and he went on to a Hall of Fame career.

Including Stydahar (pictured at right), four of the players chosen in the 1936 draft ended up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The others were FB Tuffy Leemans of George Washington, taken in the second round (18th overall) by the Giants; end Wayne Millner of Notre Dame, picked by the Boston Redskins with the 65th overall choice in the eighth round; and Colgate G Dan Fortmann, another selectee of the Bears, taken in the ninth (and final) round as the 78th overall choice.

End Paul “Bear” Bryant of Alabama was selected by the Dodgers in the fourth round, but he passed up pro football for the more secure opportunity of becoming an assistant coach at the college level (he was offered $175 per game to play for Brooklyn). Of course, he would go on to have a long and outstanding career as a college head coach.

The last player chosen, G Phil Flanagan from Holy Cross, was taken by the Giants but played instead with the Boston Shamrocks of the rival AFL (second version). In total, 81 players were selected by the nine teams.

While the introduction of the draft didn’t have an immediate effect on the league’s competitive balance – the Eagles, for instance, again had the league’s worst record during the 1936 season – over time teams like Philadelphia and the Chicago Cardinals were able to contend for and win championships in the late 1940s, helped significantly by players obtained through the draft. It would become a pattern that other clubs would emulate in the decades that followed.