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How the NFL Draft went from a newspaper clip to national phenomenon

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As strange as it may seem, it hasn’t always been a glitzy TV show.

2013 NFL Draft Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

The NFL Draft started for just about the reason you’d expect: teams had grown tired of bidding against each other for the best college players.

In 1935, Bert Bell — then co-owner of the Philadelphia Eagles — was having difficulty competing with the strongest franchises of the period, and he had seen too many top college players signed to contracts by more successful teams like the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, New York Giants and Washington Redskins.

So in a league meeting in the spring of 1935, Bell proposed a system where each team would submit a list of college players in which they were interested. The lists would be combined into a pool, and then the teams would take turns selecting from the pool by reversing the previous season’s standings.

“I’ve always had a theory that pro football is like a chain,’’ Bell told the other owners, according to the 2009 biography by Robert Lyons later quoted by the Boston Globe. “The league is no stronger than its weakest link and I’ve been a weak link for so long that I should know. Every year, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Four teams control the championships... Because they are successful, they keep attracting the best college players in the open market, which makes them more successful.’’

“I made up my mind that this league would never survive unless we had some system whereby each team had an even chance to bid for talent against each other,’’ Bell later told the Associated Press.

The owners approved the idea, and the first NFL Draft was held at Philadelphia’s Ritz-Carlton hotel in February 1936. The names of 90 college seniors were written on a chalkboard, and 81 were selected over nine rounds. But only 28 of them would be signed to contracts after being selected; the process where players declare themselves eligible for the draft was long in the future, and teams didn’t have scouting departments. They simply submitted their lists based on newspaper articles they’d read about college football players — and many of those players had no interest in playing in the NFL.

One such player was Byron White. A Rhodes scholar who had already announced he had no desire to play professional football, “Whizzer” White was nonetheless drafted by Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney and enticed to play in the 1938 season after being given a $15,000 guaranteed contract — about $270,000 today — thereby proving that the new draft wouldn’t necessarily save the owners any money.

White led the league in rushing that year and then left the team. He came back to the NFL in 1940 to play two seasons with the Detroit Lions before joining the Navy in 1942. Returning to his studies after the war, he became a lawyer — and eventually, the only NFL player to become a Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Something very similar happened almost sixty years later. BYU offensive tackle Eli Herring was projected to be an early-round pick in the draft. But Herring — a devout Mormon — had made it clear he was not willing to play on Sundays. The Oakland Raiders drafted him anyway, and tried to bring him in to the league with a large contract. Herring — with no chance at a Supreme Court seat — decided he’d rather teach high school.

Bert Bell is credited with inventing the NFL Draft, but his core concept — that parity between teams would ensure the league’s success — today permeates nearly all professional sports. The league rewarded him by making him NFL commissioner in 1946, an office he held until 1959.

And you already know his most famous quote: “On any given Sunday, any team in the NFL can beat any other team.”


The new draft had its growing pains.

Starting in 1947 — oddly enough, during the tenure of Bell as commissioner — the first pick of the draft was given to a team chosen in a random lottery. This egalitarian concept was installed so that every team would have a chance at the first pick once in a while. That concept died after 1958 — but not until it had been used to pick Hall of Famers Chuck Bednarik and Paul Hornung.

For a while, it wasn’t even called “the draft.” During World War II, the NFL was concerned how families whose sons had been drafted to fight overseas would feel about players being drafted to play pro football, so until the end of the war it became known as the Preferred Negotiations List.

With such a catchy title, it shouldn’t be a surprise that not everyone paid attention. Besides — as people used to say at the time — there was a war going on. In 1944, the Eagles drafted Syracuse fullback Norm Michael, but Michael had no idea it had happened; the Eagles couldn’t locate him because he had enlisted in the Army. He didn’t learn of his 20th-round selection for 55 years, when he happened to see a list of Syracuse players who had been drafted by the NFL. ”My son sent them a letter after we found out,” Michael said. “I think he wanted to see if the Eagles owed me a signing bonus.”

Even into the 1960s, teams operated with very little information, as Gil Brandt told the Washington Post in 2014.

Gil Brandt, an analyst for NFL.com, remembers his first draft, in 1961, when he worked for the Dallas Cowboys. The ballroom of the Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia was stocked with magazines, newspaper clippings and a roll of quarters. Executives would scour the magazines for insights, paying close attention to stories on all-conference selections. If more information was necessary, they would take quarters to the hotel pay phone and call college coaches for advice.

But even Brandt hasn’t always followed his draft board. Just last week — speaking at a forum covered by columnist Kevin Sherrington — Brandt said he failed to do it only once.

That would have been the 1979 draft, when the Cowboys were set to take a quarterback from Notre Dame in the third round. Tom Landry reminded everyone that they already had three quarterbacks — Roger Staubach, Danny White and Glenn Carano — and there was no room for a fourth. So instead they selected Doug Cosbie, a tight end.

”Played pretty good for us,” Brandt added, diplomatically, “but he wasn’t Joe Montana.”

In seems impossible to imagine, but the NFL Draft wasn’t always such a big deal to most fans. Until ESPN saw the potential of a live telecast of the selection process in 1980, the draft was just something you read about in the newspaper the next day — and until the scouting process became more refined, there was a lot more of a seat-of-the-pants feel to the annual proceedings.

In 1971, legendary Redskins coach George Allen — who famously favored veterans over drafted players — traded Washington’s 1973 first-round pick to the New York Jets, and then later traded that same pick to the Los Angeles Rams. Then he did the same thing with his second and third-round picks.

Astonishingly, nobody noticed until the next year — but by then, the trades had given Allen four players that would help propel the Redskins to the playoffs for the first time in decades. Once the league office found out, the Redskins were reportedly fined $5,000 — about $30,000 today — and forced to make it up to the other teams involved.

Allen said it was all an honest mistake, but according to ESPN, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle wasn’t so sure. “It also happened a couple of times when Allen was coach at Los Angeles,” he said. But Allen had been the head coach of the Rams before coming to Washington. Why wasn’t Rozelle paying attention?

The next year, Hall of Fame quarterback Norm Van Brocklin — then head coach of the Atlanta Falcons — was apparently out of ideas by the time the 17th round arrived. He stood up in the draft room and yelled, “Do we want the roughest, toughest S.O.B. in the draft?” Everyone shouted their assent, and as was the custom at the time, The Dutchman called the league office and said he wanted The Duke — telling them the Falcons were picking “John Wayne of Fort Apache State.”

Rozelle didn’t think it was funny — perhaps because he’d had his fill of draft shenanigans the previous year — and didn’t allow the pick. But Van Brocklin got credit for knowing about one of the best John Wayne westerns.

Such a thing couldn’t happen today.

Televising the draft eventually turned into a ratings bonanza for ESPN and (eventually) the NFL Network. TV exposure — and the dawning of the Internet age — has generated a cottage industry that Bert Bell could never have foreseen. Dozens of draft analysis sites compete for your attention. YouTube entrepreneurs produce highlight videos by the hundreds, hoping to generate enough clicks to line their pockets. Nationally-known draft pundits can leverage their celebrity into jobs as NFL general managers, and even a team-centric sports website can produce its own Draft Guide that can be purchased for just $9.99.

See what I did there?

The 40th annual telecast of the NFL Draft begins on Thursday night. We’re not likely to see the kinds of moments I’ve highlighted here — aside from the occasional GM who fails to trust his board — but there will still be plenty of drama. By Saturday night, we’ll know the names of the eight seven nine six five... new members of the Kansas City Chiefs.

Set your DVR.