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Today, NFL Presents Its 50th Draft With Appropriate Fanfare : In 1936, It Wasn't Such a Big Deal

April 30, 1985|MARK HEISLER | Times Staff Writer

At 5 o'clock this morning, the National Football League began its 50th draft, making it appropriate that we remember for a moment the nine pioneers who held its first.

This would be especially nice, since no one paid any attention to them that day.

It was Feb. 8, 1936. The nine pioneers weren't spread out all over the country connected by telephone conference hookups, but gathered in a meeting room in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia. The site was a testimony to the influence of Bert Bell, then owner of the Eagles. So was the fact that they were having a draft.

"Bert Bell was the father of the draft, I would say," said the Steelers' Art Rooney, at 84 the lone surviving owner of that era, from Pittsburgh. "It was supposed to help the weaker teams. I don't know if it did or not. It didn't seem to help us."

In a radical innovation, Bell's plan let teams choose in reverse order of their finish. Guess which team had just finished last? Everyone who said the Eagles, take one step forward.

NFL Commissioner Joe Carr said that the draft would prevent "promiscuous scrambling" for top prospects. Years later, owner George Halas of the Chicago Bears said that he was the one being held responsible for some of the promiscuity, that it was his wild spending sprees that his fellow owners wanted to curb.

The Bears had been a ruling power since the NFL's inception in 1921 because Halas would pay top dollar, at least when that entailed just three digits. Take his star lineman, Ed Healey. One season Halas, needing a tackle, called up the owner of the Rock Island Independents, who owed him $100, and offered to take Healey in settlement. The rest, of course, is football history, or pre-history. Healey is in the Hall of Fame.

In the first draft, the owners chose from among 90 names that had been chalked up on a blackboard. There wasn't a lot of media pressure on them. The early Christians didn't have much more privacy when they were meeting in the catacombs.

The few newspapermen present at the draft sat at the tables next to the men they were covering and helped them pick. When they tried to file stories, their editors told them to keep it short. The New York Times' coverage of the meeting was three paragraphs, under a headline that said, "Player Plan Is Adopted." It mentioned no players' names and said, mistakenly, that the draft would be held at the end of the season. A story on cricket in India was given more prominent play.

The Times ran 10 paragraphs, most of them about a Los Angeles bid for a franchise, under a headline that said, "Six Eastern Pro Grid Teams to Appear Here." No players' names were mentioned in that dispatch, either.

The prospective draftees weren't sitting in their living rooms with minicams rolling every time they picked up the telephone. There was no TV coverage, live, cable or otherwise. Of course, there was no broadcast TV then.

Jay Berwanger, the fancy halfback from the University of Chicago, the first Heisman Trophy winner who also became the NFL's first pick, didn't know that a draft was being held, or what one was. He says now that he found out about his selection in the newspapers.

Berwanger didn't sign a big-money contract or any other kind of contract, either. He said he couldn't afford it. Instead, he took a $25-a-week job in a rubber company.

"My timing was no good in those days," said Berwanger, now 71 and a wealthy businessman, laughing from his Chicago office.

Companies at that time had no interest in letting employees take six months off a year to rush the old pigskin. There was still a Depression, jobs were scare and a man needed to grab something he could count on.

Football at that time was dominated by the colleges. The pros paid peanuts. Ivy League stars aspired to jobs in business. The NFL was the province of young men looking for a couple of years of a post-graduate lark, or roughnecks with less chance of obtaining seats on the Wall Street exchanges.

But some things were familiar, too. The forerunners of many current draft day trends were already present:

--Scouting--You can't have a draft without advance information, and the nine owners had their sources.

"We didn't do too much scouting," Rooney says. "You'd buy newspapers. You'd get newspapers from the different cities of the players that you were interested in. You'd buy magazines, things like that. You'd get the Little All-America teams. You (writers) were the scouts."

That explains everything.

--Combines--It was a little early for BLESTO (Bears Lions Eagles Steelers Talent Organization). The first combine may have been scout Fido Murphy, who worked for both the Bears and Steelers.

Rooney said it was great fun, watching Murphy run back and forth between the Steeler and Bear tables on draft day. If it sounds like a situation rich in conflict-of-interest potential, the only dispute seems to have been a more basic one, over who was to pay Fido.

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