Tuesday, July 16, 2024

The NFL Draft wasn’t always a grand event


Jay Berwanger, the University of Chicago halfback who won the first Heisman Trophy, which was then known as the Downtown Athletic Club trophy in 1935, was always amused in interviews with how big the National Football League became. The fact that there are now Sports News just for the draft, in which Berwanger was chosen as the first-ever No. 1 pick by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1936, would likely astonish the man who passed away at the age of 88 in 2002. The NFL, which was still in its infancy, was perceived to be as inferior to the college game.

Berwanger wanted to sign for $1,000 a game, too rich for the Eagles’ blood, and his rights were dealt to the Chicago Bears. However, he didn’t sign with Chicago right away because he wanted to still be viewed as an amateur to compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics in the decathlon. When he didn’t make the U.S. team, Berwanger didn’t sign a contract with Bears owner George Halas, who refused to meet his price of $15,000. While Berwanger had a successful non-football career, he would later regret not taking the offer.

Berwanger unsure of what to do with the trophy won and gave it to her grandmother, who used it as a doorstop. Here are some other interesting stories about the early days of the NFL Draft.

Call me ‘Bill’ Shakespeare

Berwanger wasn’t the only first-round pick in 1936 to decide to pass on professional football. The Pittsburgh Pirates, who weren’t renamed the Steelers until 1940, chose William Shakespeare with the third pick in the draft. Shakespeare, who was chosen to the College Football Hall of Fame for his time at Notre Dame as a halfback and punter, decided football didn’t pay enough.

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Shakespeare would go on to serve in the U.S. Army during World War II, fighting in the European theatre. Following the war, Shakespeare would continue his work with the Cincinnati Rubber Company, which hired him in 1936. He eventually became the company’s president in 1960.

A long, fruitful career

Joe Stydahar was selected with the sixth overall pick in the first draft by the Chicago Bears. The native of rural Kaylor, Pa., was a 6-foot-4, 233-pound standout lineman who had starred at West Virginia. Stydahar would be the only player out of the eight chosen in the inaugural draft to reach the Hall of Fame.

As a player, Stydahar was a five-time All-Pro whose career spanned from 1936-1942 and 1945-46 with the Bears. His career was interrupted by a two-year stint in the U.S. Navy where he served as a lieutenant and a gunnery officer. As a player, he won three NFL titles.

But his career extended as a head coach. Stydahar had a successful three-year stint as the Los Angeles Rams’ coach, compiling a 17-8 record from 1950-53. He led the Rams to two appearances in the NFL title game, beating the Cleveland Browns 24-17 in the 1951 game to win the championship. Stydahar then returned to Chicago for an unsuccessful two-year stint as head coach, where he had a record of 3-20-1. Stydahar was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967.

Riley Smith says I’ll play if no one else will

Out of the top three picks in 1936, Alabama quarterback Riley Smith became the only one to ever see time on the NFL gridiron. However, the Boston Redskins first-round pick didn’t get a lot of time to show off his talents. Smith, who was chosen second, played three seasons and 30 games with the Redskins.

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During his first two seasons with the club, he only missed three minutes in 26 games. Smith, who helped the Redskins win the 1937 championship, did a little of everything. He passed for 290 yards and three touchdowns in his career, caught 18 passes for 300 yards and three touchdowns, and booted 11 field goals. An injury would end his season halfway through the 1938 season. 

Smith would later try his hand, unsuccessfully, at coaching in the collegiate ranks. In his only season with Washington & Lee in Virginia, the Generals finished 1-6-2 overall and 1-2-2 in the Southern Conference. Smith would go on to serve in the U.S. Navy during World War II before becoming a real estate developer in Alabama.

Ignacio Javier
Ignacio Javier

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