The first draft of the new century will be the 64th
in National Football League history. And it will be a far cry from the
first one that took place February 8, 1936.
Bert Bell, former NFL Commissioner and owner, came up
with the idea of the draft, reasoning that it would give some help to
weaker teams by providing them with first crack at top college players.
Before that 1936 draft there was what was known as open signing - players
being allowed to sign with any team.
That first draft was held at the Ritz Carlton Hotel
in Philadelphia, a hotel owned interestingly enough by Bell's family. The
format had clubs selecting in reverse order of their finish, with the last
pick going to the league champion no matter its record.
The National Football League of 1936 had only nine
franchises: Boston Redskins, Brooklyn Dodgers, Chicago Bears, Chicago
Cardinals, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, New York Giants, Bell's
Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That first NFL draft had nine rounds, and 81 players
were selected in total. Since the Eagles had the worst record in 1935,
they got the first pick in the draft - Heisman Trophy (then referred to as
the Downtown Athletic Trophy ) winner Jay Berwanger, a halfback from the
University of Chicago.
But Berwanger claimed he had no interest in playing
pro football with the Eagles, so he was traded to the Chicago Bears. But
George Halas could not convince Berwanger to play for the Bears.
The number two pick did sign and did play. He was
Riley Smith of Alabama who was picked by the Boston Redskins.
For the record, the other players picked in the first
round of that first National Football League draft were: Brooklyn - Dick
Crayne, B, Iowa; Chicago Bears - Joe Stydahar, T, West Virginia; Chicago
Cardinals - Jim Lawrence, B, TCU; Detroit - Sid Wagner, G, Michigan State;
Green Bay - Russ Letlow, G, San Francisco; New York - Art Lewis, T, Ohio
U.; Pittsburgh, Bill Shakespeare, B, Notre Dame.
The draft was a tribute to the visionary nature of
those football owners who deeply believed in the concept of the greatest
good for the greatest number, and what was good for the league. Those
owners were men like Tim Mara, Curly Lambeau, George Halas and Bert Bell,
a man who even sold tickets on the street to push his Philadelphia
By the late 1940s the draft was increased to 30
rounds, and by the mid-1990s it was radically reduced to just seven
From a struggling and limited organization, the
National Football League has grown and prospered through the decades. The
draft is not the least of the influences that made the league thrive. It
has been one of the most crucial ideas implemented by the NFL, keeping the
league competitive and varied throughout its history.