Did you know that before 1936, top college athletes could sign with whoever they wanted once eligible for the NFL? This meant they could land with teams offering top dollar, or they could even go chase championships in an effort to build powerhouses.
The point is, there was no NFL Draft yet. New arrivals entered the league in a way similar to the current free agency process. Except we didn’t have Adam Schefter to deliver the news with a tweet yet.
Bert Bell petitions for first NFL Draft to occur in 1936
All of that changed thanks to former Philadelphia Eagles co-owner Bert Bell (not the Twitter thing, that came much later). He was tired of not selling tickets or being able to compete with the Bears, Packers, and Giants of the industry. So he set out to do something about it that would change how football prospects entered the league forever.
Instead of what was a college prospect bidding process, Bell’s idea was to petition the league for an NFL Draft. As other owners caught a whiff of Bell’s plans to level the playing field, the idea picked up momentum.
Once it came time to vote on the rule change, it was unanimous in Bell’s favor. That was that. The NFL has held a player’s draft every year since.
Philadelphia Eagles had first-ever NFL Draft pick
Just as the order goes today, the draft was set up so the teams with the worst records would have the first chance at adding top talent to their roster. And of course, the team who won the Championship or Super Bowl would pick last in each round.
After coaching the Eagles to a 1-11 record, Bert Bell had his team in a position to make the top pick for the first-ever draft in 1936. Does this make the ‘36 Eagles the first team to tank for draft picks? Possibly.
Back then, there were only nine teams. And there were nine rounds. For general managers today, drafting back then would have been great, but also a complete crapshoot. More so than it is now. Selections were untimed, giving teams as long as they needed to make a decision. The biggest problem was a massive lack of information.
Teams reportedly would research prospects using newspaper clippings and whatever else they could dig up using their social network at the time.
The NFL even had each team create a list of their top ten college seniors to submit to the league. Once the names were compiled, they went up on a blackboard for all organizations to see.
NFL Draft’s first pick turned down the opportunity to play pro football
So, who was the first pick of the first-ever NFL Draft? Probably a name most have never heard of. Chicago running back Jay Berwanger, the first-ever Heisman Trophy winner, went No. 1 overall.
Even though Howie Roseman wasn’t around, the Eagles still found a way to botch their first-round selection. In this case, Berwanger turned down his chances of playing in the NFL, never even playing a down. Instead, he pursued a career as a foam-rubber salesman.
Starting in 1947, a lottery system was implemented. This was initially known as “The Bonus Pick”. The draft order was the same, except now each team had a chance to win a lottery that would give them the top overall pick. That process continued until 1958.
In 1948, the Eagles were already a great team, yet they won the top pick in the draft thanks to the lottery system. This time, they drafted a Hall-of-Famer by the name of Chuck “Concrete Charlie” Bednarik. While believe it or not, he earned that nickname for his offseason work as a concrete salesman, his play on the field matched the moniker just as well.
“On any given Sunday, any team in the NFL can beat any other team”
What a legacy. From spawning an idea that eventually led to the movie title itself, Any Given Sunday, to how true that statement still remains in the NFL all these years later. Believe it or not, Bert Bell is a major reason why football remains the most popular sport in America today.
Of course, the game itself is extremely exciting, but the NFL Draft has become the biggest event of the football offseason. While Bell likely didn’t realize the magnanimous potential such an event had when he petitioned for it back in 1935, he knew there had to be another way.
Looking back, the NFL should be extremely grateful for such an idea. I’m surprised the event itself isn’t named the annual Bert Bell NFL Draft or something similar.
Maxwell Football Club’s Bert Bell Award carries on legacy
However, the Maxwell Football Club annually presents the Bert Bell Award, given to the Player of the Year in the NFL. The award is presented yearly at their football banquet, but no such event occurred in 2020. The most recent winner was Lamar Jackson in 2019. Peyton Manning, Randall Cunningham, and Johnny Unitas have each won the trophy three times.
While I’m just learning of Bell’s attachment to the quote: “On any given Sunday, any team in the NFL can beat any other team”, it’s a mantra football fans have heard for decades.
Before researching, I admit, I had no clue of Bert Bell’s involvement, but the “Any Given Sunday” mentality is what draws many spectators to the sport. Just the thrill and excitement of truly never knowing what’s going to occur, with the knowledge that any team can show up and beat the crap out of their opponent when the game counts is what causes so many enthusiasts to keep coming back.
Despite what all the betting lines suggest and even what some players say prior to kickoff, the end result can lead to millions of surprised witnesses on game day.
And that’s what makes the NFL so compelling and suspenseful. Unless the Any Given Sunday feeling fades, the National Football League will have a piece of gold on their hands with billions of fans to follow.