in the beginning there was... jay berwanger?!

By George Somerville

George kicks off his series of articles on the History of the Draft with a trip back to the beginning. Where it all started.  

Despite moving the Draft successfully around different cities in recent years, the NFL Draft remains synonymous with New York City.

However, a great pub quiz question is where was the first Draft held and who was the first player ever drafted?

Don’t know? Read on….

In the Beginning

Winning breeds success and success equals money. Subsequently, the most successful teams make more money and can afford the best players.

Therefore the premise of the Draft is simple. It is designed to distribute those players coming through the college system evenly and fairly. The principle benefit of this is that every team has the chance to compete for a Championship.

And it’s as true today as it was in 1935 when it was created.

In 1935 the game was dominated by the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, New York Giants and as was back then, the Boston Redskins (who relocated to Washington D.C. in 1937).

In the previous year the Eagles had been frustrated by the inability to sign Stan Kostka, a player from the University of Minnesota. Kostka was widely considered as the best player in college and was pursued by every team in the league.

In the end, two teams were left in the bidding war, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Dodgers were bankrolled by wealthy owner Dan Topping and were able to outbid the Eagles.

Bert Bell who was the co-owner of the Philadelphia Eagles was vocal about his team’s lack of competitiveness . Bell complained that his team’s prospects of winning were hampered by the best players from College joining the wealthier teams. 

At a league meeting Bell and the Eagles  proposed to hold a draft. This was designed to allow teams to select or trade players to ensure an equitable position for each team. 

The proposal was unanimously accepted by the team’s owners with the first ever draft scheduled for February 8th, 1936.

The City of Brotherly Love

Jay Berwanger with the very first Heisman Trophy

So, back to that pub quiz. 

Where was the first draft held? Well it was hosted by the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia. 

Not quite the glitzy affair it is now, the names of 90 players were written in chalk on a blackboard for teams to choose. 

That first draft lasted for 9 rounds and there was no media coverage. In fact there were no scouting reports either with team views based on reports in newspapers, visits to local colleges or personal recommendations.

The Philadelphia Eagles were first on the clock and selected Jay Berwanger a halfback from the University of Chicago. 

Jay Berwanger was a superstar of the college game and was nicknamed the “one man team”. So good was Berwanger he had also been the first recipient of the Heisman Trophy, although  in 1936 it hadn’t yet been named after John Heisman at this point. That was still to come. 

All that glitters is not Gold

In what would become a precursor for years to come, the Eagles could not come to agreement on Berwanger’s contract.  The first pick was subsequently traded to the Chicago Bears. 

While it was the first, this was not to be the last time that the first pick in the Draft would be traded away. 

Berwanger was traded for tackle Art Buss, who went on to play four seasons for the Eagles. In a bizarre twist, Berwanger couldn’t agree terms with the Bears either and left never having played football professionally. 

Shortly after, Berwanger missed out on a spot in the 1936 US Olympics team as a Decathlon athlete. Berwanger’s promising sporting career ground quickly to a halt and he took up a role working for a rubber company. He got back into the game as a part time coach at his alma mater, the University of Chicago.

Jay Berwanger in action for the University of Chicago. Photo credit : University of Chicago Archives

New York, New York

By 1937, the Draft had moved to the Hotel Lincoln in New York City. By this time the draft had moved to 10 rounds with 100 players available for selection. This Draft included selections for the newly created expansion team, the Cleveland Rams.

While this was the first time that the Draft had been held in NYC, it continued to move around the US until 1960 when it became the home of the NFL Draft. 

It would be another 50 years until NYC would relinquish her grip on the Draft.

Mock Draft

george somerville

College football writer