The Forgotten History of the Draft

With the 2017 NFL Draft drawing near, it is only appropriate to pay respect to the often forgotten man who started the draft.

He was the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles from 1933-40, and eventually League Commissioner from 1945-59. Does that ring any bells? Probably not.

Bert Bell, a name that many sports fans do not have much knowledge of, came along and decided to call for a system that gave teams equal opportunities to secure players. Bell is the reason that the NFL has a draft.

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Bert Bell, Owner of the Philadelphia Eagles. Photo by Abbie Rowe via Wikimedia

Prior to putting the draft into action, teams recruited players on college campuses, and the biggest, best teams seemed to always get their man. At the time, the NFL was dominated by a few teams that were in competition and had most of the money. The New York Giants, Chicago Bears, Washington Redskins, and Green Bay Packers were the strongest teams with the strongest pull, thus acquiring the top talent around the country and creating much disparity in the NFL.

It was an unprecedented mission. Bell, owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, visited the University of Minnesota in 1933. He wanted to negotiate a contract with the star fullback and linebacker Stanley Kostka. After a failed negotiation, Kostka signed with the NFL’s Brooklyn Dodgers.

Bell’s deepened disappointment further perpetuated his mission.

“I made up my mind that this league would never survive unless we had some system whereby each team had an even chance to bid for talent against each other,” Bell told the Associated Press.

At a league meeting in the 1930’s, Bell proposed his idea to the other owners. Bell suggested that there was a need to create parity in the league. He recommended that teams would file into order, with the worst franchise from the previous season picking first, giving weaker teams a chance to pick some of the country’s top talent.

The strong teams, at first, objected. However, Bell was able to swing them his way.

On February 8 and 9, 1936, the NFL held its first draft at the Ritz Carlton in Philadelphia (happened to by owned by Bell’s family).

90 names were written on a blackboard in the meeting room for teams to choose from. No team had a scouting department at the time, so their lists were created from print media sources, visits to local colleges and recommendations to team executives. The draft lasted for nine rounds and there was no media coverage.

The first-ever Heisman Trophy winner, Jay Berwanger from the University of Chicago, was the first player ever taken in an NFL draft. The Eagles ended up trading his rights to the Bears and considering pro football wasn’t a very lucrative career in those times, Berwanger never actually played in the NFL.

Nevertheless, the draft was an immediate success, and proved to be a solution in a top-heavy league with an uncertain future.

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Media Coverage of the Draft. Photo by Marianne O’Leary via Wikimedia.

Did the draft save pro football? A case could be made that Bell saved the game entirely.

Often forgotten is the man behind the ticking clock of each fairly organized round that goes by. Bell is a name that should resonate in sports history, especially this time of year.

Feature Image by Marianne O’Leary

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