The year was 1935. The Philadelphia Eagles had just completed their third season and again finished at the bottom of the division. In the infancy of their existence, the Eagles had won a sum total of nine games.
At the time, every college football graduate was a free agent, able to sign with whichever team they desired. The blue-chip players usually signed with the teams that offered the largest contract. That was annually the New York Giants, Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions, clubs which had larger stadium venues and sizeable gates. Another team, the Green Bay Packers, also offered large contracts to players, although their stadium was a third of the size of their big-city neighbors.
From the inception of the NFL in 1920 until 1935, those four clubs had won nine league titles collectively and numerous championship game runner-ups.
Bert Bell, owner of the Eagles, had made an observation. With the top four teams always in title contention while the rest of the league floundered, the bottom-tier clubs were the franchises which failed financially, folded, relocated and were poorly attended every season.
Bell surmised that the process by which NFL teams formed their rosters had to change.
At the subsequent winter owner’s meetings, Bell told his audience that he had a theory that pro football was like a chain—the league is no stronger than its weakest link. He proposed that at the end of each season, the league should pool the names of eligible college seniors and then make selections in reverse order of the standings.
Essentially, this would force good players to play for bad teams, which would make bad teams better. Then attendance would increase, and competition for the league title would become more intense, and teams would be in the hunt longer.
The word “draft” was never used in Bell’s proposal, but once approved, the media called the procedure what it was. And thus, the NFL draft was born.
On February 8, 1936 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia, an historic event took place in the annals of the NFL. The very first college player draft was held.
The first-ever draft was comprised of nine rounds. The Eagles, oddly enough, selected first, having posted a 2-9-0 record in 1935. The first player selected was Jay Berwanger, a running back from the University of Chicago. Berwanger was the first winner of the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy, which would be renamed the Heisman Trophy the following year. He was known as the “one-man football team” for his powerful runs and bruising style.
Berwanger never played for the Eagles. The problems before the draft were also problems once the draft was instituted. Berwanger demanded $1,000 a game. The Eagles subsequently traded his rights to the Bears, one of the more financially-stable teams in the NFL.