A Brief History of — The NFL Draft

Enormous media coverage surrounds today’s NFL draft. It wasn’t always that way. Bob Griese told us he didn’t know the draft had taken place – even though he was the fourth-overall pick. Players from The Game before the Money era often learned their pro football destinations through newspapers, college coaches, and friends. It apparently wasn’t until the 1970s that teams called players during the draft.

YEARS BEFORE THE DRAFT

Chaos often surrounded acquiring talent before the draft existed. Don Hutson signed with both the Green Bay Packers and the NFL’s Brooklyn Dodgers after his college career at Alabama ended. NFL President Joe Carr awarded Hutson to the Packers since the Packers mailed their contract just a few minutes before the Dodgers. Hutson helped lead the Packers to 3 NFL titles and still holds NFL receiving records 8 decades later.

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Don Hutson.

The Philadelphia Eagles and the NFL’s Brooklyn Dodgers both highly desired Minnesota All-American Stan Kostka in 1935. Kostka deftly fueled a bidding war, signing a sparkling $5,000 contract with Brooklyn. Philadelphia owner Bert Bell didn’t like being outbid, and scoffed at a rookie’s salary rivaling superstar Bronko Nagurski’s. Bell proposed a player draft to keep rookie salaries down, and to give lower-tier teams a better chance at top-tier talent.

Bell’s draft proposal passed, and the NFL held its first draft in 1936. The Eagles selected Heisman winner Jay Berwanger, who opted for a higher salary in foam-rubber sales. The Boston (now Washington) Redskins selected Riley Smith.

The draft succeeded in keeping salaries down. Smith signed for $250/game, far below Kostka’s deal. The draft, however, failed to balance out talent. The Packers, Giants, and Bears won 7 out of the last 9 championships before the draft, and also won 7 out of the first 9 championships after the draft’s initiation. Curly Lambeau apparently scouted players at bowl games, as Nolan Luhn and Bob Kahler told us he approached them after the Orange Bowl and the Rose Bowl, respectively. Other teams didn’t scout as well, some drafting ineligible players who were still in college.

The first NFL draft netted 4 Hall of Famers – Wayne Millner, Tuffy Leemans, Dan Fortmann, and Joe Stydahar. Brooklyn selected coaching icon Paul “Bear” Bryant in the fourth round.

NFL DRAFTS AFRICAN AMERICAN ATHLETES

Pro football integrated in 1946, with Kenny Washington and Woody Strode playing for the Los Angeles Rams, and Hall of Famers Bill Willis and Marion Motley suiting up for the Cleveland Browns of the AAFC. They all, however, signed as undrafted free agents. The Chicago Bears made George Taliaferro the first African American to be drafted in 1949. “I thought it was the most incredible thing that could happen,” Taliaferro said when interviewing for The Game before the Money.

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George Taliaferro.

Taliaferro signed with the AAFC’s Los Angeles Dons before the NFL draft, however, and honored that contract. He earned AAFC Rookie of the Year honors. The NFL later held a dispersal draft of AAFC players after the AAFC’s demise, and Taliaferro was the second-overall pick. The Lions snatched future Hall of Famer Lou Creekmur in the dispersal draft.

 

THE BONUS PICK

The NFL instituted the “Bonus Pick” in 1947. Paul Hornung explains in The Game before the Money: “First pick of the draft in those days was a bonus pick. Each team put their name in a hat, and you drew them out. Four­teen teams; here comes the bonus pick. After that the draft starts in predetermined order: 1, 2, 3, 4. Next year, the thir­teen remaining teams were eligible for the bonus pick.”

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“The Golden Boy” at Notre Dame.

Congress investigated the NFL, among other pro sports leagues, for antitrust violations in the 1950s. Congress declared the “Bonus Pick” too close to a lottery and suggested the NFL halt the practice. The NFL did so after the 1958 draft, conveniently after each team had selected one “Bonus Pick.”

The Congressional pressure demonstrates societal changes. What was unacceptable in 1958 is now celebrated as part of today’s NBA draft. Teams covet “Lottery Picks” and sports fans eagerly watch the “NBA Draft Lottery.”

AMERICAN FOOTBALL LEAGUE EFFECTS

The American Football League held their first draft in 1960. Some players were drafted by both leagues, and the two leagues warred over players.

Teams used scouts as “babysitters” to protect their draft interests. The babysitters would travel to a prospective draft pick’s college, wine and dine them, and do their best to keep the athlete from signing with the rival league. Walt Garrison said a Rams scout took him and his friends out to dinner, bought him a pair of boots, and then stayed in a hotel room with him during the NFL draft. The scout left the instant the Cowboys beat the Rams in drafting Garrison.

Tony Lorick signed with the Baltimore Colts, although the Colts hesitated in drafting him. The Colts heard a rumor that Lorick had already signed with the Oakland Raiders as their first-round pick. Unsurprisingly, Raiders owner Al Davis proved to be the source of the rumor.

Davis wouldn’t lose out on Fred Biletnikoff the next year, however. He signed Biletnikoff on the field at the Gator Bowl, national television cameras all around. Fred’s Florida State team had just defeated Oklahoma. It wasn’t the first time Davis signed a Hall of Famer on the field. He signed Arkansas standout Lance Alworth to a contract beneath the goal posts following the 1962 Sugar Bowl.

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Biletnikoff flying high in the Gator Bowl.

The shenanigans surrounding Chiefs legend Otis Taylor depict the lengths babysitters would go to protect draft interests. A group of NFL scouts took Taylor and several other draft prospects to a motel in Richardson, Texas, checked in under assumed names, and hoped to keep the draft picks there to keep them from signing with the AFL. A Chiefs scout close to the Taylor family learned Taylor’s whereabouts, and tried to sneak into the hotel as a journalist, using a camera as part of his disguise. An NFL scout recognized the Chiefs scout, and subsequently called police reporting the Chiefs scout as a suspicious person. Despite threats from the police, the Chiefs scout snuck Taylor out of the NFL scouts’ motel at 3:30 in the morning, promising a new Ford Thunderbird.

The battles changed the course of destiny for teams. Imagine Taylor playing alongside Hall of Famer Tommy McDonald, catching passes from Eagles quarterback Sonny Jurgensen. Picture Hall of Famer Ron Mix next to Jim Parker on the Baltimore Colts offensive line. The Bills won back-to-back AFL titles after losing Hall of Famers Carl Eller and Paul Warfield to the NFL. Would the championship run have lasted longer and into the Super Bowl era?

The two drafts provided leverage to rookies drafted in both leagues. Some players, like Joe Namath, Donny Anderson, and Jim Grabowski, negotiated huge contracts. Namath famously collected over $400,000, Anderson scored $600,000.

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Namath and the Bear.

Not all players based decisions on money. Garrison said he wanted to stay close to his Texas roots, and preferred the Dallas Cowboys to the Kansas City Chiefs. Eller enjoyed Minnesota, and was happy to sign with the Vikings rather than create a bidding war between Minnesota and Buffalo.

The two leagues merged in 1966. Grappling over draft picks stood as a large contributing cause.

SUMMARY

The draft now gets dissected and diced in ways Bert Bell would have never imagined. The NFL Combine tests prospects where a mere index card asking for player stats in the 50s and 60s served the same purpose. Bob Griese learned the Dolphins drafted him when an assistant coach off-handedly mentioned it while crossing paths in the hallway. Now players sit by the phone with their agents and friends, watching the draft unfold on ESPN.

Some teams built their dynasties and legends around drafts. The Steelers 1974 draft produced Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert and center Mike Webster – all Hall of Famers. The Packers scored Forrest Gregg, Bart Starr and Bob Skoronski in 1956, then Jim Taylor, Ray Nitschke, and Jerry Kramer in 1958. The Bears netted Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus with back-to-back first round picks in 1965. Dallas selected Roger Staubach, Bob Hayes, and Mel Renfro in 1964.

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Staubach quarterbacking the Navy Midshipmen.

Drafts remembered for being especially rich include the 1983 draft. Known for producing legendary quarterbacks John Elway, Dan Marino, and Jim Kelly in the first round, Hall of Famers Bruce Matthews, Darrell Green, Eric Dickerson and Richard Dent also entered the league. The 1957 draft launched 9 Hall of Famers, including 4  of the first 8 picks. The 1964 draft contained a record 10 Hall of Famers. Many declare the 1989 draft the best modern draft. Four of the first five picks – Troy Aikman, Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas, and Deion Sanders – all found their way to Canton.

 

READ THE NFL DRAFT STORIES OF NFL LEGENDS IN THE GAME BEFORE THE MONEY

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Classic NFL Games — 1962 NFL Championship — First Half

In honor of the NFL playoffs and the recent passing of Allie Sherman, we examine an overlooked classic. This is part one of a two-part series. I’ll write the game’s action in present tense, hopefully giving a feel for the events unfolding live.

The 1962 NFL Championship was a heavyweight showdown. The prizefighters were the Green Bay Packers, entering the game with a 13-1 record, and the 12-2 New York Giants who hadn’t lost since mid-October. Both head coaches – Allie Sherman and Vince Lombardi – had been assistants with the Giants under Jim Lee Howell.

The teams didn’t meet in the regular season. Their last rendezvous was the 1961 NFL Championship at Lambeau Field, a 37-0 Packer victory. The Giants hungered to avenge the embarrassment. Fans also wanted revenge. A “Beat Green Bay! Beat Green Bay!” chant thundered from the stands, and one fan hoisted a “OK YA – Make Green Bay Pay” sign in the end zone seats at Yankee Stadium.

Fifteen future Hall of Famers lined up that day. The Packers offensive line boasted two, plus Jerry Kramer, for whom many fans vehemently advocate HOF membership. The Giants defensive line countered with their own Hall of Famer in Andy Robustelli, plus two All-Pros — Rosey Grier and Jim Katcavage. Dick Modzelewski was no slouch either.

The teams not only fought each other, but also fierce cold. The official temperature was 20 degrees at kickoff, and dipped to 14 by the final gun. Tolerable football weather, but the 25-30mph winds that gusted up to 45mph made it feel much colder. Vince Lombardi Jr. remembers feeling colder than during the Ice Bowl.

FIRST QUARTER

The wind fittingly blows the ball off the tee before Willie Wood kicks off. Rookie Earl Gros holds it for Wood, and Joe Morrison returns the ball to the Giant 30. The Giants start on the ground. Three straight handoffs – one to Alex Webster and two to Phil King – establish the running game nicely. The Giants move to their own 46.

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Alex Webster was a key part of the Giants offense for a decade.

Y.A. Tittle drops back and gets pressured up the middle. He spots All-Pro receiver Del Shofner wide open on the sideline, but overthrows him. We soon find out how Shofner got open. A 15-yard offensive pass interference penalty gets marked off, and the Giants have 1st and 25 on the 31. Webster gains 11 back, but two incompletions force the Giants to punt. Don Chandler’s punt nearly gets downed by Mickey Walker at the 2, but bounces into the end zone. The Packers score the first break with a touchback.

Paul Hornung runs for two yards. Erich Barnes forearm clubs Hornung in the head, long after the whistle. What would be a penalty, fine, and possible suspension today doesn’t raise an eyebrow.

Jim Taylor, the league’s leading rusher and MVP, takes the ball 10 yards to the Packer 34. Bart Starr hits Ron Kramer for another 10 yards. Taylor then exacts revenge for Hornung by plowing over Barnes on a sweep, en route to 14 yards. The Packer offense is cruising, and is across midfield.

Starr throws an incomplete pass, however, and then Taylor fumbles on a draw play. Jerry Kramer pounces on the ball — a second early break. Green Bay runs a screen to the right to Taylor. He scampers to the Giant 29, picking up a first down. After a 3-yard run, Green Bay sets up a screen to the left to Taylor. Fuzzy Thurston’s block springs him to the 19.

NFL PLAYOFFS

The refs measure for a first. Kramer, who started the game with a fractured rib, leaves the field. The refs take a bit to decide it’s 3rd and 1, and Kramer runs back to the huddle. He doesn’t even miss a play.

Taylor takes the ensuing handoff, but Dick Modzelewiski, Rosey Grier, and Sam Huff combine to stop the play cold. Lombardi chooses the field goal. Kramer, who took over kicking duties after Hornung’s mid-season knee injury, boots it through the swirling winds and between the uprights. The Packers lead 3-0.

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The mighty wind kicks up Yankee Stadium’s dirt.

Sam Horner makes a nice kickoff return to the Giant 38. Phil King rushes for 5 yards, Alex Webster for 3. Tittle then completes his first pass of the day, a strike to Shofner that puts the Giants at the Packer 33. Tittle goes right back to Shofner for another 8 yards. A screen to King gets to the 16, and the Giants look poised to take the lead.

Ray Nitschke has other ideas. He stuffs King on a draw play, then charges Tittle on a 2nd and 9 throw. Nitschke deflects the pass, which becomes the equivalent to a pop fly for Packer linebacker Dan Currie. Currie intercepts the ball and has clear sailing to the end zone. Currie’s injured knee begins wobbling, however, and he collapses around the Packer 40.

Two incomplete passes later, Paul Hornung runs towards the right end, appearing to look downfield to throw. He keeps the ball, however, and scampers to midfield for a first down.

Taylor gets stuffed by Andy Robestelli and Jim Patton. He now has 7 carries for 38 yards. On 2nd and 10, Starr hits Ron Kramer at the Giant 34. That makes 6 first downs for the Packers already. Taylor takes the ball on the next three plays, and Huff, Katcavage, and Patton team up to stop him. Huff hits Taylor well after the whistle on 3rd down, but under 1962 rules the ref pays no mind. Perhaps he’s just thankful Ol’ Sam didn’t plow into him by accident.

The first quarter ends with the Packers missing a field goal. Kicking with a fractured rib in 35mph winds can do that to a guy, I guess.

SECOND QUARTER

The Giants dodge the turnover bullet and start on their own 20. They alternate handoffs to King and Webster. Three runs give them a first down at their 32. The Giants shift gears, but throw three straight incompletions. The wind really affects the passing game today. Frank Gifford would say, “(Tittle) threw one at me which I started to catch, when the wind caught it and it suddenly flew 10 feet over my head.”

The Giants punt. Rookie Jim Collier smothers return man Elijah Pitts as he catches it. The Packers set up shop at their own 32. Both teams have had pretty good field position thus far, but it hasn’t amounted to many points. Hornung runs the sweep behind fine blocks by Kramer and Thurston, and breaks an Erich Barnes tackle. Hornung bursts for 6 more yards on a draw.

It’s a beautiful thing to watch Paul Hornung run. He dodges defenders with miniscule lateral movements that maintain his forward speed. He doesn’t cut so much as gracefully run around people.

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Jim Taylor takes the next handoff, and his forward progress carries him to the Giant 47 and a first down. Again, Huff and Barnes provide extracurricular violence after the whistle, this time in the form of a headlock. Taylor, who needed stitches for his elbow at halftime, noted that he and Huff exchanged uncouth words. While shouting, Taylor accidently bit his tongue.

Starr misses on first down, and on second the Giants stuff a screen to Taylor. Starr fades back on third, skids on the slippery turf, and throws a dart to Boyd Dowler for a first down at the Giant 33.

Dick Modzelewski gets even on the next play, sacking Starr for an 11-yard setback. The Packer drive stalls, and Max McGee’s punt is downed at the Giant 5. The first time anyone’s been bottled up in their own territory.

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Modzelewski played 14 NFL seasons.

Alex Webster picks up 9 yards on 3 carries. Nitschke, Bill Quinlan, Willie Davis, and Herb Adderley all provide tackling assistance. The Giants punt.

The Packers fare no better on their subsequent possession – 3 rushes, no first down. Grier and Huff punctuate the Giants swagger by thumping Taylor for a 4-yard loss on third. Max McGee’s short punt puts the Giants at their 29.

Three Packers close in on Tittle, but Tittle deftly lofts a screen to Phil King for 6. On second down at the 34, Dan Currie pops King at the line of scrimmage, forcing a fumble. The ball bounces into the Giants backfield, behind two unaware Giant linemen, Darrell Dess and Ray Wietecha. Ray Nitschke recovers for Green Bay.

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The Packers give to Hornung. He rolls right. He abruptly pulls up and floats a pass to Dowler at the Giant 8. Forrest Gregg and Jerry Kramer trade blocking assignments for the next play. Jim Taylor follows center Jim Ringo’s block and plows into the end zone. Kramer connects on the extra point and it’s 10-0 Packers with 2:39 left in the half.

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Ringo didn’t know if he’d play in this game. A pinched nerve removed feeling in his right arm. He couldn’t snap with his right hand, and switched to using his left.

The ball again blows off the tee on the ensuing kickoff. The gusts reportedly tore two stripes off the American flag, and at one point the swirls had flags blowing in opposite directions. Earl Gros holds the ball for Willie Wood, and Johnny Counts takes it from the 9. He bursts up a middle seam, and breaks all the way to the Giants 41 before Wood makes a shoestring tackle. New York’s special teams have produced excellent return yardage thus far.

Webster runs for 3, taking us to the 2-minute warning. There is no commercial break on the broadcast, much different than today’s NFL. On 2nd and 7, Gifford runs a deep route and tight end Joe Walton flares right. Tittle hits Walton at the Packer 41, and Walton scurries out of bounds to stop the clock.

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Joe Walton scored 9 TDs in 1962.

Henry Jordan and Bill Quinlan stuff Phil King on first, and then Tittle misses Gifford and Walton on second and third down. The drive stalls on the Packer 39. The wind takes Don Chandler’s field goal attempt far right.

1962 rules place the ball back at the Packer 20. The Packers run out the clock and take a 10-0 lead into halftime.

SUMMARY

The wind stifles the passing game, the Giants major strength. Lombardi would state he wished to surprise the Giants with his own passing attack, but the weather prevented it. Turnovers and random football bounces have consistently helped the Packers and hurt the Giants.

Both teams are playing exceptional defense. The Giants style looks a more physical, smashmouth style. The Packers look more disciplined and designed, each man covering his own assignment.

Ray Nitschke and Alex Webster Square Off

Ray Nitschke also utilizes the headlock.

An Appreciation — Paul Hornung

(Painting by Robert Hurst)

Stories of Paul Hornung’s lifestyle often overshadow those of his football career. Many question how he won the Heisman Trophy on a 2-8 Notre Dame team. One blogger even wrote an exhausting article questioning Hornung’s Hall of Fame credentials. The “Golden Boy” might not live up to the standards of bloggers who never saw him play, but Vince Lombardi and Hornung’s teammates declared him essential.

COLLEGIATE CAREER

Hornung grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. Bear Bryant made a strong pitch for Paul to attend Kentucky, but Hornung’s Catholic upbringing gave Notre Dame the edge. Legendary coach Frank Leahy left after Hornung’s freshman year and Hornung never played for the coach who recruited him.

The Irish finished with the worst record in school history Hornung’s senior year. Many games must have seemed like it was 11 on 1. “I played every down in college. I led Notre Dame in rushing, passing, punt returns, and kickoff returns. I kicked off and punted. On defense I was second in tackles and first in interceptions,” he said. Moreover, Hornung led the Irish in touchdowns, and scored every point in their 21-14 win against North Carolina.

Imagine Tim Tebow leading the Florida Gators in 7 total offensive and defensive categories, while finishing 2nd nationally in kickoff returns. Stats like this earned Hornung the 1956 Heisman Trophy, and prompted the Heisman’s official website to proclaim him, “probably the greatest all-around player in Notre Dame’s history.” Iconic sportswriter Dick Schaap added, “In 1956 Notre Dame had a football team named Hornung. He passed. He tackled. He intercepted passes. Surrounded by the walking wounded, playing for a team crippled by injuries, Hornung was the whole show.”

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PRO CAREER

From 1947-1958, the first-overall pick of the NFL Draft was the “bonus pick.” Hornung explains in The Game before the Money: “Each team put their name in a hat, and you drew them out. Fourteen teams; here comes the bonus pick. After that, the draft starts in predetermined order: 1, 2, 3, 4. Next year, the thirteen remaining teams were eligible for the bonus pick. Pick a team out—they got the first [bonus] pick. I was the first pick of the 1957 draft.”

It’s interesting to learn why the bonus pick was eliminated, and to compare that reasoning to modern times. In the 1950s, Congress investigated the NFL and professional sports for violating anti-trust laws.  Congress told the NFL that the bonus pick bordered on an illegal lottery, and the NFL abolished the practice. The bonus pick was similar to today’s NBA Draft Lottery, considered completely acceptable in modern times.

The Packers floundered for Paul’s first two seasons, and Hornung floundered with them. He scored a mere 5 touchdowns and rushed for barely over 600 yards total in those two seasons. He bounced from halfback to quarterback to bench, never finding a permanent position.

Vince Lombardi turned Hornung’s career around. Lombardi, a former offensive coach for the New York Giants, appreciated all-around players, and thought he could use Hornung like he used Frank Gifford in the Giants offense.

Paul delivered in championship fashion. He won three consecutive NFL scoring titles, a feat which hasn’t been matched since. (Note: Stephen Gostkowski has a chance to do so in 2014.) Hornung’s 176 points in 1960 was a record that stood for 46 years. Think about that – his scoring record held up longer than both Babe Ruth’s and Roger Maris’ single-season home run records. Moreover, Hornung amassed his total in a 12-game season. LaDainian Tomlinson scored 186 points in a 16-game season, and is the only player in NFL history to eclipse Hornung’s mark. A current player would need to score over 236 points to best Hornung’s 14.7 points per game. A few NBA teams would probably like to get 14.7 PPG out of their players.

Hornung not only served the Packers, he served his country. Hornung missed 2 games in 1961 while stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas. President Kennedy arranged a furlough for Paul to play in the 1961 NFL Championship. “”Paul Hornung isn’t going to win the war on Sunday, but the football fans of this country deserve the two best teams on the field that day,” Kennedy said. Packer receiver Boyd Dowler also received a furlough to play that day.

The Packers routed the New York Giants 37-0 for their first of two consecutive championships. Hornung scored 19 points, still a record for an NFL Championship. In Michael O’Brien’s Vince, Hall of Fame teammate Henry Jordan commented on Paul importance to the Packers: “When Paul got that leave from the Army and walked into that locker room, you could just feel the confidence grow in that room.”

 

SUMMARY

Paul Hornung isn’t some magical being without flaws. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended him and Alex Karras an entire season for gambling. He unabashedly chased women. He consistently broke curfew.

He was, however, magical on the field. He scored 5 touchdowns in one game, three rushing and two receiving. He had 14 multi-touchdown games in a 9-year career cut short by a pinched nerve. Hornung also occasionally threw touchdown passes, including 2 in his epic 1960 season.

Paul Hornung — a legend both on and off the field.

NOTE: Two Paul Hornung quotes from The Game before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL are included in this article. Read Paul’s story and those of over three dozen other NFL legends here. Another great read on Hornung is That First Season by John Eisenberg, which chronicles Vince Lombardi’s first season with the Packers.

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