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Interesting tidbits about the NFL Draft

Posted Apr 23, 2007

Well, it's that time again -- time for the gods who command the pro franchises to decide which college kids get to turn in their '97 Honda Accords for '07 Porsches or Cadillac Escalades.

Well, it's that time again -- time for the gods who command the pro franchises to decide which college kids get to turn in their '97 Honda Accords for '07 Porsches or Cadillac Escalades.

And which ones get to move out of their dorm rooms and into homes with more square footage than the dorms themselves.

And which ones get the privilege of never having to put on an uncomfortable suit, sit over there, and please fill out this application.

Sound crazy? It should -- remember, the club execs who make these decisions usually wear cotton slacks and polo shirts with team logos on the left side, disregarding how foolish this ensemble looks on most middle-aged men.

And if you listen close, you can also hear the unmistakable sounds of the draft -- the herd of agents stampeding toward Manhattan, the twittering of 1,000 cell phones, and the booing of Eagles fans in the balcony as they disapprove of yet another first-round pick.

Yes, these are good times.

The draft has been around for awhile. The first one took place Feb. 8, 1936. To put some perspective on that, FDR was in the White House, Lou Gehrig's playing streak was a mere 1,653 games, and playing poker still involved eight guys sitting around a table with cigars and beer rather than one at his computer in his underwear.

The previous May, the owners got together and agreed they needed some fair and balanced way to assure that the weakest teams had the opportunity to acquire fresh, quality players. The method they came up with was simple -- teams with the worst record from the previous season would choose first from the talent pool. Thus, the lousier your organization did, the greater your reward. Sounds like one of those golden-parachute packages, doesn't it?

That first draft in '36 took place in Philadelphia's Ritz-Carlton Hotel. It was a bit more modest than the draft as we know it today. There were only nine teams back then. There were no cameras, no stages, no microphones, and no media coverage (although Bert Sugar was probably there). It wasn't anything close to what you would call an event -- it was simply a business meeting. Nine wealthy guys in a big hotel room.

The club that made the first official draft pick was the aforementioned Eagles, and the man they chose was John "Jay" Berwanger. Berwanger had recently become the first winner of the Heisman Trophy. He had been a standout back at the University of Chicago, plus a capable passer, receiver and kicker. He even left a "mark" on history, literally -- Michigan center and future U.S. president Gerald Ford, while in an onfield scuffle with Berwanger, sustained a cut just below his left eye, which eventually mellowed into a visible scar. (Incredibly, Berwanger was never audited during Ford's presidency.)

Berwanger didn't play a single down for the Eagles, or, for that matter, anyone else. Philadelphia signed away his rights to the Chicago Bears, but when Berwanger asked George Halas for a salary of $25,000 over two years, Halas released him, feeling the price was too high. Thus, this notable figure in football history never played in a pro game.

The Berwanger story is far from the only interesting trivial tidbit in the draft lexicon. Here are a few others, in no particular order --

1. Another player from the 1936 draft who never saw action in a league game was a Notre Dame running back taken as the third overall pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates. (What's that? Aren't the Pirates a baseball team? Yeah, they are -- but in 1936 this was also the name of the future Pittsburgh Steelers.) And check this out -- the name of the running back was William Shakespeare. No, really -- look it up.

2. For the first 12 years of the draft, the player picked first overall was either a quarterback or a running back, with one exception -- in 1939, the Chicago Cardinals took Charles Collins "Ki" Aldrich, a center from Texas Christian University (home of the Horned Frogs). Aldrich was a teammate of "Slingin' Sammy" Baugh, who once referred to him as, "The toughest player I ever knew." Aldrich was one of only two centers ever chosen with the first overall pick (the other was Chuck Bednarik, taken by the Eagles in 1949).

3. Twelve players who were taken first overall have made it to the Hall of Fame. The first was Bill Dudley, Steelers halfback, who was drafted in 1942 and elected in 1966. The most recent was Troy Aikman, Cowboys quarterback, drafted in 1989 and elected in 2006. Dudley won the Rookie of the Year Award, led his team in scoring in 1946 (even though he only played four games), and was nicknamed 'The Blue Bullet.' Aikman threw for nearly 33,000 career yards, won three Super Bowls, and is still waiting for a cool nickname.

4. Being taken first overall is great, but being No. 2 isn't necessarily a bad thing, either -- 11 of the players taken with the second overall pick have made it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. You just might recognize some of these names -- Sid Luckman, George McAfee, Y.A. Tittle, Ollie Matson, Merlin Olsen, Joe Namath, Tom Mack, Randy White, Tony Dorsett, Lawrence Taylor and Eric Dickerson. Other notable No. 2s include Roman Gabriel, Archie Manning and Marshall Faulk.

5. Feeling sorry for "Mr. Irrelevant" (the final person chosen in a draft)? Well, don't -- each year's winner of this title is honored with a week-long celebration ("Irrelevant Week") in Newport Beach, Calif. Festivities include a banquet, a golf tournament, and the bestowment of the "Lowsman Trophy" -- similar to the Heisman except the figure is fumbling the ball instead of running with it. If you want a laugh, do a Google Image search for it.

6. Some more Mr. Irrelevant stuff -- the M.I. from 1978 was Northern Colorado quarterback Bill Kenney. He was taken as the 333rd overall pick (man, at that point you turn the phone off and go to bed) by the Miami Dolphins. Not only did Kenney make it to the Pro Bowl (in 1983, with the Chiefs), he also spent eight years as a Missouri state senator. Not that irrelevant after all.

7. The American Football League (AFL) also had annual player drafts. The first, held in late 1959, was a testament to human endurance -- 33 rounds on the first day, and another 20 on the second. Basically, if you showed up, you got drafted (e.g., "Come on by, we'll give you a uniform and a helmet. Oh, and bring a friend, too.") Perhaps the most notable player to come from this draftathon was the great Jim Otto, taken by the Oakland Raiders. Ignored by scouts in the NFL, Otto went on to play in 308 consecutive games. He was known for his endurance, his toughness, and his unusual uniform number -- double zero. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1980.

8. With the inception of the AFL, the NFL had tremendous competition drafting new players. During the first half of the '60s, the latter often held their drafts in secret, before the AFL draft. Similarly, sometimes a player would be drafted by a team from both leagues (and then have to choose). A few teams even went so far as to "kidnap" players, keeping them in hotel rooms or team facilities until they agreed to sign with them.

9. The NFL holds its "other" draft, the supplemental, in the summer. Perhaps the best-known player chosen through the S.D. was Miami quarterback Bernie Kosar, taken by Cleveland in 1985. Kosar earned his degree a year early, and back in those days, it made him ineligible to play in college any longer. But, rather than declare for the draft the following April, he entered directly into talks with the Browns. Several other teams already had interest in him, and they weren't too pleased. But the Bills were -- they got four regular draft picks from Cleveland in compensation.

10. The New York Jets hold the record for most first-round picks in one draft -- four, which they had in 2000. The 18th pick was already theirs, and they obtained the 12th from San Francisco a few days earlier. The other two came from Tampa Bay in a trade -- the Bucs got receiver and noted author Keyshawn Johnson, and the Jets were given picks Nos. 13 and 27. (I believe they also got a big box of fluffy white towels and a used golf cart with a scratched-out Tampa logo on the front.)

I hope these little facts and figures will heighten your enjoyment of the 2007 NFL Draft. If not ... well, you're stuck with the information anyway, so deal with it.

Wil Mara's most recent novel, The Draft, is the first in a series that takes a fictional, behind-the-scenes look at the NFL. The second, The Cut, is due in October. Visit www.wilmara.com for more information.