Who Was The First Ever NFL Draft Pick?

Tomorrow marks the start of the NFL draft. Football fan’s everywhere are counting down the minutes until they will find out who their team will pick.

For months the top prospects have been examined and evaluated by teams, fans and the media. Who will go #1? Will it be Johnny Football, Jadeveon Clowney or one of the other dozen players rumored to be atop the draft?

All those questions got me wondering about the first pick. No, not this year’s first pick. Not even last year’s first pick. I am talking about the very first pick.

For today’s Wonder Why Wednesday, I want to know who the very first ever pick was in the inaugural NFL draft.

According to Wikipedia, the first ever NFL Draft took place in 1936 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia. The draft was created as a way to even the playing field amongst the league’s teams. The last place team from the previous season would get the first selection, and the process would continue in reverse order of the standings. The Philadelphia Eagles finished 1935 with a 2-9 record, so they had the first pick.

With the first pick in the first ever NFL Draft, the Philadelphia Eagles selected Jay Berwanger, halfback from the University of Chicago.

Berwanger won the 1935 Heisman trophy and was seen as a future NFL star. He was a gifted athlete who competed on the Chicago track & field team and set the university’s decathlon record (a record that would stand from 1936-2007).

Turns out maybe he was a little too athletically gifted.

After taking him with the first pick, the Eagles did not think they would be able to meet the salary demand of $1,000 per game that Berwanger reportedly wanted, so they traded his rights to the Chicago Bears for tackle Art Buss.

Berwanger initially chose not to sign with the Bears in part to preserve his amateur status so that he could compete for a spot on the U.S. team for the 1936 Summer Olympics in the decathlon.

Unfortunately Berwanger missed the Olympics cut, but he was still not able to reach an agreement with Bears’ owner George Halas. Berwanger wanted a salary of $15,000 and Halas would only offer up to $13,500. Unable to reach a deal, Berwanger took a job with a Chicago rubber company and never played a down in the NFL. Riley Smith, the second pick in the 1936 draft, became the first player drafted to play in the NFL.

What a fascinating story!

In today’s age of $100 million contracts, it seems crazy that a team would be unable to sign their #1 pick just because of a $1,500 difference. It almost is a little sad that the first guy ever drafted into the NFL didn’t play a single down in the league. Maybe that was somewhat foreshadowing that teams can never know if their #1 picks will turn out to be superstars or busts.


Photo credit: Wikipedia