The seeds of parity were sown some 70 seasons ago by Bert Bell, the Philadelphia Eagles' prescient general manager. The National Football League, still in its infancy, was a rich-get-richer proposition where players sold their services to the highest bidder. Bell, the future commissioner, proposed something radical: a draft of college players with the weakest team drafting first.
On Feb. 8, 1936, the league's nine teams convened at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia, where the Eagles, 2-9 in 1935, made University of Chicago halfback Jay Berwanger the first overall choice. The first winner of the Heisman Trophy never played a down, opting for a more lucrative career as a foam-rubber salesman.
The first draft was nine rounds in duration, but when World War II began depleting rosters, the number swelled to 30. The venues were grand old hotels like The Palmer House in Chicago, the Schroeder Hotel in Milwaukee and the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia. There have been more than 17 different sites -- Pro Football Hall of Fame archivists can't pinpoint the exact number -- and the format has changed significantly over time.
As recently as the 1970s, the NFL draft was not considered a big deal anywhere outside the NFL. That all changed in 1980, when a fledgling sports network, ESPN, televised the draft for the first time. Some 475,000 homes tuned in. Several years ago, a survey conducted by The Sporting News asked fans what event they considered "must-see" in April. The NFL draft earned 41 percent of the vote, nearly twice as much as NHL playoffs and well ahead of Major League Baseball and the NBA playoffs.
This year, the two most significant calendar days for the league's 32 teams are April 23-24, when the NFL conducts its annual draft at New York's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. Last year, the telecast reached more than 31 million viewers. What follow are some selected memories and observations of those who have been around the NFL draft for decades and watched it grow from a modest gathering of league officials to what has become a cultural and sociological phenomenon.
• Jim Gallagher, Philadelphia Eagles employee 1949-1995:
I started out as a 19-year-old kid, working with the G.M., collating information from our two scouts into loose-leaf binders. Back then, that was our personnel department. We'd try to keep a record on players, but it was difficult to get information from the colleges -- they weren't very cooperative. They were the kings of the hill. You could never get film unless you knew the head coach.
We'd get the game programs that had the roster, the players' heights and weights. We had a scout who used to carry around one of those bathroom scales, just to see if the rosters were accurate. The best way to get information was we'd give a college assistant -- sharp fellas who didn't make much money -- $50 or $100 for a rundown of his seniors.
In the end, you had to be lucky. Now, they go out to Indianapolis and have the [scouting] combine. They clock them and talk to them, give them psychological evaluations. The first time we ever saw a guy was when we signed him. And then Gil Brandt came along and changed all that. He went to college games and scouted the players. We were going by 100-yard times back then, and he started using 40-yard times -- we wondered, what the heck is 40 yards?
• Gil Brandt, NFL.com Senior Analyst and the Dallas Cowboys' vice president of player personnel from 1960-89:
My first draft was 1957 and I was 25, a part-time guy working for the L.A. Rams. Tex Schramm was the G.M., and he brought me to the Cowboys in 1960. My first draft with Dallas was 1961 at the Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia.
They had tables set up for the teams and you'd walk around, talking to guys. "Hey, I got two tight ends, I'll give you one for your first choice." Guys would come in with the Street & Smith Guide, the Billings Gazette because, at the time, nobody really went out and looked at players. You'd have a big roll of quarters -- they didn't have credit cards in those days -- and you'd go outside and call Pappy Lewis at West Virginia and say, "We need an offensive lineman or a running back," and he'd say, "There's a guy at such-and-such a school that played pretty good against us." And you'd go draft him. That was before everybody got into the scouting business.
• Joe Horrigan, vice president of communications at the Pro Football Hall of Fame:
In the late 1960s, early '70s, the Steelers and Cowboys, with Gil Brandt, really changed the way pro teams looked at the college players. They made a science of the scouting.
My first paycheck in pro football was as a runner for the 1965 AFL draft. Me and my brother Jerry would get the picks at the KLN building in New York and run them a few blocks away to the ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. I was 13. It was 50 bucks and all the desserts I could eat.
• Earl Biederman, Cincinnati Bengals scout, 1967-present:
I've got the picture of the 1968 AFL draft right in front of me. It was at the Belmont Hotel in New York, and it was the Bengals' first draft as a franchise. There were just a couple of posters on the wall, pretty bare bones. I was a national area scout, the guy on the phone at the table talking with the guys back in Cincinnati, Paul Brown and his son, Pete.
We drafted Bob Johnson, a center from the University of Tennessee, with our first pick, but what I remember was a [fourth-round] guy by the name of Jess Phillips, a defensive back from Michigan State. After we drafted him, an NFL guy came running up and told us we couldn't take him. Apparently, he was in jail. Well, Mr. Brown knew Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes, and eventually they got him out. He was a fine player for us.
To tell you the truth, the reason we left the Belmont was because there were more hookers there than guys making draft choices.
• Ernie Accorsi, New York Giants general manager:
I was with the Colts [as public relations director] in January, 1971. It was at the Belmont Plaza Hotel in New York, which no longer exists. I thought Vince Lombardi and Paul Brown would be sitting there, but it was just runners. There were no computers; we had everything written down in notebooks.
The thing you have to remember is, we were coming off the Super Bowl and we're talking about 40-man rosters. So with 17 rounds, you're looking at maybe two or three players making the team. In those early days with the Colts, we had Don Shula, Weeb Ewbank and George Young involved in personnel, but I'll tell you, we were operating by the seat of our pants.
• Bill Polian, Indianapolis Colts president:
I was a part-time scout sitting at the Chiefs' table in the 1978 draft, I think it was at the Sheraton in mid-town Manhattan. They had just a rope to separate you from the audience. There couldn't have been more than 100 people in the crowd -- they didn't call them draftniks yet. Me? I was pretty excited. In 1984, as the pro personnel guy with the Bills, I was actually involved in the decision-making process. We went 14 rounds, through the night, in one shot.
• Mel Kiper, ESPN draft analyst:
I was 18 years old, and in 1979 I decided to test the waters to see if the NFL draft could be a business. With limited resources, I busted my tail and put together a book on all the college prospects. I sent it to all the NFL teams and the media. I sat at home in Baltimore, just hoping I did a good job.
Well, I got a lot of letters back -- my father saved them for me. Don Shula, Ernie Accorsi, Bill Walsh, George Young … they all told me it was very detailed. They were very encouraging. From the beginning, Ernie was my biggest supporter. He encouraged me to make the information available to the public. He said, "Don't give it away -- sell it. Fans will crave that information."
I'll never forget that line. He said they would crave it, and he was right.
• Bob Ley, ESPN broadcaster 1979-present, co-anchored the first NFL draft telecast with George Grande:
Going in we all knew -- particularly Chet Simmons and Scotty Connell -- that the NFL was the single-most important thing ESPN could associate itself with. But that first telecast, well …
The day before, I've got my Joel Buchsbaum book and I'm writing out these three-by-five index cards in my tiny apartment. George was in New York and I was in Bristol, Conn. and we did it for more than eight hours. It was papyrus and Flintstones technology. A production assistant would go through the cards and hand me the one for the guy who got drafted. They trusted us to make it as interesting as we could, and we summoned every skill we had from our cable television backgrounds. We were just creating a conversation.
We only found out later that Scotty's orders were that if it wasn't working, sign it off and go to taped programming. I did 10 of those drafts before I was paroled by the Governor.
• Chris Berman, ESPN broadcaster 1979-present, host of NFL draft since 1987:
How did it all happen? How did it get so big? ESPN. Football was waiting to explode before we got there, but before it was put on TV, the draft was in agate mode. Now, you're bringing in all the college football fans. In places like Knoxville, Tenn. and Tallahassee, Fla. it's graduation day. You put them together with all the pro football fans and you've got something, there.
That's why they had to move the draft from Tuesday and Wednesday to Sunday and Monday [in 1988] and then Saturday and Sunday [in 1995]. It became the oasis in the middle of the desert for football fans.
• Greg Aiello, NFL vice president of public relations:
Basically, technology transformed the draft.
When I was the assistant director of PR for the Cowboys in 1980, we didn't have cable in the building. We had to get some company with a satellite dish to pipe ESPN in for our media. It kind of grew from there. This year, the NFL Network is doing 29 hours of draft-specific coverage, and now you can get video-on-demand profiles of the 50 top prospects so fans can scout the players themselves. It's pretty amazing.
• Len Pasquarelli, ESPN.com Senior Writer:
My first draft was 1982, me and a photographer working for the Pittsburgh Steelers Weekly. It was in New York and we were standing five feet from the Tampa Bay Bucs table when they turned in the wrong name. The card said Sean Farrell, guard, Penn State, and that's who they got. They wanted to take Booker Reese, a tight end from Bethune-Cookman. I'm just a novice, standing there, and the Bucs guys are dropping F-bombs and screaming into the phone.
The funny thing? They traded their 1983 first-round pick for the Bears' second-round pick and still got Reece. Turned out, he was a bust -- Farrell was a much better player
• Peter King, Senior Writer, Sports Illustrated:
I was covering the Bengals for the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1984, and this will tell you how much things have changed in 21 years: The Bengals had three first-round picks and a high second-round choice that year and in that quiet, two-newspaper media town, the guys on the staff, Sam Wyche and others, walked me through everything they wanted to do. So, the day of the draft I wrote that they would draft Ricky Hunley, the Arizona linebacker, then Pete Koch, the Maryland defensive end, Maryland quarterback Boomer Esiason and Stanford Jennings, the running back from Furman. And that's just what happened -- except that Boomer was their fourth overall pick -- all the way down to Brent Ziegler, the Syracuse fullback in the 10th round. Everything I wrote came true.
Today, that could never happen. You ask [Miami head coach] Nick Saban about the No. 2 pick and he'll dance around it for eight paragraphs. Now, the draft is more of a high-tech mystery game.
Vic Carucci, NFL.com National Editor:
They've been talking about this upcoming draft on talk radio for weeks. There have already been 10, 20 mock drafts since February and the board keeps changing. The pre-draft has taken on a life of its own. I don't want to say draft is anticlimactic, but the pre-draft -- with all the Internet chatter, sports radio and newspapers -- has become almost as significant as the draft itself.
If you think about it, the timing is pretty good. There's not a whole heck of a lot going on in the sports world. Baseball has just begun … , the Masters is usually over. Hockey [and NBA] playoffs are just getting underway. We're the only game in town.
I once heard a quote attributed to the late Pope, from early in his papacy. He said, 'If it's not on television, it's not happening.' He certainly was right. ESPN made it into an event and no small credit to Chris Berman.
I grew up rooting for the New York Giants in the 1960s and 1970s and they were hopeless and hapless. I never felt my team had a chance to be great. Today? I think the Arizona Cardinals have a heck of a chance to win their division.
Today, everybody has an NFL team that they love, and with 32 teams in the league you know going into the season that 27 or 28 of them have a legitimate chance to win. Tom Brady was passed over five times by every team in the league. If [rookie tight end] Ben Watson doesn't get hurt, maybe he goes to the Pro Bowl -- and the Patriots took him with the 32nd pick.
There's this great hope -- the NFL sells hope better than any other league.
It's 2005, and this is my 22nd draft working for ESPN. I knew the NFL draft was going to be a big thing. That's why I got into the business at 18. It's one prediction I made that was correct.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.