One love or one big mistake? The first 10 years of the NFL Draft’s #1 pick (1936-1945)

One love or one big mistake? The first 10 years of the NFL Draft’s #1 pick (1936-1945)

by Lawrence Vos (@F10YRetro and @NFLFANINENGLAND)


PART 1 – The First Ten Years


What do Chunk from ‘The Goonies’, O.J. Simpson, Myles Garrett and Peyton Manning all have in common? 

The fact they are memorable characters, or that they have created headlines for a plethora of different reasons, good, bad and downright mind-boggling?

Nope these four individuals are part of an unmistakable piece of NFL folklore as they all share the accolade of being the number one overall pick of an NFL draft. 

With the 2020 NFL Draft in jeopardy as a televised spectacle, still currently due to take place under the bright lights of Las Vegas, we could see a more ‘virtual’ draft, delivered by a series of satellite links. This would be eerily reminiscent of how it all began back in 1936, in front of absolutely no media. 

So how did it all begin? 

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Sam Myers)

Funnily enough the team that won the Super Bowl a mere three seasons ago, the Philadelphia Eagles, were responsible for the introduction of a draft system, as opposed to a simple case of who had the largest cheque book and best sales patter. 

Eagles owner Bert Bell (above), tired of losing out on star College players to bigger teams, and sick of collusion whereby teams would give rights to players directly to other ‘chosen’ teams, decided there must be a way to make the signing of NCAA players much fairer. 

After protests from the then Boston Redskins owner George Preston-Marshall about an ‘exclusive’ deal between the Steelers and the Giants it was agreed in late 1934 that any player released in a season could be picked up in the order of worst to first records. 

This was taken one step further in 1935 when Eagles owner Bell proposed a drafting system for College players turning professional. The innovative idea was immediately and unanimously agreed upon, but not institutionalised until 1936. 

Rather coincidentally the 1935 Eagles finished with the NFL’s worst record, 2-9, and as if by magic they held the first pick in the inaugural NFL draft.

In fact the first NFL Draft took place at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia, using 90 names scrawled on a blackboard, consisting of team recommendations, newspaper or magazine articles or lists and team visits to nearby colleges. 


Who was the first ever NFL Draft pick?

Photo Caption: News.medill.northwestern.edu

There have been 84 overall #1 picks in the NFL, going all the way back to 1936, when the inaugural honour went to Jay Berwanger, the gifted Iowa born running back. 

Berwanger was the star of the University of Chicago Maroons (now a Division III NCAA team). He was the first winner of the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy in 1935, an accolade that just 12 months later became the Heisman Trophy. Berwanger got the most votes, beating fellow Notre Dame back William Shakespeare to the trophy. 

Also a gifted track and field star during his college days, Berwanger held his Alma Mater’s decathlon record for over 70 years. 

Perhaps his most famous moment in college occurred in 1934, when he scarred Michigan opponent #48 just under his left eye. Nothing unusual considering the crude uniform of the day, but the recipient of the gash was none other than the 38th President of the United States, Gerald Ford. 

Selected number one in the first ever NFL Draft (1936) by the Philadelphia Eagles, Berwanger unfortunately never played a down in the NFL. The Eagles, fearful they could not pay the $1,000 game cheques, traded Berwanger to the nearby Chicago Bears. 

Berwanger, keen to represent the U.S.A as a decathlete at the upcoming 1936 Summer Olympic Games, to be held in Nazi ruled Germany, opted to leave his Bears contract unsigned so he could keep his ‘amateur’ sports status. 

His aspirations to emulate football and Olympic legend Jim Thorpe were dashed when he was not selected to travel to Europe that Summer, and subsequent negotiations with Bears owner George Halas never found a mutually agreed salary, so Berwanger never played a down in the NFL. 

He went on to become a manufacturer and journalist and famously gave his Heisman Trophy to his Aunt, who used it as a doorstop. Thankfully the trophy was recovered and is now in the University of Chicago Hall of Fame. 

Berwanger’s case was not at all unusual for the time as he was one of 57 of 81 draft selections in 1936 to elect not to play in the NFL. 


What happened in the first ten drafts (1936-1945) ? 

Photo Caption: Notre Dame Media Relations

Here are some fun facts about the first 10 years of NFL Drafts: 

  • Despite the Second World War taking place during this time (1939-45) a draft took place each year. 
  • The first 8 #1 picks were not quarterbacks. It wasn’t until 1944 that the first QB was taken, when the now defunct Boston Yanks, took Angelo Bertelli (pictured above). Angelo served as a Marine during and after WWII, and never played a down in the NFL, instead playing for two AAFC teams in the late 40s. 
  • 8 of the first 10 NFL #1 picks were running backs (6 halfbacks and 2 fullbacks)
  • Only one non skill player went #1 – Centre Ki Aldrich in 1939 to the Chicago  Cardinals. Aldrich was a two-time NFL All-Star. 
  • No defensive players went #1 in the first 10 NFL drafts.
  • In 1943 and then 1945 half-backs from Georgia went #1 overall. 

Who were the successes from the first 10 overall #1 picks? 

Aside from Centre Ki Aldrich there were two outstanding #1 picks, Bill Dudley, a running back chosen by the Steelers in 1942 and Charley Trippi, another backfield dynamo, selected by the Chicago Cardinals in 1945. 

Both Dudley and Trippi are both in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Dudley enshrined in 1966 and then Trippi in 1968. 

in 1942 Dudley led the NFL in rushing as a rookie, and he added to his legend by passing for two scores, punting 18 times, and returned a total of 31 kicks, including going to the house on a kick return. 

Following two years of military service, including a remarkable 12-0 record for the 1944 Army Football team, Dudley returned to the NFL for 9 more season, accruing just under 4,500 total yards, 36 tds, 23 interceptions and made 50% of his 66 field goal attempts. 

Trippi left the NFL having accrued the most total yards in league history. He was also the first #1 pick to also become and NFL champion. In the 1947 NFL Championship he had a 44 yard rushing td and a 75 yard punt return td. 

His 5.1 yards per carry career average sits above the likes of Barry Sanders (5.0) and Adrian Peterson (4.7). 

One statistic above all about Trippi tops any yardage metric, as of March 2020 Charley is still alive, at the ripe old age of 98. 

True talent it seems can almost live forever. 

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the NFL’s #1 Pick F10YRetro recap. 

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