Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Truth and fiction of NFL's first pick

With the National Football League draft going prime time, sportswriters and bloggers are reflecting on the history of the draft.

If they go all the way back to the first draft, in 1936, they invariably mention Jay Berwanger, the subject of my next biography.

Berwanger was the first pick in the first NFL draft, selected by the Philadelphia Eagles, who immediately traded their rights to the University of Chicago star to the Chicago Bears. The legend is that Berwanger demanded $1,000 a game (actually, $20,000 for two years of service with a guaranteed contract) – roughly 10 times the going rate at the time – and that Bears owner George Halas refused. Embroiled in a contract dispute, Berwanger never played a down of professional football.

Reality is that Berwanger stated a salary figure that he knew was astronomical, especially during the Depression, not as a demand as much as a statement that he was not interested in playing pro football. The only “negotiation” in which Berwanger and Halas engaged was a brief exchange when they bumped into each other in a hotel lobby. There was no dispute, no holdout -- and no contract.