After months of hoopla and speculation, the “real” NFL Draft begins tonight. Mock draft after mock draft on sports web pages, television, and print media are about to get erased from everyone’s consciousness. Maybe we can replace it with some real NFL history.
Founding Fathers on the Draft
Can you imagine what the original NFL founding fathers would think of this draft media and money spectacle? In the first years of the NFL, teams were small. Players often played both offense and defense. The League began in 1920 as the American Professional Football Association (APFA). The name was changed to the National Football League (NFL) in 1922. Players were recruited and selected by the team owners and managers. At first, they focused on the main college conferences and then got more creative later. Players were originally paid in cash on a game-by-game basis.
Even from the earliest days, good programs were created by people who could identify talent and then sign them up! In the earliest days, the number of teams in the league varied greatly from year to year. Scheduling games would be difficult. Some teams would drop out during a season. Other teams seldom played a home game because on the road they played teams from bigger cities and were paid an amount by the home team. Players had regular jobs outside of football and once the season ended they got back “to work.” Sometimes, players would leave their teams to focus on their work and families. They might leave to sell insurance, drive a truck, or open a gas station. Things were that different.
The number of teams in the league was eventually set. In 1936, the first NFL College draft was held. Rules were established that allowed the team with the worst record to select first, the team with the best record to select last, etc. Two teams, the Bears and the Cardinals (Chicago-St. Louis-Arizona) survived from the opening bell of the league.
The Packers got started in professional football in 1921. Indian Meat Packing owner Frank Peck sponsored the team, encouraged by a friend of his named Nate Abrams whose family owned a cattle business. Abrams was also a friend of Curly Lambeau who would manage the team. Lambeau had played football in high school in Green Bay and went to Notre Dame for a year. Newspaper reporter George Calhoun handled publicity. Calhoun unashamedly villainized the Packers foes and warmed up the homies. Some of his techniques are common practice–overstating the talent of the competition and painting the home team as the perpetual underdog! The Packers had grown out of an amateur team often called the Whales. Like baseball, some football team names were informal at first. Many were adopted after being acclaimed again and again in newspaper columns–nicknames that eventually stuck.
After the 1921 season, the league fathers felt compelled to take away the Green Bay franchise because the team had played some college players. Other teams had done it as well, but Green Bay was caught at a critical time. Lambeau himself applied for a new franchise and was allowed to field a team in 1922. Lambeau would only own the team for one season as financial woes to operate the team were beyond his means. Local Green Bay business owners came to his defense and established a corporation and shares to bankroll the team. For a quarter of a century, the Corporation allowed Lambeau to manage the team as if he was the owner. Postwar changes to the Packers including a decentralization of power and a rival league competing for players left the entrepreneur free-spirited Lambeau out of his element. He resigned before the 1950 season began.
George Halas took ownership of the Decatur Staleys from starch and sugar industrialist Augustus Staley. Staley had signed Halas on to develop and manage the team. Halas quickly recruited many of the greatest players out of the top college programs. A major problem occurred after the 1920 season when the economy tanked and Staley believed in order to continue with the Staleys, he would have to be disloyal to his stockholders. Staley gave Halas advice and a one year advertising agreement. From Staley, Halas turned for help to Cubs President William Veck Sr. and secured a place to play–Cubs Park, later to be called Wrigley Field. Halas was an explosion of energy and determination. He often recruited men who were hard as nails and his team picked up the name Monsters of the Midway after the original monsters, the University of Chicago lost in its interest in the game. For decades the Bears like the other teams was a fledgling operation. Halas was tight with his salaries, but he had not choice. But he was also willing to take a risk which he did when he signed the greatest college player of the day, Red Grange. Grange played for Halas’s alma mater the University of Illinois. In 1924, against a tough Michigan team, Grange scored 5 touchdowns and threw for a 6th. College was king in those days and Grange found himself on the cover of Time Magazine. He was popular all over the country. And he had himself an agent! C. C. Pyle represented Grange. Halas who had been closely following Grange was interested in what Pyle wanted for Grange’s services. Halas was willing to move fast. Pyle wanted a piece of the gate! So the NFL was still getting its feet wet in the market, and Pyle was already creating a new paradigm. To Halas’s credit, he saw the opportunity and signed Grange for the season, which was extended to take advantage of a long road trip that helped popularize pro football. After the season, Grange left with Pyle to establish a new team which quickly failed financially. Grange injured his knee and he was never the same running back. Halas signed Grange up regardless in 1929 and he had a good career most notable playing defensive back.
Do you think team owners wear fancy pants, get hundred dollar hair cuts, and are driven by chauffers?
Not in the early days!
Art Rooney was raised in an apartment over his father’s tavern on the north side of Pittsburgh. His father could handle the pugnacious Irishmen who came to drink in his establishment. He left his sons with the skills to do the same. The Rooney boys grew up both tough and religious. Art was a good boxer and athlete. He fought amateur fights and played football and baseball. In the fight game, he was good enough to beat a boxer by the name of Sammy Mosberg, twice–once before Sammy won Olympic Gold and once after. And Art wasn’t the best fighter in the Rooney clan, his brother Dan was better. Dan became a priest.
Art did not see much of a future for himself in working in the mills and other places where much of his pals ended up. Instead, he promoted fights and other sporting events. He was successful. NFL Commissioner Joe Carr was out to strengthen the league with teams from bigger cities. He asked Rooney to buy a franchise for Pittsburgh and Rooney complied. His Pittsburgh club joined the fledgling NFL in 1933. Little did Rooney know, but it would take him 42 years before he won a championship. Rooney’s teams may not have won championships during those tough years, but he was fond of using local talent and he kept it interesting. His own sons were more adept at team management and fortunes changed in a big way when Chuck Noll came in to coach and manage the personnel with Rooney’s support. Noll had a daft strategy that expanded the view of draft candidates to smaller colleges that had not been looked at before. With the help of Bill Nunn, a sports reporter who covered black colleges, the Steelers began building a dynasty. Noll would go on to win 4 Super Bowls and 9 AFC Central Championships.
In the early days of the NFL there were several black players. The league stopped signing African American athletes likely on the grounds of the prejudice of one or more new owners as the mid-30s rolled around. It has also been suggested that as the economy grew worse under the Depression, there was a storm of prejudice that was running high in white America. After about 15 years of struggle to keep the league going, all risks were averted. The NFL, like the Federal Government in some respects, and many other institutions, “took the low road.” It was never a popular policy with certain team owners. In the mid-1940s, things changed. Prejudice in the ranks of some team owners and administrators ran contrary to the law when it came to public stadium use. Blacks in the military were making a difference in outlook and some African American players were playing superbly in the college game. Finally, when the All American Football Conference came along after the war, they had several African American players on their rosters. AAFC Coach Paul Brown had been associated with African American athletes while coaching high school, college, military teams, and in the pros. When some AAFC teams were swept into the NFL, change was made. Today, it is all about talent.
Tim Mara was a legal gambler in New York. He accumulated some wealth and bought the New York franchise in 1925–they were named the Giants. Mara had many business interests and a couple young sons who could run the club when he got older. Tim Mara’s son Wellington Mara is the owner that many people remember over the years. Mara was like George Halas, interested in the league survival and doing what he could to keep it going. The Giants had some great years, but they also have long periods of poor results. Control of the team became a family issue and then a league one. In 1979, George Young took over as General Manager and moved forward with professional management. Wellington Mara continued as a kind of head spokesman and leader. Today, the team is owned by John Mara (Wellington’s son) and Steve Tisch (businessman whose father bought half the team from Tim Mara, grandson of the founder).
New York is a great place to own a team, but criticism comes hot and heavy from NY media. One thing that is sure to surface is an incredible amount and analysis and critique on the Giants’ draft choices.
Background for this article comes from our books: Pillars of the NFL, Sports and Faith: Stories of the Devoted and the Devout–both found in the product section of this website.
Copyright Sporting Chance Press