(NEXSTAR) – It was February 1936 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia. The NFL was about to host its first-ever draft. While it was a momentous moment for the sport, the first-ever draft pick was about ruin it — just a little.
Bert Bell, owner of the Philadelphia Eagles and future league commissioner, is credited with the idea of a draft. Under Bell’s plan, the team with the worst record picked first, as it is today. That meant the first ever team to make a draft pick was Bell’s Eagles, who had a 2-9 record in 1935. But the hope of turning the team around with the first opportunity at fresh-out-of-college players would soon be squashed.
With the first pick of the 1936 draft, the Eagles selected Jay Berwanger, a running back from the University of Chicago who had just secured the first-ever Heisman Trophy (it was known as the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy at the time).
The Dubuque, Iowa native did it all on the field — play calling, passing, tackling, punting, kicking extra points, returning kicks, and everything in between, according to his biography on the Heisman Trophy’s website. In addition to his accolades, Berwanger is also considered the only Heisman recipient to be tackled by a future president — Gerald Ford, who played for Michigan.
Slideshow: Jay Berwanger
Berwagner’s playing was enough to catch the attention of the Eagles during the draft, but the team soon traded his rights to the Chicago Bears. Unfortunately, contract demands would keep Berwanger out of the league.
In an interview with The New York Times years later, Berwanger explained that he had asked then-Bears coach George Halas for $25,000 for two years with a no-cut contract, far more than what most players were making at the time. The price tag was too high, and Berwanger decided instead to become a foam-rubber salesman.
Get daily news, weather, breaking news, and alerts straight to your inbox! Sign up for the abc27 newsletters here
Berwanger became a naval officer during World War II and when he returned to Chicago, he set up Jay Berwanger, Inc., a manufacturer of plastic and rubber strips for vehicles, according to his obituary in the Chicago Tribune. He died of lung cancer in 2002 at the age of 88.
Berwanger’s decision not to play wasn’t exactly revolutionary. According to the Chicago Tribune, only about two dozen of the 81 players drafted in 1936 ever played in the NFL. None of the draft picks by the Eagles that year would ever play a regular-season game.