NFL draft becomes event

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Bert Bell had been burned and sought a way to get even.

His creation, the NFL draft, has become an industry unto itself and the league’s third-most popular annual event behind the Super Bowl and opening weekend.

Bell owned the Philadelphia Eagles in 1933 and was hot to sign Stanley “King Kong” Kostka of the Minnesota Gophers. All collegians were free agents back then — college football was far more popular than the pros — and Bell saw the bruising fullback/linebacker as a building block for his team.

But Kostka signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers; yes, that was a football franchise back then. Never mind that Kostka lasted one season in the NFL. Bell had a calling.

“I made up my mind that this league would never survive unless we had some system whereby each team had an even chance to bid for talent against each other,” he later told The Associated Press.

With some negotiating and arm-twisting — Bell was so good at that he soon would become NFL commissioner — he persuaded owners of the other eight clubs to try a draft. The team with the league’s worst record would pick first and the rest would go in reverse order of their success in the standings.

On Feb 8-9, 1936, in a Philadelphia hotel owned by the Bell family, the draft was born. And guess who had the first selection: the 2-9 Eagles.

That they took halfback Jay Berwanger, the first Heisman Trophy winner, who played at Chicago University — yes, that was a college team back then — and couldn’t sign him was somewhat embarrassing; Berwanger chose to go into the “real world” where he could earn more money than the Eagles were offering.

Regardless, the draft was established, with nine rounds, increased to 10 the next year and to 20 in 1939, with this oddity in 1938 and ’39: only the five teams with the worst winning percentage in the previous season made selections in the second and fourth rounds.

The number of rounds fluctuated through the years.

It would not be an exaggeration to say the draft has exploded beyond the selection meeting tag the league hung on it. And don’t underestimate the credit TV deserves, first with ESPN’s gavel-to-gavel coverage and then with NFL Network joining in since 2006. Plus a move to prime time for Thursday’s first round, and to the early evening for Rounds two and three on Friday.

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