‘The great American crapshoot’: How Bert Bell saved the NFL with the draft | NFL


JThe NFL Draft, which begins Thursday, has become a spectacular three-day televised blowout watched by millions. But Upton Bell insists its core appeal hasn’t changed all that much since the first draft took place 86 years ago.

“It’s the great American dice game,” Bell told the Guardian from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, referring to the uncertain future of any recruit – or the team that recruits him.

Upton Bell, a professional football executive for years, is the 84-year-old son of the late De Benneville Bell, who was known to all as Bert and served as NFL commissioner from 1946 to 1959, when he suffered a fatal heart attack at a Philadelphia Eagles home game.

Thirteen years before becoming commissioner, Bell was co-owner (and later head coach) of the Eagles, then a new NFL team. The Eagles struggled on the field and out the gate in their early seasons, and Bell was frustrated that top college players were being snapped up by the biggest professional teams.

Bell had made a phone call in 1933 to a talented University of Minnesota fullback and linebacker named Stanley Kostka. Bell told Kostka he was willing to offer him more money than any other NFL team. Kostka said he was interested.

But Kostka “collapsed,” Bell told The Associated Press years later, because the NFL’s Brooklyn Dodgers (yes, Brooklyn Football Dodgers) offered him $3,500 a year. Bell offered $4,000 (worth about $87,000 today). Kostka wanted to see if the Dodgers would make a counter offer, but said he couldn’t reach them by phone.

When Bell offered $6,000, Kostka backed down again. Bell took the offer off the table and went home. Kostka signed with the Dodgers, probably because he felt that as an established team they were a safer bet than the Eagles. Bell thought his team — and perhaps the league — wouldn’t stay afloat long if the big NFL teams continued to suck up top college players.

“He could see into the future,” Upton Bell says. “He could see the problems immediately. The league would have disappeared in 1939 or 1940.”

He adds: “As long as there was no draft, players could pit one team against another.”

Back then, the NFL had four powerhouse teams: the Chicago Bears, New York Giants, Green Bay Packers, and the team now known as the Washington Commanders. Bell, however, insisted the league would only be as strong as its weakest link.

Upton Bell said of his father, “He knew who he needed to talk to – he knew the real power in the league was George Halas,” referring to the Bears founder and coach. In his memoirs, Halas writes of the project: “I thought the proposal [was] his. It made sense. The vote of the owners was unanimous.

Bell would take several decisive actions as commissioner: prevent players from overstaying the game, oversee a merger with rival All-American Football Conference, negotiate the league’s first big television deal and start talks for a pension for players. .

To this day, however, Upton Bell responds to calls from reporters who begin an interview with, “Tell me about your dad and the NFL Draft.”

Upton Bell was personnel manager of the Baltimore Colts, general manager of the New England Patriots and part-owner of the World Football League’s Charlotte Hornets, but he happily recounts his father’s stories, knowing the memories are fading .

The NFL Draft 1936 sculpture in Canton, Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is of durable quality. Four soccer players wearing leather helmets and three-point positions flank a man in a suit and fedora about to kick a soccer ball. The man with the felt hat is Bert Bell.

Upton Bell later became a sportscaster, appearing on PBS’s 1977 NFL Draft coverage and ESPN’s 1980 NFL First Draft from the network’s Bristol, Connecticut studios. (ESPN also had a small office outside of the draft at the Sheraton in New York.)

Even that was a far cry from the coverage the first draft received — which was, essentially, nothing. The 1936 draft was held in Philadelphia at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, which was owned by Bert Bell’s father. The players’ names were wiped from a board after being chosen in the nine-round draft. Even the Philadelphia newspapers skipped the event.

“Franchise owners piled into Bert Bell’s hotel room, threw off their jackets, and cleared the living room of beds and desks,” wrote Robert Lipsyte in The New York Times in 1968. »

By virtue of their 2-9 record in 1935, the Bell Eagles had the first pick, choosing an exciting University of Chicago halfback named Jay Berwanger, who had just won the Downtown Athletic Club’s first trophy. (It was renamed the Heisman Trophy a year later.)

Berwanger wanted $1,000 a game, well above the Eagles’ offer of $150, and his rights were traded to Chicago. Berwanger has never played professional football. Bell had to wait until 1939 to sign a first-round pick: TCU quarterback Davey O’Brien, who would go to the Hall of Fame.

The draft didn’t do much good for Bert Bell’s football team when he owned it, but his son now says, referring to the owners in 1936, “These guys, and especially him, always thought of the league first.”

“The draft was the greatest thing that ever happened to the NFL,” Bert Bell said in 1957. “Over the years it brought balance to the league.”

Bell has lived long enough to appreciate the value of television coverage. Upton Bell says his father would often tell league owners, “Our future is in television. Ten months before his death, the Baltimore Colts defeated the New York Giants in sudden death overtime in the 1958 nationally televised NFL Championship Game, later labeled “The Greatest Game Ever Played”. .

Upton Bell isn’t exactly impartial, but he thinks ESPN should note at least once in its coverage draft that all of this wouldn’t have happened without his father.

“Here is the man who saved their bacon,” he said of his father. “Let me ask you this: have they lost sight of Vince Lombardi?

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