The NFL draft, which starts on Thursday, has become a spectacular, three-day, wall-to-wall TV blowout watched by millions. But Upton Bell insists that its basic appeal has not changed all that much since the first draft was held 86 years ago.
“It’s the great American crapshoot,” Bell tells the Guardian from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, referring to the uncertain future of any draftee – or the team that drafts him.
Upton Bell, a pro football executive for years, is the 84-year-old son of the late De Benneville Bell, who was known to everyone as Bert and served as NFL commissioner from 1946 until 1959, when he suffered a fatal heart attack at a Philadelphia Eagles home game.
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Thirteen years before he became commissioner, Bell was the co-owner (and later head coach) of the Eagles, then a new NFL team. The Eagles struggled on the field and at the gate in their first few seasons, and Bell was frustrated that the best college players were scooped up by the bigger pro teams.
Bell had placed a telephone call in 1933 to a talented fullback and linebacker from the University of Minnesota named Stanley Kostka. Bell told Kostka that he was willing to offer him more money than every other NFL team. Kostka said he was interested.
But Kostka “hemmed and hawed,” Bell told the Associated Press years later, because the NFL’s Brooklyn Dodgers (yes, the Brooklyn Football Dodgers) had offered him $3,500 a year. Bell offered $4,000 (worth around $87,000 today). Kostka wanted to see if the Dodgers would make a counteroffer, but claimed he could not reach them by phone.
When Bell offered $6,000, Kostka balked 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 figured his team – and maybe the league – would not stay afloat for long if the big NFL teams continued to hoover up the best college players.
“He could see into the future,” Upton Bell says. “He could see problems immediately. The league would have been gone by 1939 or 1940.”
He adds, “As long as there was no draft, players could pit one team against another.”
At the time, the NFL had four powerhouse teams: the Chicago Bears, the New York Giants, the Green Bay Packers and the team now known as the Washington Commanders. Bell, however, insisted that the league would only be as strong as its weakest link.
Upton Bell says of his father, “He knew who he had to get to – he knew the real power in the league was George Halas,” referring to the Bears’ founder and coach. In his memoir, Halas wrote of the draft: “I thought the proposal [was] sound. It made sense.” The owners’ vote was unanimous.
Bell would take several decisive actions as commissioner: preventing gamblers from overtaking the game, overseeing a merger with the rival All-American Football Conference, negotiating the league’s first big television contract and beginning talks for a pension for players.
To this day, though, Upton Bell fields calls from reporters who start an interview with, “Tell me about your father and the NFL draft.”
Upton Bell was a personnel director for the Baltimore Colts, general manager for the New England Patriots and a co-owner of the Charlotte Hornets of the World Football League, but he happily retells the stories about his dad, knowing that memories fade away.
Of lasting quality is the NFL Draft 1936 sculpture in Canton, Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Four football players in leather helmets and three-point stances flank a man in a suit and fedora about to snap a football. The man in the fedora is Bert Bell.
Upton Bell later became a sports commentator, participating in PBS’s NFL draft coverage in 1977 and ESPN’s first NFL draft telecast in 1980 from the network’s studios in Bristol, Connecticut. (ESPN also had a small desk outside the draft at the New York Sheraton.)
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 happened to be owned by Bert Bell’s father. Names of players were erased from a chalkboard after they were chosen in the nine-round draft. Even the Philadelphia newspapers skipped the event.
“Franchise owners crowded into Bert Bell’s hotel room, shucked their jackets and cleared sitting room on beds and bureaus,” Robert Lipsyte wrote in the New York Times in 1968. “Bottles circulated, solemn oaths of league solidarity were taken, and the college stars were distributed.”
By virtue of their 2-9 record in 1935, Bell’s Eagles had the first pick, choosing an exciting halfback from the University of Chicago named Jay Berwanger, who’d just won the first Downtown Athletic Club Trophy. (It was renamed the Heisman Trophy a year later.)
Berwanger wanted $1,000 a game, far above the Eagles’ offer of $150, and his rights were traded to Chicago. Berwanger never did play professional football. Bell had to wait until 1939 to sign a first-round pick: TCU quarterback Davey O’Brien, who’d go to the Hall of Fame.
The draft was not all that beneficial to Bert Bell’s football team in the time he owned it, but his son says now, referring to the owners in 1936, “Those guys, and particularly him, were always thinking about 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 lived long enough to appreciate the value of television coverage. Upton Bell says his father often told the league owners, “Our future is in TV.” Ten months before his death, the Baltimore Colts beat the New York Giants in sudden-death overtime in the nationally televised 1958 NFL Championship Game, later labeled “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
Upton Bell is not exactly impartial, but he thinks ESPN should make note at least once during its draft coverage of the fact that the whole thing would not have happened without his father.
“Here’s the man who saved their bacon,” he says of his father. “Let me ask you this: Did they lose sight of Vince Lombardi?”