Why NFL draft is “football’s version of theory of relativity”


The NFL draft returned to Philadelphia last week eight decades after it started there, and what a difference.

It was first held in the ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Philadelphia papers didn’t cover it and fewer than half of the 81 players chosen signed with NFL teams. But it was the start of a new era, and the son of the man who thought up the draft — former commissioner Bert Bell — believes it changed the landscape not only of the NFL but of all professional sports.

“To me,” said Upton Bell on the latest Talk of Fame Network broadcast, “it was football’s version of Einstein’s theory of relativity. Everything in the world changed in the world after Einstein’s theory, and everything changed in sports forever.”

But Bell didn’t conceive of the idea as NFL commissioner. He first thought of it when he was co-owner and co-founder of the Philadelphia Eagles.

“The funny part of it,” said Upton, who later became the league’s youngest GM in New England, “is that it probably wouldn’t have come about, except in 1933 when he bought the team he went out … and I don’t know how the hell he got out there … but he went out to Minnesota to sign a running back/linebacker. And (the prospect) kept bidding him up and bidding him, and (Bell) knew he was going into another room and calling the Brooklyn Dodgers — that was one of the teams in the league.

“And, finally, my father went to 6500 dollars and (the recruit) said, ‘Let me think about it.’ And my father probably got on the wagon train and came back to Philadelphia.

“He said on the way back  that that made up his mind that there is no way that the NFL can survive as long as the Redskins, Giants, Packers and Bears dominated. Nobody else had a chance. He said, ‘The only way we will survive is by a common draft.’

“That’s basically where he got the idea. A lot of people don’t know that story. It was in 1933, and it finally took him to ’35 to convince the owners — the rich, if you want to call it that — that this would be the best way to go.”

By February, 1936, there was a draft, and 10 years later Bert Bell was commissioner of the NFL. Bell was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963.

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