College Football Not Always Pipeline to NFL

By Russo, Ralph D. | Telegraph - Herald (Dubuque), August 11, 2019 | Go to article overview

College Football Not Always Pipeline to NFL


Russo, Ralph D., Telegraph - Herald (Dubuque)


BY RALPH D. RUSSO

The Associated Press

Jay Berwanger won the inaugural Heisman Trophy in 1935 for the University of Chicago and became the No. 1 player taken in the first NFL draft a few months later.

He chose to work at a rubber company and be a part-time coach for his alma mater rather than try to make a living playing football.

More than five decades later, Oklahoma State Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders threatened to sue the NFL if it did not allow him to be drafted while he still had college eligibility.

In the early days of the NFL, college football was king and playing professionally was not something most players aspired to do. By planting its flag in large cities, embracing television exposure and playing a more entertaining style, the NFL surged in popularity in the middle of the 20th century and turned college football into a means to an end for many players.

Now college teams brag about sending players to the league, even while NCAA officials and college sports leaders try to downplay what has become obvious.

"Well, I definitely think college football is sort of the minor leagues in a way. Like a breeding ground for the NFL," said Eric Winston, who played 10 years in the NFL as an offensive lineman and is currently the president of the players' association.

College football was already entrenched in American culture when the NFL was established in 1920 with most of its teams in small Midwestern towns.

"Baseball was the national pastime, but college football was the greatest sporting spectacle," said Mike Oriard, a Notre Dame graduate and former NFL player who has written several books on the history of football.

Games matching Notre Dame and Army packed Yankee Stadium in New York in the 1920s and '30s, even during the Great Depression. The Rose Bowl game was a yearly event on the West Coast on New Year's Day. College football was seen as a worthy and noble enterprise: amateurs playing for school pride.

"The NFL was an abomination as far as the college football world was concerned," Oriard said.

When University of Illinois star Red Grange joined the NFL in 1925, a deal scandalously planned while he was still playing in college, he drew scorn from those in college football. Not only was professional football considered barbarian, it was thought to be a lesser version of the sport. Indeed, the NFL champion played a yearly exhibition game in August against a team of college all-stars in Chicago, starting in 1934. The college players won six of the first 17 games and there were two ties.

Grange became one of America's most famous sports stars, but he was more a phenomena than a trend setter.

"Professional football was out there as an option for former college players who didn't have anything better to do," Oriard said. "It was the depression and if you didn't get a job right out of college you might play pro football for a couple of years."

After the league reorganized in the early 1930s and moved teams to big cities, it established a college draft. Berwanger was the first player selected, taken by the Philadelphia Eagles. His rights were later traded to the Chicago Bears. But the team never could meet his salary demands.

Davey O'Brien won the Heisman Trophy in 1938 and was the first winner to play in the NFL. He lasted two years before joining the FBI. That was typical throughout the 1940s and into the '50s. Dick Kazmaier, a running back for Princeton, won the Heisman in 1951 and was drafted the by the Bears. He decided to go to Harvard business school.

Despite all that, the NFL was gaining traction among working-class fans in places such as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Cleveland that didn't directly compete with college football. Salaries were growing and a career in football was becoming more appealing. …

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