A Cautionary Tale? (April, 1944)
The NFL draft: Still the most absurd event on the American sports calendar
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On April 19, 1944, at a hotel in Philadelphia, a fledgling professional football team known, oxymoronically, as the Boston Yankees, chose Notre Dame quarterback Angelo Bertelli with the first pick in the NFL draft. Bertelli was the first quarterback taken with the number one pick since the draft began in 1936; this news was reported in a short Associated Press story on Page 6 of the next day’s Boston Globe. A few days later, in keeping with the nature of an event that felt largely ad-libbed and prone to guesswork, the Globe noted that the Yanks’ tenth round pick, lineman Angelo Sisti of Boston College, was not actually eligible to be drafted.
The Boston Yanks officially lasted five seasons. Bertelli, who served in the Pacific in World War II, never played a single game for the Yanks—in part due to some bizarre legal squabbling—but did play a couple of seasons for the Los Angeles Dons of the All-America Football Conference before retiring due to knee problems. (I’m not sure if Angelo Sisti, who also served in the military, ever wound up playing professional football.)
I imagine nobody questioned Bertelli’s commitment to football for choosing to serve in combat operations, and I imagine no one labeled him a bust who couldn’t stay healthy. This was largely because professional football did not hold the same cultural cache; for the powers shaping the sport to imagine that not only would it become far more popular than any other American pastime, but that somehow even their draft would become an enduring source of obsessiveness, no doubt would have blown their damn minds.
In the past couple of weeks alone, we have endured the same cycle we do every spring: An endless churn of hot takes and out of context quotes and straight up misinformation about the top quarterbacks in the draft, as teams feign interest and disinterest and jockey for position and attempt to psych each other out through anonymous quotes in the media. There is a litany of concerns about a quarterback’s toughness and his hand size and his commitment to football, and it is a testament both to football’s enduring popularity despite its colossal issues, and to the way football tends to reflect the the most contentious and least rational elements of the American psyche.
But one headline in particular struck me this week: Bryce Love, the dynamic former Stanford running back, was cut by the Washington Football Team this week after he was unable to come back from a knee injury. This led one writer to claim that Love’s career arc was “a cautionary tale,” because he’d spent an extra year of college and suffered injuries that may have derailed his pro career. There is only one problem with this take: As Love told me when he was still at Stanford, and as he told the News and Observer when he chose to go back to college for another year rather than declare for the draft, he was equally as passionate about studying medicine and becoming a pediatrician as he was about becoming a professional football. He was, in other words, the ideal of the mythical “student athlete” the NCAA likes to tout, but in the NFL, this was considered a strike against him.
Such is professional football. Such is the the zero-sum calculus that has grown up around the draft. Such is the conversation we’ve built, in those months when there is no actual football to distract us from our own absurd obsession with an event that consistently defies logic.
Last year, I wrote quite a bit about the draft’s evolution from a blip on the national radar to an event entirely lacking in perspective through the 1980s and beyond, through the lens of the immortal Nebraska running back I.M Hipp. You can read it here.
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