With the 2017 NFL Draft set to take place in Philadelphia between April 28th and 30th, it is interesting to recall that the first ever NFL draft also took place in the City of Brotherly Love. In 1935, the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles Bert Bell had his proposal for a draft accepted by his fellow NFL owners, with the first such event taking place the following year. As luck would have it, Bell’s Eagles “earned” the first overall selection following a 2-9 record in 1935.
Beginning with this first ever draft pick, I offer ten notable first round picks made by the Eagles. From Jay Berwanger to Donovan McNabb, these players all had interesting careers in the NFL…or none careers, in the case of Berwanger.
JAY BERWANGER, 1st Overall Selection 1936
The very first winner of what became known as the Heisman Trophy, Berwanger was a halfback from the University of Chicago. He was the first ever player to be drafted by an NFL team, and is noteworthy due to his lack of contribution on the gridiron. Berwanger was traded almost immediately to the Chicago Bears, but did not sign immediately as he wanted to compete in the 1936 Olympic Games. After failing to earn a spot, he couldn’t agree terms with the Bears legendary owner/coach George Halas, and never played a single snap in the NFL. He was not alone in this, however. All nine players selected by the Eagles in that inaugural draft failed to ever take the field.
Berwanger died in 2002, aged 88.
DAVEY O’BRIEN, 4th Overall Selection 1939
After backing up the legendary Sammy Baugh TCU, Davey O’Brien became the starting quarterback in 1938. In his second season, he passed for a then record 1457 yards as the Horned Frogs went undefeated and won the national championship. Thanks to these deeds, an award given to the best QB in college football was established in 1977 called the Davey O’Brien Award. O’Brien made the Pro Bowl in his first season with the Eagles, passing for a league leading 1324 yards. He also led the league with 17 interceptions, against just six touchdowns. In 1940, he paced the league in pass attempts and completions, but again threw 17 picks. This time he tossed just five touchdowns. Following the 1940 season, he left the NFL to become an FBI agent.
O’Brien battled lung cancer from 1971, dying in 1977. In that year, the Davey O’Brien Award was first awarded.
GEORGE MCAFEE, 2nd Overall Selection 1940
A member of the 1940s All Decade Team, winner of 4 NFL Championships. an inductee in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and a serving officer in the US Navy during the Second World War, George McAfee achieved all of this after being taken with the second pick of the 1940 NFL Draft by the Eagles. However, none of these achievements came under the Eagles banner, as McAfee became the fourth first round pick by the team to NEVER PLAY A SNAP for them. He earned his honours on the Chicago Bears, and enjoyed his finest season in 1941. After a league leading 70 yard run during the regular season, he shone in two post season games. Rushing 28 times, he amassed 200 yards as the Bears won the World Championship. He was named to the Pro Bowl and the All Pro team following that season, but thanks to his military service he didn’t play another snap until 1945. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1966.
Suffering from dementia, McAfee died in 2009, two weeks shy of his 91st birthday. His number 5 jersey is one of the numbers retired by the Bears.
STEVE VAN BUREN, 5th Overall Selection 1944
One of the greatest players in Eagles and NFL history, Steve Van Buren only started getting carries in college thanks to a shortage of players. Primarily used as a blocker, conscription to the armed services had left the LSU Tigers short of players, so the coach began allowing Van Buren to run the ball. The Eagles are forever grateful he did. Van Buren led the NFL in rushing four times in five seasons between 1945-1949, scoring 10 or more touchdowns in every season. He scored 10 touchdowns in a season three times before any other player managed to do so ONCE. His record of 17 total touchdowns in the 1945 season was an Eagles single season record until LeSean McCoy broke it in 2011. At the time of his retirement, he was the NFL all time leader in rushing yards with 5860, and rushing touchdowns with 69. The latter is still an Eagles record, while his yardage is good for 4th on the teams all time list. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965.
Van Buren died from pneumonia in 2012. His number 15 jersey has been retired by the Eagles. His brother Ebert Van Buren was a first round draft in 1951 by…the Eagles.
CHUCK BEDNARIK, 1st Overall Selection 1949
The last great “two way” player, Chuck Bednarik starred for the Eagles as both a center and a linebacker, though it was as a linebacker that he carried out his two most famous on field deeds. It was Bednarik who tackled the Green Bay Packers Jim Taylor at the Eagles eight yard line in the 1960 NFL Championship Game as time expired, preserving the Eagles lead and securing the team’s last NFL title. Bednarik was also responsible for knocking New York Giants star Frank Gifford out of football for 18 months following “The Hit”
It was assumed that Bednarik’s nickname, “Concrete Charlie”, came about as a result of tackles like the one above. But it was actually due to his offseason work as a salesman for a cement company. Bednarik had come to pro football late due to his serving in the US Air Force in the Second World War, for which he received several decorations.
Bednarik died aged 89 in 2015. His family said he had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. His number 60 jersey is one of eight jerseys retired by the Eagles. In 1995, an award given to the best defensive player in college football was created, called the Chuck Bednarik Award.
BUD GRANT, 14th Overall Selection 1950
Harold “Bud” Grant, like Davey O’Brien, played just two seasons of pro football, both with the Eagles. These came after two seasons in the NBA with the Minnesota Lakers (see, Lakers in Minnesota makes more sense than in Los Angeles). In 1951, he played on the defense and led the Eagles in sacks, but he moved to wide receiver in 1952 and was again successful. His 997 receiving yards was an Eagles record at the time, though it was broken a year later by Pete Pihos. He then moved to the CFL, where he played for four seasons. It was as a coach that he made his biggest impact on the game, especially as the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. He coached the Vikings from 1967-1985, and won 158 regular season games. The Vikings won the NFL title in 1969, but lost in the Super Bowl to the Kansas City Chiefs. The Vikings would reach the Super Bowl three more times between 1973 and 1976, losing all three. His 158 regular season wins is good for 17th most among NFL head coaches. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1994.
BOB BROWN, 2nd Overall Selection 1964
One of the best offensive tackles of all time, Bob Brown was named First Team All Pro five times in his ten year NFL career, including three times in his five seasons with the Eagles. He was traded from the team to the Los Angeles Rams in 1969, before landing with the Oakland Raiders in 1971. The Raiders line that season consisted of Brown, Art Shell, Gene Upshaw, Jim Otto and Ron Mix. All five would end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Brown was inducted to Canton in 2004.
MIKE QUICK, 20th Overall Selection 1982
Mike Quick was something of a surprise 1st round pick in 1982, but he sure lived up to expectations as an Eagle. He led the NFL with 1409 receiving yards in his second season, still a team record. He went over 1000 yards in his next two seasons, with his 1985 tally including a record tying 99 yard pass reception against the Atlanta Falcons. After the 1986 season, he never played 16 games in a season due to patella tendinitis, and retired after the 1990 campaign with 363 receptions for 6464 yards and 61 touchdowns. Only two players have more receiving yards for the Birds, with only Harold Carmichael and Tommy McDonald snaring more touchdowns than Quick. He is part of the Eagles broadcasting crew alongside the legendary Merrill Reese.
JEROME BROWN, 9th Overall Selection 1987
One of the defensive stars of the mighty Miami Hurricanes of the mid 1980s, Jerome Brown was a human wrecking ball who knew just one speed – fast. In 1990 and 1991, as part of a devastating Eagles defense that including Hall of Famer Reggie White, Clyde Simmons, Seth Joyner and Eric Allen, Brown was twice named First Team All Pro. His 29.5 sacks is good for 16th all time for the Eagles, but seven of the players ahead of Brown did their damage after Brown’s time with the Eagles. Brown tragically died in a car crash with his 12 year nephew in June 1992, aged just 27. His death was announced to the people of Philadelphia by his teammate and great pal White during a charity rally at the Eagles Veteran stadium. The Eagles retired Brown’s 99 jersey, and left his locker untouched throughout the 1992 season which they played in his memory. That season is recounted in Mark Bowden’s “Bringing the Heat”.
DONOVAN McNABB, 2nd Overall Selection 1999
When the Eagles selected Syracuse QB Donovan McNabb with the second pick in 1999, his selection was met with boos by the rowdy Eagles fans present at the draft. They had wanted the team to take University of Texas running back Ricky Williams. McNabb accepted the boos with as good a cheer as he could muster, and went about proving the doubters wrong. By the time he was traded away to the Redskins prior to the 2010 season, he had played and started more games at QB for the Birds than any other player. His 32,873 passing yards, 216 touchdown passes and 92 wins are all franchise records. He led the Eagles to five NFC Championships and one Super Bowl, but despite the Eagles dominance of the NFC during the early years of the 21st century he was not able to deliver a championship for the Eagles. In 2004, he came third in the MVP voting behind Peyton Manning and Daunte Culpepper, and he became the first QB in NFL history to throw for at least 30 touchdowns and fewer than 10 interceptions in a season. His 3459 rushing yards is the 3rd most among QBs in the NFL since he entered the league in 1999, and only Michael Vick and Russell Wilson have more 100 yard rushing games as a QB since the 1970 merger than McNabb’s three. His number 5 jersey has been retired by the team, and he was named to the Eagles Hall of Fame in 2013.