Joe Stydahar, the first drafted player to make it to Canton


In 1936 the National Football League held the first college player draft to help distribute prospective players in an even and fair manner to each league club. Today, teams employ year-round scouts whose job it is to grade potential players in preparation of the yearly event. The first draft, however, was conducted at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia without the fan frenzy that accompanies the annual draft in New York City’s Radio City Music Hall each April. The league’s inaugural draft more closely resembled a fantasy football draft that is held in family rooms across the country.

Most of the NFL teams in 1936 prepared for that first draft by accumulating as many national football publications as possible. This may have the reason that that two of the first three overall picks never played a down in the NFL. The Chicago Bears had much better fortune when they selected Joe Stydahar with the sixth overall pick. Not only did Stydahar play until 1946, but his draft selection made him the first drafted player to earn election into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Before his pro career, Stydahar was a two-sport star in football and basketball at Shinnston High School in West Virginia. Following graduation, he decided to attend the University of Pittsburgh. After just a few weeks at Pitt, Joe became homesick and left the school. Shortly thereafter, he enrolled at the University of West Virginia where he became an All-America tackle. 

Many teams were surprised when the Chicago Bears selected the little-known Stydahar with the sixth selection. A number of highly publicized players were still on the board for the Bears to select. It turns out that an end on the Bears named Bill Karr had played at West Virginia and informed Chicago’s coach George Halas about Stydahar’s talent.

Standing at 6-4 and weighing 250 pounds, “Jumbo Joe” turned out to be the one of the best draft selections in team history. As a 60-minute performer, he earned the first of five straight All-NFL selections following his rookie season in 1936. His overpowering strength and deceptive speed contributed to the Bears’ “Monsters of the Midway” reputation. While with the Bears, Stydahar helped lead Chicago to five divisional and three NFL titles.

Stydahar interrupted his playing career at the height of his popularity to serve in the U.S. Navy as a lieutenant and gunnery officer aboard the U.S.S. Monterey in World War II following the 1942 season. He returned in 1945 to play for two more years in the NFL.

He retired from the playing field following the ‘46 season and quickly began a coaching career. As head coach of the Los Angeles Rams Stydahar led his team to the NFL championship game in 1950 and again in 1951. The Rams downed the Cleveland Browns in the ’51 game. He later coached the Chicago Cardinals for two seasons from 1953-54. He also served as an assistant coach with the Bears in 1963-64.

Stydahar earned pro football’s highest honor when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967. He served as an employee at an Illinois container company before he died suddenly in 1977 at the age of 65.

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