By Sam Fiske
With the spectacle that is the 2015 NFL Draft wrapping up in Chicago on Saturday, Medill Reports caught up with a couple veteran newspapermen who recalled a different era for football and the draft. In a series of phone interviews, former Chicago Tribune sports reporters Don Pierson and Ed Stone shared their experiences covering the NFL Draft back in its earliest days. Pierson and Stone described the early 1960s as a whacky time in professional football, filled with secret negotiations and bidding wars between teams. Both said they’ve seen the draft evolve from a confab of backroom dealing executives into the mammoth televised attraction it is today.
What was the NFL Draft experience like in the 1960s?
Stone: “It was more colorful back in the early days because you had access to the more interesting personnel in the league in one big ballroom in those days you’d have a lot of big people like Vince Lombardi.
Was there hype surrounding the NFL Draft?
Pierson: The draft was not a big deal at all. It was almost an afterthought, just something that guys [NFL players] went through.
How has the scouting of prospects changed?
Pierson: During the 50’s, teams would draft from college magazines. Teams would get these [and say] ‘oh, this guy looks pretty good.’”
What was the AFL vs. NFL war like?
Stone: What happened in those years when the leagues were competing, the teams would arrange with agents or player representatives to hide the player, so the other league couldn’t contact them. They would hire guys, send them out to Hawaii if they knew teams in their league wanted to sign someone especially quarterbacks. In most cases the NFL had the upper hand because they were more established.
How did the Draft become such a big event?
Pierson: Everything can be traced to ESPN. The Draft was in December right after the season, then they moved it to February, now it is the 2nd of May. The NFL was jealous of baseball [that] had so much offseason coverage [Winter Meetings].
Stone: It was always a great media event because reporters, as soon as they [players] were selected, you’d be on the phone with the player or agent. But it’s not really a spectator [event].