This year the St. Louis Rams have the dubious honor of selecting the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. As history has shown sometimes No. 1 picks can either become the face of your franchise (Peyton Manning) or a colossal mistake (Aundray Bruce). So how have all the No. 1 picks fared and where are they now? We start with the top players from the 1930s and ’40s in Part I of our series.
1936: Philadelphia Eagles: Jay Berwanger (Chicago, RB)
Does this name sound familiar? It should. Berwanger was also the first winner of the Heisman trophy. After the Bears purchased his rights, Berwanger demanded the ghastly sum of $25,000 for a two-year contract. George Halas passed and Berwanger became a foam rubber salesman instead (and you thought Eli Manning played hardball with the Chargers…). Serving in World War II, he passed away in 2002 at the age of 88.
1937: Philadelphia Eagles: Sam Francis (Nebraska)
Francis had the distinction of being the first runner-up in the Heisman Trophy voting. He’s also the first No. 1 pick to play professionally after the Berwanger debacle. Despite being drafted by Philadelphia, he never played for the Eagles (to our knowledge he wasn’t booed, but the thought of angry Eagles fans throwing their fedoras in disgust is amusing). He spent four seasons between the Chicago Bears, Pittsburgh Pirates and Brooklyn Dodgers, which were in fact football teams at the time. Francis spent time serving in World War II and had a disastrous stint as the head football coach at Kansas State in 1947 (0-10). Francis died in his sleep at his home in Springfield, MO, in 2002. He was 88.
1938: Cleveland Rams: Corbett Davis (Indiana)
Davis spent just four seasons in the NFL, all with the Rams. In 1942, he left football to serve as a rifleman for the Army during World War II. He served in France, was injured in 1944 and then returned to action in England after recovering. Following his military service, Davis became a Big Ten referee and worked for a publishing company. He passed away in 1968 at the age of 53 during a fishing trip when he fell onto a tree branch and ruptured his spleen.
1939: Chicago Cardinals: Ki Aldrich (Texas Christian)
After winning the ’38 national championship, Aldrich and two of his teammates were drafted by the Cardinals. Aldrich spent two seasons in Chicago and then two with the Washington Redskins before leaving football to serve with the Navy during World War II. He returned to play with Washington in 1945 and retired in 1947. After football, he was the superintendent at the Lena Pope Orphanage in Ft. Worth, TX. He passed away March 12, 1983, at age 66 in Temple, TX.
1940: Brooklyn Dodgers: George Cafego (Tennessee)
Cafego was a two-time All American and a Heisman Trophy finalist in college. He spent one season in New York before a brief stint in the Army for World War II. He returned in 1943 and was traded to Washington. But after five mediocre games, he was shipped to the Boston Yanks (Boston Yanks? sacrilege!) where he finished his career in 1945. He went back to coach college football as an assistant and ended up at Tennessee for 30 years. Cafego passed away in 1998 in Knoxville, TN, at the age of 82.
1941: Chicago Bears: Tom Harmon (Michigan)
After winning the Heisman Trophy, Harmon was drafted by the Bears but signed with the New York Americans of the rival American Football League, instead. Harmon became a pilot for the Army Air Corps during World War II and was awarded the Purple Heart and Silver Star. He was once shot down in China and saved his silk parachute, which was later used to make his wife’s wedding dress (not quite going to a bridal shop).
After the war, he briefly played with the Los Angeles Rams from 1946-47 but then concentrated on a sports broadcasting career. He married actress Elyse Knox and much of his family has gone into acting or music. His son is former UCLA quarterback and current actor Mark Harmon of “NCIS” fame. Tom died of a heart attack at age 70 on March 15, 1990, in Los Angeles.
1942: Pittsburgh Steelers: Bill Dudley (Virginia)
The Maxwell Award winner as a senior at UVA, Dudley has the distinction of being the first No. 1 pick to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In his rookie season with the Steelers in 1942, Dudley led the league in rushing yards with 696 and was named to the All-Pro team. He served in the Army from 1943-45, even leading the Army base football team to a 12-0 record in 1944 as the team’s MVP.
He returned to the NFL in 1945 and played with the Steelers, Detroit Lions and Washington Redskins (including an NFL MVP award in 1946) until 1953 when he retired. He entered the insurance business with his brother in Lynchburg, VA. This past January he suffered a massive stroke and on February 4, 2010, he passed away at age 88.
1943: Detroit Lions: Frank Sinkwich (Georgia)
Sinkwich finished his college career with the 1942 Heisman Trophy, the first player out of the SEC to win the award. He was also named the No. 1 athlete of 1942 by the Associated Press, the same season Ted Williams hit for baseball’s triple crown (Williams didn’t even win the American League MVP that season – tough crowd).
After college, Sinkwich joined the Marines but was granted a medical discharge to play with the Lions. He spent two years in Detroit (1943-44) and was the NFL MVP in 1944. He joined the Merchant Marines and the Army Air Forces in 1945 but injured his knee while playing for a service team, ending his career. Sinkwich passed away in 1990 after a long illness in Athens, GA, at the age of 70.
1944: Boston Yanks: Angelo Bertelli (Notre Dame)
Bertelli played just six games for the Fighting Irish in 1943 but still won the Heisman Trophy (Tim Tebow couldn’t even do that). Although he was drafted by the Yanks, he never suited up for the squad. He served time in the military during World War II and after that played with the Los Angeles Dons and Chicago Rockets of the All-American Football Conference from 1946-49.
He settled down in Clifton, NJ, and spent the next 48 years of his life there, owning several businesses including a chain of liquor stores. He also sponsored midget football teams in the area. He passed away in 1999 at the age of 77 after battling brain cancer.
1945: Chicago Cardinals: Charley Trippi (Georgia)
Trippi was the Maxwell Award winner in 1946 and ended up in the middle of a bidding war between the NFL and the All-American Football Conference for his services. He signed a four year, $100,000 deal with the Cardinals and stayed there his entire career, winning an NFL championship in 1947. He was eventually enshrined in the NFL Pro Football Hall of Fame and is the only player enshrined with 1,000 yards receiving, 1,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing. He currently resides in Athens, GA, with his second wife, Margaret, at the age of 87.
1946: Boston Yanks: Frank Dancewicz (Notre Dame)
Dancewicz was an All-American at Notre Dame but he essentially just kept the seat warm between two better quarterbacks in Angelo Bertelli and Johnny Lujack. Dancewicz played just three seasons with the Yanks and achieved no notable accomplishments during his brief career. He passed away in 1985 at the age of 60. His grandson is former Harvard quarterback Chris Pizzotti, who recently signed a reserve/future contract with the Green Bay Packers.
1947: Chicago Bears: Bob Fenimore (Oklahoma A&M)
Fenimore became the first All-America at Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) and finished third in the Heisman voting in 1945 despite leading the nation in rushing yards. He barely played during his senior season in 1946 because of injuries but the Bears still took a chance on him in the ’47 draft. He played just one season with the Bears in 1947 and was out of the league. In 2007, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. He currently lives the retired life, enjoying the Golf Channel, and resides in Stillwater, OK.
1948: Washington Redskins: Harry Gilmer (Alabama)
Gilmer was named the Rose Bowl MVP in 1946. After being drafted by the Redskins in 1948, Gilmer spent his first six NFL seasons in Washington before playing his final two seasons with the Detroit Lions. After playing, Gilmer spent two seasons (1965-66) as the Lions head coach and three seasons (1980-82) as the St. Louis Cardinals offensive coordinator. He is currently retired and lives in St. Louis.
1949: Philadelphia Eagles: Chuck Bednarik (Pennsylvania, LB)
Prior to the draft, Bednarik finished third in Heisman voting and won the Maxwell Award in 1948. After being drafted by the Eagles, Bednarik won two championships in Philly (’49 and ’60). In a sign of how different the times were, Bednarik had a second job selling concrete for the Warner Company, which is how he got his nickname, “Concrete Charlie.”
In recent years Bednarik, has criticized current players for not playing on both sides of the ball and even went so far as to say they “couldn’t tackle my wife Emma.” He probably said this just before he yelled at the neighborhood kids for stepping on his lawn. He recently released a book, Concrete Charlie: An Oral History of Philadelphia’s Greatest Football Legend where various people tell their stories of Bednarik. He currently resides in Coopersburg, PA.
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