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Sports Legend Revealed: Was a future Hall of Famer chosen in the NFL draft based on the sound of his name?

September 14, 2010 | 11:00 am

FOOTBALL LEGEND: A future Hall of Famer was drafted in the last round of the 1934 NFL Draft based on the sound of his name!

STATUS: I'm Going With Essentially True.

The first germ of the idea that became the National Football League Draft (the first of the major sports leagues to have a draft) occurred in 1934 when Philadelphia Eagles owner Bert Bell contacted Stan Kostka, a graduating senior from the University of Minnesota who was an outstanding fullback and linebacker. Bell asked Kostka that if Bell personally came to see him and offer him more money than any other team was offering, would he sign with the Eagles? Kostka said yes. So Bell flew out to Minneapolis and met with Kostka. He offered him $4,000, $500 more than any other team had offered. Kotska hedged, and Bell gave him a deadline of an hour. In an hour, Kostka still could not commit. What Bell had figured out what was going on was that Kostka was trying to call the Brooklyn Dodgers (the NFL one, not the MLB one), the team that had offered him $3,500, to see if they would up their offer but had been unable to get through. So Bell finally said, "If you give me an answer right this second I will give you $6,000." Kostka would not commit, so Bell left. Kostka ended up playing for the Dodgers in 1935.

Bell was convinced that this system of the teams bidding against each other was bad for the league but even more importantly to Bell, it was bad for his Eagles, who finished the 1934 season 4-7 due to what Bell felt was their inability to land the top players over the more solvent big market teams like the New York Giants and the Chicago Bears. After the end of the 1934 season, in early 1935, the other owners ratified Bell's historic proposal for an NFL Draft after the 1935 season (where Bell's Eagles fell to 2-9).

The first draft was held on February 8, 1936 in Philadelphia, where Bell's Eagles held the first pick. The nine-round draft was a ramshackle affair, with the number one choice choosing never to play professional football and a grand total of four Hall of Famers being drafted - none stranger than the fellow drafted in the final round by the Chicago Bears, a player drafted because of the sound of his name!

Fortmann First off, regarding the first overall pick. It was a player for the University of Chicago named Jay Berwanger. A halfback, Berwanger was a star player and was the first winner of Downtown Athletic Club Trophy in 1935 (the next year they started calling it the Hiesman Trophy). Berwanger had no interest in playing professional football, which, at the time, certainly was not a sport you were playing to make the big bucks. When the Eagles were unable to sign him, they traded his rights to his hometown Chicago Bears. When the Bears owner/coach George Halas ran into Berwanger soon after in Chicago, he asked him for his contract demands. Berwanger asked for a two-year/$25,000 deal. Halas never countered and Berwanger never played professional football (the two became friends, though, over the years).

As you might imagine, in a sport like professional football in 1936, there was not much of a scouting department on any team for the actual pro games, let alone to scout college players. The most famous college players were usually pursued due to the fame that they had accumulated. All the rest were signed by teams either due to tryouts or by word of mouth. So when the teams suddenly had to draft 81 players, well, there was a great deal of uncertainty.

This was born out in the results of the draft - less than half of the drafted players actually ended up signing with the team that drafted them. This was a combination of football not being a great profession at the time, money-wise, as well as teams not properly scouting players. Most teams "draft rooms" for the 1936 Draft consisted of a bunch of newspaper clippings written about players eligible to be drafted.

So by the end of the draft, you were really getting to the point where teams had extremely little information to go on. The Redskins did end up drafting a future Hall of Famer of their own in the Eighth Round, but the player, Wayne Millner, had attended Notre Dame and Redskin Coach Ray Flaherty was familiar with him.

In the ninth round, Bears owner/coach Halas said upon making his pick, "I saw a name I liked; Danny Fortmann. Now that name's got a good sound to it." Fortmann was a guard playing for Colgate University in New York. Colgate was not necessarily a college football powerhouse, but they were still definitely a respected program during the 1930s. Fortmann was 6 feet tall and just over 200 pounds, so he was about average size for a guard at the time (nowadays, guards are 6 foot 4 at the shortest and always over 300 pounds), but boy, his name certainly does sound like a football player. The debate here, then, is whether Halas was joking or not.

History has generally reported the statement as serious, and I think the facts surrounding the situation are believable enough to support a "true" here. To wit, it was not like Halas was pulling a name from thin air - for him to even SEE Fortmann's name, it means that someone must have thought enough of him to put him before Halas as an option. And when you were in the final round of a draft where most of the draftees were never going to play for the teams that drafted them in the first attempt at even doing a draft, I think it is reasonable enough to believe that Halas effectively rolled the dice on Fortmann. If he turned out to be a bum, Halas would simply not sign him (or offer him so little that Fortmann wouldn't sign). In addition, only three teams picked after Halas, so he was only missing out on the chance of getting the rights to three other players, which at this point in the draft probably was no great loss. So I'm willing to take Halas at his word (and how his statement has been reported over the years) and say that he just took a shot in the dark with Fortmann.

Of course, if it was a shot in the dark, it was a great one at that, as Fortmann (who played his first game at 20 years old, the youngest player to play in the NFL at that time) went on to make the second team of the All-Pro team his first two years at guard and then first team All-Pro at guard the next six seasons from 1938-1943! He also made three Pro Bowls at guard from 1940-1942. He and his fellow 1936 Draft Pick (the Bears' first round draft pick and another future Hall of Famer) tackle Joe Stydahar were a formidable sight on the Bears line. They were both a major part of Bears teams that would win three NFL Championships in the early 1940s (as well as six division championships during Fortmann's career).

Even more importantly for Fortmann, beyond his salary as a football player (which wasn't great - he got paid $1,700 a year to start, which wasn't a lot of money even back then), Halas helped him attend medical school while playing professional football, so when his career as an NFL player stopped, his career as a doctor began (he graduated from the University of Chicago's Medical School in 1940). He eventually went to work for St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, California in 1948, where he continued to work until his retirement in 1984. During this period, he also came back to the NFL to work as the team physician for the Los Angeles Rams from 1947-1963. In 1965, Fortmann was named Chief of Staff at St. Joseph Medical Center - that same year he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He passed away in 1995.

While that which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet, I don't know if we can say that a Fortmann by any other name would have been an NFL Hall of Famer.

Special thanks to Robert Lyons' book about Bert Bell, On Any Given Sunday: A Life of Bert Bell, for the Bell/Kostka story and thanks to a number of different folks, perhaps most prominently Jim Dent and his book, Monster of the Midway: Bronko Nagurski, the 1943 Chicago Bears, and the Greatest Comeback Ever, for the information about the Fortmann pick.

By the way, speaking of great names (and the "rose" line above), the third overall pick in the 1936 NFL Draft belonged to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Guess who they picked? None other than William Shakespeare, out of the University of Notre Dame!

--Brian Cronin

Be sure to check out my Sports Legends Revealed for more sports legends! I have archives up for a number of sports, so you can easily browse through past legends. For instance...

Check out the football legends archive to read about legends like: What football league had back-to-back years where a team drafted a DEAD player?.

Check out the basketball legends archive to read about legends like: In what midwest city did the Harlem Globetrotters ACTUALLY originate?

Check out the Olympic legends archive to read about legends like: Discover the strange story of how Joe Frazier qualified to win the Olympic Gold Medal in Boxing!

Check out the baseball legends archive to read about legends like: Learn the amazing history of how Major League Baseball prevented a minor league team from having a female baseball player on their team!

Also be sure to check out my Entertainment Legends Revealed for legends about the worlds of TV, Movies, Music and more!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com. And buy my book, "Was Superman a Spy? And Other Comic Book Legends Revealed! here.

Photo: Dan Fortmann. Credit: Chicago Bears. 

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