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A look back, before the NFL draft got big

peterozelle Getty Images

The NFL draft has become such an overblown three-day television event that it’s a bit jarring — and hilarious — to go back and look at the low-budget production that was the 1981 NFL draft.

ESPN televised the draft way back then, when it took place at a small hotel ballroom, not Radio City Music Hall. We hear the names of great players like Giants draft pick Lawrence Taylor and 49ers draft pick Ronnie Lott, but back then the draft was, in the words of sports media critic Ed Sherman, a basement-like amateur production.

About 40 minutes of that 1981 draft broadcast are available in four 10-minute YouTube videos, and they’re fun to watch for football fans who want to take a stroll down memory lane. Part 1 shows NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle announcing George Rogers as the first overall pick and then awkwardly ceding the podium to Rogers, who looks baffled that he’s actually been brought to New York to be there in person. (This year 26 players will attend the draft; that year Rogers was the only one.)

In Part 2, you’ll get a good look at how cheesy the graphics were and how primitive the process of compiling information was. No computers are seen anywhere, and Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated, who played the role of draft analyst in those pre-Mel Kiper days, has a pile of papers in front of him and looks more interested in filling out his charts than he is in talking to studio host George Grande.

In Part 3, Howard Cosell is brought on to give his thoughts, and he blasts the draft as “the most overrated, over-propagandized annual event in American Sport.” If that’s how Cosell thought about the minor event the draft was then, he would have been beside himself if he had lived to see the spectacle the draft has become now.

Part 4 shows that Rozelle — who is always viewed as a visionary in understanding the role football could play on television — had absolutely no idea how to explain a draft trade to a television audience. Rozelle stumbled over himself repeatedly while explaining which picks were traded, and generally looked uncomfortable throughout. Rozelle was reportedly surprised when he learned that anyone actually thought the draft was worth televising.

What’s really striking (aside from all the mustaches) is the lack of information in the pre-information age: In 2012 we’re accustomed to watching both ESPN and NFL Network deploy an army of reporters who bring inside information from teams’ draft rooms, and to having all the information we could ask for about every player available online. In 1981 what passes as inside information is laughable: At one point ESPN brought an analyst on to talk about the Dolphins’ draft decision, and this is his entire report about why the Dolphins would draft a running back: “I read somewhere that Miami has a halfback who’s had certain personal problems and wants to be traded or whatever.”

From Chris Berman doing an interview in a restaurant to the Giants’ punter being brought in to say what he thinks about having Taylor as a new teammate, watching the 1981 draft is a study in seeing just how much the NFL has changed. Undoubtedly for the better.

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46 Responses to “A look back, before the NFL draft got big”
  1. runtheball says: Apr 22, 2012 10:31 AM

    I miss the old days of staying home from school to watch the draft on a random weekday. Oh the carefree days of youth. How I miss thee!

  2. mjkelly77 says: Apr 22, 2012 10:39 AM

    A look back, before the NFL draft got big
    ___________________

    It’s the players that have gotten big. But just wait until HGH testing occurs.

  3. GG Eden says: Apr 22, 2012 10:40 AM

    Nice article.

    What’s also interesting is commissioner Rozelle after announcing pick #3 lighting up a cigarette and sitting there on the stage puffing away.

  4. quizguy66 says: Apr 22, 2012 10:45 AM

    Love that the tradition of Jets fans being pissed off at the draft was alive and well even back in ’81 :)

    BEST PART – Berman not tipping the picks!!!!

    -QG

  5. hawks12 says: Apr 22, 2012 10:46 AM

    And the New York Jets select running back Freeman McNeil BOOOOOO BOOOOOO hahahaha everytime

  6. Rex Grossman says: Apr 22, 2012 10:52 AM

    The draft. 10-years-old, spending my weekend watching the draft (we’re talking 10 hours per day), so I could learn every new player.

    Best draft moments for me:

    ’01 – Bears pick David Terrell and A-TRAIN in 1st and 2nd round. The Bears were on their way. I still have jerseys of both.

    ’03 – Bears pick Rex Grossman…literally shat my pants. I have 4 Rex Grossman jerseys. Home, away, alternative and Florida. The glory days.

    OK I’m going to stop now because these are bringing dark thoughts.

  7. trseann says: Apr 22, 2012 10:53 AM

    Howard Cosell was the man

  8. Patriot42 says: Apr 22, 2012 10:54 AM

    With all of the cable outlets and internet blogs each trying to get our attention it is little wonder that we can get actual good information. Many ex-athletes and aging sports analyst doing their best to find the tidbits that can shock their audiences into remembering their names as they make up stories about athletes they cover. It is becoming useless to listen at length to many of them as the build up to the draft becomes bigger then the actual games themselves.

  9. ampats says: Apr 22, 2012 10:58 AM

    I remember watching the first telecast on ESPN. I believe it started at 11AM on a Tuesday and was always on a Tuesday.. I remember the 83 draft when Marino slid to 26 pick amid rumors of marijuana use.

    Joel Bushbaum’s draft guide was a must !

  10. brtdud7 says: Apr 22, 2012 10:59 AM

    At one point ESPN brought an analyst on to talk about the Dolphins’ draft decision, and this is his entire report about why the Dolphins would draft a running back: “I read somewhere that Miami has a halfback who’s had certain personal problems and wants to be traded or whatever.

    Still better than Mel Kiper.

  11. brtdud7 says: Apr 22, 2012 11:00 AM

    Giants’ punter being brought in to say what he thinks about having Taylor as a new teammate

    “I don’t feel good about it Chris. I have a daughter.”

  12. joetoronto says: Apr 22, 2012 11:01 AM

    I’ll never forget stunned look on Rozelle’s face while he was explaining to the press that he told Al Davis he couldn’t move the team.

    Someone asked him what Al Davis said to that and he replied “He said just watch me.”

    Classic stuff. :)

  13. gweez76 says: Apr 22, 2012 11:04 AM

    Skins got May, Manley Grimm, Didier and many more in this draft.

    One of the single greatest draft classes by any team ever. This draft was responsible for 3 SBs

  14. CKL says: Apr 22, 2012 11:07 AM

    Man that was frustrating. I was in middle school then and of course the draft was on a weekday so I couldn’t find out ANY news until Sports Center. I remember that cheesy ESPN logo.

  15. football2011 says: Apr 22, 2012 11:08 AM

    They put the whole show on for $314.

    Question: Who had the worst comb over Berman or Rozelle?

  16. flaccounibrow says: Apr 22, 2012 11:17 AM

    Rozelle was a visionary. Best in professional sports history. Taglibue was basically worthless, but was superior to the joke that is Goddell. The league went down the pooper as soon ah he was elected.

  17. jaggedmark says: Apr 22, 2012 11:37 AM

    There was one thing that was better about the draft back then. Viewers didn’t know the picks were going to be before they were announced. No cameras on players with telephones, no tweets by reporters, etc.

  18. stunzeed5 says: Apr 22, 2012 11:39 AM

    This draft turned the Redskins into a 80′s/early 90′s POWERHOUSE.

  19. raidadon says: Apr 22, 2012 11:39 AM

    I havent watched the draft since it became the previously mentioned three day poop test. Feel like it makes the jobs of the GMs easier as they have more time to finagle trades. Three days starting on Thursday sucks. Used to have an all day draft party. Now I just read the USA today on Monday. N of course visit the PFT. Goodell continues to take football away from the masses.

  20. sjoyner59 says: Apr 22, 2012 11:40 AM

    these weasels need to go back to the “weekend format”I miss putting that weekend aside to watch it,food and any other supplies-no need to leave the house it was all about the draft !

  21. brtdud7 says: Apr 22, 2012 11:55 AM

    I miss the old days of staying home from school to watch the draft on a random weekday. Oh the carefree days of youth. How I miss thee!
    ___________________________________

    Hmm, when I was a kid I stayed home watching The price is Right. Pardon my rudeness, but I believe being a kid and knowing the exact price of a trip to Morocco is more applicable than knowing the Bears 3rd round pick.

  22. packattack1967 says: Apr 22, 2012 12:06 PM

    The biggest hyped up overrated and costliest crap shoot in all of sports.

  23. allseeingone says: Apr 22, 2012 12:07 PM

    Howard Cosell was the most “the most overrated, over-propagandized” TV personality in American sporthistory!

    Visionary??? His only talent was being annoying. People would watch MNF just to hear Meredith blast him and to throw foam rubber bricks at their TV sets whenever his face appeared.

    But of course, there exists a certain segment in broadcasting who love to make him out to be more than he ever was.

  24. malignantsociety says: Apr 22, 2012 12:07 PM

    I miss Dr. Z.

  25. matthewcarlson1 says: Apr 22, 2012 12:11 PM

    I hate the way they do the draft now. They need to go back to a two day thing.

  26. bigredscouting says: Apr 22, 2012 12:20 PM

    I am a draft nerd. I wish the NFL would sell old drafts on DVD. I love watching the drafts regardless of how relevant they are at the time. I already watched this 1981 draft. I still have the draft from last year to get my fix when I feel a draft kick coming on. The NFL draft is my favorite time of the year.

  27. fafaflunky says: Apr 22, 2012 12:42 PM

    just like every thing else it turns into a media circus..all advertisements so the fat cats can get fatter..goodell wants to expand the nfl,b.s guy looking to expand the size of his wallet..

  28. nuclearwarfare says: Apr 22, 2012 12:55 PM

    The only draft I care about is my fantasy football draft. No Mel Kiper, no idiot “expert” analysis.

  29. wangoshiancoe says: Apr 22, 2012 12:59 PM

    It looks like the chaos of Woodstock – all that’s missing is Pete Townshend kicking Abby Hoffman off the stage…

  30. irememberwhen1947 says: Apr 22, 2012 1:00 PM

    I have been a fan of the NFL since 1957. I remember seeing articles on the draft when a team would take a Street and Smith college football magazine and use it as a guide. Does anyone else remember the NFL and AFL hiding players for days before the draft? I believe Billy Cannon was hidden for 4 days so the NFL wouldn’t draft him.

  31. whatevnfl says: Apr 22, 2012 1:01 PM

    The phones they use at the team tables look the same as the ones in the video from 1981.

  32. rooney24 says: Apr 22, 2012 1:13 PM

    It is always interesting to go back and see who drafted well and who didn’t. The Vikings traded out of the 1st round to get 2 extra 2nd round picks. They then blew all three of the 2nd round picks.

    I also found it strange that Rozelle just had a seat on the small stage and sat there smoking between picks. You can see ashtrays on all of the various team tables. Times have changed (for the better in that regard).

  33. olduke says: Apr 22, 2012 2:10 PM

    I too have followed the draft since 1957. Being an Eagles fan, we lost out on Jim Brown because the Browns who were going to draft Clarence Peaks, decided to take the next guy, Jim Brown, and the rest, as they say, is history. Brown is still regarded as the best NFL player of all time, while Peaks had a short, injury-filled career. Philly is still waiting for their 1st SB trophy.

  34. maumontav5 says: Apr 22, 2012 2:34 PM

    That’s what she said

  35. Deb says: Apr 22, 2012 2:40 PM

    I miss vegging out on the two-day draft. My brother always got Kiper’s draft guide and we’d sit glued to the thing like it was some thrilling movie festival. He always said opening day of the draft was his favorite day of the year. Opening day of preseason was mine. Ah … the joys of being a football fan!

  36. pleasantsurpriselefty says: Apr 22, 2012 2:53 PM

    Best thing: Pre Mel Kiper!

  37. nickster31 says: Apr 22, 2012 3:05 PM

    gweez76 says: Apr 22, 2012 11:04 AM

    Skins got May, Manley Grimm, Didier and many more in this draft.

    One of the single greatest draft classes by any team ever. This draft was responsible for 3 SBs

    *****************************************

    That was probably the second best draft by a team ever.

    1974 Pittsburgh Steelers, responsible for 4 Super Bowls and 4 Hall of Fame players selected in first 5 rounds.

    1st (21st) – Lynn Swann
    2nd (46th) – Jack Lambert
    4th (82nd) – John Stallworth
    5th (125th) – Mike Webster

  38. babyhorsemorgan says: Apr 22, 2012 3:14 PM

    Howard Cosell derided the draft as being “Something only my witless 6 year old nephew might find interesting!”.

  39. irememberwhen1947 says: Apr 22, 2012 3:30 PM

    Oldduke, I have been a Lions fan my entire life, thru thick and thin, yes there was a thick. The draft has become a made for TV/ESPN production. TV has way too much say over how and when the games are played and now the 3 day draft. We must bow to the advertising gods.

  40. briang123 says: Apr 22, 2012 4:42 PM

    These videos were just awesome. I have no idea why ESPN Classic isn’t running an edited version of every draft they did this week. Some thoughts: loved seeing Greg Gumbel 30 years ago. They guy has aged well. Howard Cosell was indescribable. I was just a kid watching Cosell so I didn’t really get or appreciate him until much later. Love him or hate him, he was a damn compelling man. Talking about Pete Rozelle out kicking his coverage. Check out his wife, then take a good look at him again. Nice work by him. Loved hearing “who?” after the Raiders picked some tackle. Loved the interviews with random nobodies that acted like they knew something. I checked You Tube for similar draft videos but could not find any. If there are more out there, please commenters or PFT, share them!

  41. nycoccet says: Apr 22, 2012 5:08 PM

    Espn should do a segment grading teams drafts since the first televised draft. I think it would be intresting not to mention all of us football junkies will watch anything to Do with football.

  42. jvibottomline says: Apr 22, 2012 7:35 PM

    1986 49ers, best complete draft ever, allowed the only two decade dynasty ever in the NFL

  43. TheWizard says: Apr 22, 2012 8:06 PM

    You can see ashtrays on all of the various team tables. Times have changed (for the better in that regard)

    Except that the do-gooders aren’t going to stop with cigarettes. They’ve already moved on to food and obesity, and there will be more after that.

    Germany had a big anti smoking movement in the 30′s.

    Just sayin.

  44. fish751 says: Apr 22, 2012 8:37 PM

    I’d love to see the draft go back to Sat. & Sun. We used to have a big party and get all the hardcore football fans gathering for the event. I’d be curious to see if this move to 3 days has had that much of an effect on the amount of viewers that they capture.

  45. nickp91 says: Apr 22, 2012 9:48 PM

    Howard Cosell is brought on to give his thoughts, and he blasts the draft as “the most overrated, over-propagandized annual event in American Sport

  46. wyrdawg says: Apr 22, 2012 10:29 PM

    Greatest post on this site…. ever.

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