Bill Shakespeare

Courtesy Pittsburgh Steelers colourised by @SteelUK

As the draft approaches, it’s worth looking back to the first one held in 1936. The Pirates had finished their fourth season and professional football was still trying to find its feet. Baseball was the nation’s sport while football was dominated by the collegiate game played on Saturdays.

The NFL was dominated by the powerhouses of the Chicago Bears and the New York Giants. Both cities had large fan bases and could operate successfully as the United States economy emerged from the Depression.

Pittsburgh and Philadelphia were smaller markets and found it difficult to survive. The Pirates owner, Art Rooney, subsidised his team throughout their early years while Bert Bell also struggled to keep his Eagles solvent.

Both owners wanted some restraint over the rising players’ salaries. At the time, there was no control over the signing of players. That meant the teams with money could attract the best players by luring them with higher wages.

At the 1935 owners meeting in Pittsburgh, Rooney and Bell succeeded in obtaining an agreement to hold the first draft the following year. Bell emphasised their case when he stated, “Every year, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”

Pittsburgh select Will Shakespeare in 1936 draft

At the owners meeting in February 1936, Philadelphia had the first pick following their 2-9 season and chose Jay Berwanger while Pittsburgh selected third and took Notre Dame’s Bill Shakespeare.

The star halfback from South Bend, who was also an exceptional punter, was credited with leading the Fighting Irish from behind to triumph 18-13 over the heavily favoured Ohio State in the “Game of the Century.”  He was dubbed, the “Bard” for obvious reasons

Both Berwanger and Shakespeare were voted onto the 1936 Collegiate All-Stars team as halfbacks to play the NFL champions, Detroit Lions and the New York Giants. Balloting took place in 182 newspapers around the country.

The All-Stars caused an upset when they drew 7-7 in the first game in Chicago against the Bears before they succumbed 12-2 to the Giants in a game plagued by fumbles.

The Big Game

Shakespeare never played professional football. He returned to Notre Dame for post graduate work and played baseball for the university. He was signed to play a part in the sports film, “The Big Game.” Its director George Nicolls Jr. thought he was a real film find.

The film was described as a “thrilling, gridiron romance” with a host of real All-American football stars and a cast of screen favourites. Asked if he like playing in a football film, Shakespeare responded, “I get a kick out of it.”

Shakespeare was traded by the Pirates, but despite several offers, he never signed to play football and accepted a position as assistant to a railroad executive. Instead of playing on the football field, Shakespeare was playing in theatres across America. It was reported he received a lot of fan mail. Together with his fame from the football field and his good looks, he enjoyed some of the winter in the Miami sunshine before his thoughts turned to settling down.

In February 1937, AP reported he was through with football except for Monday morning quarterbacking. “I have no desire to play the game for money. I got all the glory I wanted at South Bend and the future of coaching is too uncertain.”

He admitted he had received three or four coaching offers. “I’m not tired of football,” he said. “The game itself has been perfectly swell to me. But I guess my football future is all behind me.”