Photo: Pete Rozelle wrote the 1967 draft picks on a chalk board as they were selected.
A half-century ago the NFL Draft was so low key and simple NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle stood at a chalkboard in a New York hotel ballroom. He scrawled names in chalk as they were called out.
The overwhelming anticipation hovering over the draft was not who would go where. It was relief that players were taken by only one team. The 1967 draft was the first since the NFL-AFL merger that ended bidding wars for talent.
Today we’re inundated with draft coverage. We have live coverage on two networks, ESPN and NFL Network. Mock drafts have been drawn and redrawn nearly since the day the previous draft ended. There is a green room for the top picks, their families and agents. Instant analysis is offered on the live coverage.
That’s not quite the way it was in 1967 when four Michigan State players were taken among the first eight draft picks: 1, Bubba Smith, Baltimore Colts; 2. Clint Jones, Minnesota Vikings; 5. George Webster, Houston Oilers; and 8. Gene Washington, Minnesota VIkings. Forget a a green room for them to huddle in and emerge from upon hearing their names called. Listen to how Washington, who unlike today's prospects leave school to train for NFL combine and workouts, learned the Vikings took him while he was still on campus earning his degree.
“The draft was going on, and I just happened to be in the football office,” Washington recalled. “One of the assistants called out to me, ‘Gene, you’ve got a phone call.’ ”
Keep in mind in those days the phone was wired to the wall.
“The guy says, ‘Congratulations, Gene. You’ve been drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in the first round. And Gene, you will be playing for Bud Grant. Bud is coming down from Winnipeg in the Canadian Football League to coach the Vikings.”
But the guy on the other end didn’t identify himself.
“I said, ‘Who are you?’ The guy says, ‘My name is Sid Hartman from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.’ I told him, ‘That’s great news and I’m glad you shared it with me.’ After a while I hung up, and about a week later I got my first call from someone at the Vikings. That’s all the fanfare we got back in those days.”
The 1967 NFL Draft was landmark for another reason. Michigan State’s stamp as the school that led the integration of college football was indelibly left on the first round.
Four of the first eight picks were African-Americans that played for Spartans' national championship teams of 1965 (UPI) and 1966 (co-champs with Notre Dame by the National Football Foundation). Three of the four first-round Spartans had escaped the segregated South to play for College Football Hall of Fame coach Duffy Daugherty on his Underground Railroad teams. All four were two-time All-Americans and are now in the College Football Hall of Fame.
No school has come close to matching that record of four picks in the first eight. In those days, even schools with a long history integrated teams only had a half-dozen or so black athletes on their entire roster. Minnesota won the 1960 national title with five and Notre Dame had only one in 1966. Michigan State included 20 black athletes, with 11 from the South. USC had only seven black players on its 1967 national championship team but 23 by 1972 after Daugherty showed the way.
As late as 1967, half of college football -- the SEC, ACC and defunct Southwest Conference -- was still all-white. Kentucky was the first SEC team to integrate in the fall of 1967. Maryland integrated the ACC in 1963 and Baylor in the Southwest Conference in 1966. Alabama dominates today’s draft, but the Crimson Tide didn’t dress its first black player until the 1971 season.
The 1967 NFL Draft seems quaint by today’s standards, but Smith would have been perfect for the modern TV show. After Smith’s playing career was cut short of the Pro Football Hall of Fame path he was by a knee injury, he gained further fame as a pitchman with Dick Butkus for Miller Lite commercials. He also played Moses Hightower on the Police Academy movies.
“Oh, that would have been something else,” said Jones. “Bubba would have loved the media festival. Bubba was a character, and he would have loved coming out on that stage.”
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From Raye of Light (foreword by Tony Dungy): Chapter 7, Bubba Smith (Bubba); Chapter 8, George Webster (The Missing Heisman); Chapter 9, Gene Washington (The Hurdler); and Chapter 12: Clinton Jones (Mr. MSU).