Alabama didn't have the first player selected in the inaugural National Football League draft, but it did have the first player drafted who played in in the league.
Riley Smith was a fullback on the 7-1-1 team in 1933, but switched to quarterback the following year, when Frank Thomas’ team went 10-0, handily defeated Stanford in the Rose Bowl, 29-13, and won the national championship.
Even though the 6-foot-1, 195-pound All-American led impressive victories against Georgia and Tennessee his senior year, and handled kicking duties, Smith also won the Jacobs Award as the Southeastern Conference’s best blocker.
On Feb. 8, 1936, the National Football League held its first draft at the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia, where Jay Berwanger, the first Heisman Trophy winner, from the University of Chicago, was the first-overall pick by the Eagles. But Berwanger reportedly wanted $1,000 a game, an unheard of sum then, and didn’t sign with either the Eagles, who selected him, or the Chicago Bears after they traded for his rights.
Riley was selected second by the Boston Redskins.
“I signed because I wasn’t ready to quit playing ball,” Smith told the Professional Football Researchers’ Association in 1983. “I just wanted to keep playing. I signed for $250 a game and a little bonus. We won the Eastern Division championship twice and the NFL championship once in the three years I played and the most I ever got was $350 a game. I made more money in the offseason.
“I quit in 1938 and took a coaching job at Washington and Lee for a lot more money. But we had it good because some of those fellas down in Philadelphia were playing for $60 and $70 a ball game.”
Incidentally, only 24 of the 81 players selected in that initial draft were on National Football League rosters that season. Four more signed the following year and three opted for the American Football League.
Because the substitution rules were different, and players had to play both offense and defense, rosters were limited to a 25-player maximum. But still, almost a third of the players were rookies, the majority of which signed as free agents.
“That’s about right for that time,” Smith said. “There wasn’t any money in [the NFL] so people didn’t go in and if they did they didn’t stay long.”
Smith himself had a short career in the NFL before being sidelined by an injury, and in his first year helped turn the Redskins from the second-to-last team in the league to Eastern Division champions in 1936. Despite the team’s success, lackluster fan support prompted owner George Preston Marshall to host the title game at the Polo Grounds in New York (where it lost to the Green Bay Packers), and then move the franchise to Washington D.C.
With the sixth-overall selection in the 1937 draft, the Redskins selected TCU quarterback Sammy Baugh, who would revolutionize the passing game through 1952. In the first home game at Griffith Stadium in Washington D.C., Smith scored on a 60-yard interception return, two field goals, and an extra point to lead a 13-3 victory. The Redskins went on to win their first championship, defeating the Chicago Bears 28-21 in the title game.
During the 1936-37 seasons, Smith missed only three minutes in 26 Redskins games. In 1939, he served as an assistant coach at Washington & Lee, and was promoted to head coach in 1940-42, before serving in the as a Lieutenant Commander during World War II.
Incidentally, Alabama had another high pick in that initial draft, some end named Paul W. “Bear” Bryant by the Brooklyn Dodgers in the fourth round. He never played in the league and instead went into coaching.