For years professional football was the private preserve of the Chicago Bears and more recently of the Cleveland Browns. Occasionally Green Bay or Washington or Detroit or Los Angeles would emerge from the pack, win a championship or two and then slip back into the lower ranks once more. Lately, however, the pro teams have been spending as much as $40,000 a season just to scout red-hot college prospects, thus turning collegiate gridirons into a coast-to-coast farm system. As a result, the old line of division in the National Football League—on one side the permanent haves, on the other the have-nots—is disappearing. The annual crop of rookies is paying off in an honest-to-goodness balance of power.
The NFL draft system aims at this very equalization of strength; the last-place finisher each year gets the first choice of that season's college crop and so on down the line to the league champion—which gets what is left over. The last three years, for example, the Lions have been at or near the bottom in the annual draft—this fall they lost their first six games. "It's finally catching up with us," Head Detroit Scout Bob Nussbaumer said recently in explaining the Lions' lapse. "You need good, fresh material each year—and we just haven't been getting it."'
The Lions are one of the few teams who haven't; however, the 1955 group is considered by the league's coaches to be the best ever. Downtrodden Baltimore picked up so many outstanding first-year men—players like Alan Ameche (see page 18), Quarterback George Shaw of Oregon, Halfback L. G. Dupre of Baylor and Center Dick Szymanski from Notre Dame—that the Colts are now high in the Western Conference race. San Francisco has been bolstered by the addition of Dick Moegle (Rice) and Carroll Hardy (Colorado); the Giants have Alex Webster from Canada and Roosevelt Grier (Penn State); Philadelphia got Dick Bielski (Maryland) and a sleeper in Bob Kelley, the center from little West Texas State; Pittsburgh has Frank Varrichione (Notre Dame) and Ed Bernet (SMU); the Chicago Cardinals, Dave Mann (Oregon State); Washington, Ralph Guglielmi (Notre Dame) and Bert Zagers (Michigan State); the Chicago Bears, Rick Casares (Florida) and Bobby Watkins (Ohio State); Los Angeles, Ron Waller (Maryland) and Larry Morris (Georgia Tech); even Detroit came up with one very good one, Dave Middleton of Auburn. In the wonderful array of new talent, these stand out and give promise of taking their places alongside the league's Otto Grahams and Doak Walkers and Chuck Bednariks and George Connors. They have obviously proved themselves to be real pros.
Shaw, the 1955 bonus pick in the draft, is a slick-faking T-formation quarterback who has great speed, is a finerunner and the only rookie up among the league leaders in passing; Szymanski is called "far and away the best rookie lineman" by Green Bay Coach Lisle Blackbourn.
One reason the Giants' Jim Lee Howell doesn't consider Szymanski the best is his boy Grier, a tremendous mountain of a man who has been one of the great defensive tackles of the season. The Giants, picked to finish high in the Eastern Conference race, have been a disappointment—but not Grier. Nor Webster. The 1954 ground-gaining champion of the Canadian League, Webster has jumped right into the NFL without any loss in efficiency. "The best running halfback in this business," says Howell, and he's backed up by no less an authority than Columbia's Lou Little, who calls the 210-pound halfback "the finest broken-field runner since Cliff Battles."
In San Francisco they refer to Moegle as The Baby-faced Assassin. When the 49ers picked him up in the first round of the draft there were those who asked what a team with three runners like Joe Perry and Hugh McElhenny and John Henry Johnson would do with another one. But Moegle, a brilliant defensive back, stayed busy with less glamorous chores and was ready to step in on offense when first McElhenny and then Johnson were hurt. He has been one of the big reasons the 49ers, after losing their first two games, have not yet fallen entirely out of the race.
Casares is the lone rookie fullback who can challenge Ameche—and some of the league coaches are beginning to think the big Bear may be the better of the two. He is next among the rookies to the Baltimore star in rushing, and against the Colts four weeks ago cut loose with the longest run from scrimmage of the season, an 81-yarder. Teammate Bobby Watkins has looked almost as good. Dave Mann has blossomed into a brilliant halfback for the Cardinals; Waller is a standout in the Ram backfield, and Middleton, moved from halfback to end to take advantage of his great straightaway speed, caught 13 passes, including one for 50 yards, in his first two games at the new position.
But now it is almost time for the pros to meet again, to pore over voluminous scouting reports, peer intently at the records and pick the players from the 1955 college season who will keep the NFL rolling on toward better—and better-balanced—football in the years to come. For the first time, well aware of stepped-up Canadian recruiting, the league will hold a partial draft meeting this year on November 28, picking the bonus choice and the first three rounds of selections. The rest of the draft will be completed, as in other years, in January. And down through the list—from rosters of schools like Notre Dame and UCLA and West Chester Teachers—the pros will be looking for the Ameches and Griers and Moegles of 1956.