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Events Four Decades Ago Created Today’s NFL Draft Spectacle

Fans tuning in on Thursday night might do well to remember the events four decades ago that helped make the draft what it is today.

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Fans who tune in to ABC, ESPN, or the NFL Network at some point in the next three days will do so to watch their favorite teams select players for the upcoming season. But fans may not recognize how events held 40 years ago this week helped to shape the NFL draft, and pro sports in general.

Over the course of April 26 and April 27, 1983, that year’s draft transformed football into the all-consuming spectacle it is today. Events in the ballroom of the New York Sheraton would also presage a coming era of not just enriched but emboldened professional athletes.

Empowered Players

The 1983 NFL draft featured six quarterbacks selected in the first round — a record. Four of them (John Elway, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, and Tony Eason) would go on to start in the Super Bowl over 11 of the following 16 years, practically defining an era of football.

The way in which fully one-quarter of the league (i.e., seven of the 28 teams then in existence) selected a new starting quarterback illustrated how the position had morphed into arguably the most important in all professional team sports. The hope that can accompany a new quarterback provided curiosity and intrigue for numerous teams and their followers heading into the 1983 draft. It also provided high drama over the first quarterback selected, and the first player drafted overall.

An acclaimed prodigy from Stanford University, John Elway had little interest in playing for the Baltimore Colts, who held the first pick in the 1983 draft. Elway and his father, Jack, thought they had reached a gentleman’s agreement with the Colts’ ownership that would see Baltimore trade the top pick, so Elway could play elsewhere. But with dysfunctional management and temperamental owner Frank Kush failing to reach a trade agreement before the draft, Baltimore selected Elway anyway.

What happened next set a new precedent. Elway, encouraged by his agent Marvin Demoff, announced on the afternoon of the draft that he would refuse to play for the Baltimore Colts, and would instead take up an offer from the New York Yankees, with whom he had already signed a contract, to play professional baseball full-time.

As recounted in the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “Elway to Marino,” which chronicles the 1983 draft, Elway’s power play brought him no small amount of criticism. Terry Bradshaw, the future Hall of Famer and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ starting quarterback at the time, publicly derided Elway as a spoiled brat for attempting to dictate where and for whom he would play.

But in the end, the power play worked. Owner Frank Kush — who ended up moving his team from Baltimore to Indianapolis in the dark of night at the end of the 1983 season — agreed to trade Elway to the Denver Broncos. In Denver, Elway appeared in three Super Bowls in the ’80s, before finally winning two Super Bowl championships following the 1997 and 1998 seasons.

While few coming out of college have the clout to make the move that a sought-after talent like Elway did, his maneuvering paved the way for other players — particularly quarterbacks — to select the team they will play for. The drama about whether the Green Bay Packers would trade quarterback Aaron Rodgers, or whether the Ravens can sign their quarterback Lamar Jackson to a long-term contract, illustrates the leverage that in-demand players now use against teams, in the NFL, and elsewhere.

A Made-for-TV Spectacle

The 1983 draft also proved useful for the league. Television cameras had not televised the draft until ESPN showed up in 1980. While then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle reportedly thought the draft would prove a boring event to broadcast, events subsequently proved him wildly incorrect.

The drama that defined the 1983 draft would propel further interest in the NFL selection process. One year later, beginning with the 1984 draft, ESPN hired Mel Kiper Jr., the first of what would become a cottage industry of talent evaluators and draft prognosticators. Five years later, in 1988, the NFL moved the draft from two weekdays to the weekend, allowing ratings to explode.

Draft sites expanded over time, too. What in 1983 took place in a hotel ballroom moved to the cavernous Radio City Music Hall from 2006 to 2014, and then became a traveling showcase hosted by NFL cities across the country. Over the past decade, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, Nashville, Cleveland, Las Vegas, and, this year, Kansas City (home of the Super Bowl Champion Chiefs) have hosted what has become a multi-day festival of football.

The way in which the draft has sparked an entire cottage industry — from the televised pre-draft combine to the mock drafts held by myriad analysts, to the weeks of speculation and build-up on sports talk shows nationwide — demonstrates the way in which professional football has become a year-round pastime (some might argue obsession) for millions of Americans. Fans tuning in on Thursday night, after having spent the months since the season’s end scrounging up draft rumors and tidbits, might do well to remember the events four decades ago that helped make the NFL draft what it is today.

This article has been corrected since publication.


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