When the NFL held its first draft on February 8th, 1936 in the Philadelphia Ritz-Carlton Hotel , it did not take long for a Notre Dame player to be selected. In fact, with the third pick in NFL history, the Pittsburgh Pirates selected Notre Dame quarterback, Bill Shakespeare. Shakespeare will forever be remembered as the quarterback who threw the game winning touchdown pass against Ohio State in "The Game of the Century." Five Notre Dame players were selected in that first draft, highlighted by 8th round selection and future NFL Hall of Famer, Wayne Millner. Millner, who played end, was selection by the Boston Redskins and went on to play seven season with the Redskins, interrupted from 1941-1944 while he served in the military.
Notre Dame would go on to have 15 total players selected during the 1930s out of a total of 551 draft picks. Shakespeare was the only first round pick in the decade, while Millner was the lone Hall of Famer. Despite having a several successful season under Coach Layden, professional football was not considered a lucrative career. Many Notre Dame players were considered risky draft picks because they could likely succeed at other careers and would not necessarily choose to play football.
Notre Dame owned the NFL draft in the 1940s. A total of 82 players were selected over the decade, thanks in large to the coaching of Frank Leahy. From 1944-1946, 41 Notre Dame players were selected including the first overall pick in the 1944 draft, Angelo Bertelli. Shortly after the Boston Yanks selected Bertelli #1, the Brooklyn Tigers selected Creighton Miller with the third overall selection.
1946 was arguably the greatest draft in school history. Notre Dame had 16 players drafted overall, with four first rounders, including NFL Hall of Famer George Connor. It is amazing to consider that four of the ten teams selected Notre Dame players with their first overall picks in the draft. Notre Dame quarterback, Frank Dancewicz was the first overall pick in the draft by the Boston Yanks. Shortly after, another Notre Dame quarterback, Johnny Lujack was taken fourth by the Chicago Bears. Connor was selected fifth by the New York Giants and Emil "Red" Sitko capped off the first round when the Los Angeles Rams selected him tenth overall.
Connor, drafted in 1946, actually did not play in the NFL until 1948. Despite being drafted, he went on to two All-American years at Notre Dame in 1946 and 1947. The Giants traded his rights to the Boston Yanks and eventually the Chicago Bears. Originally drafted as a tackle, the Bears experimented with Connor at the linebacker position. Although he continued to play tackle as well, Connor became a force at linebacker. Measuring 6'3" 240 lbs, Connor became the first of the "big, fast, and agile" linebackers in the NFL. His career was cut short due to a knee injury in 1955.
Overall, Notre Dame had 10 of the 100 first round picks selected in the 1940s.
In 1950, Leon Hart was the first player selected in the NFL draft. Hart went on to play eight season with the Lions, making one Pro-Bowl. The following year Notre Dame had two first round draft picks with QB Bob Williams going second overall to the Bears and Center Jerry Groom going sixth overall to the Chicago Cardinals.
Notre Dame would not have another first round selection until 1954. That year they had three first rounders. The Packers took Tackle Art Hunter third overall, while the Steelers selected Johnny Lattner seventh and the Eagles selected another back, Neil Wordon ninth. Three more Notre Dame players were selected in the first round in 1955, and then in 1957, Green Bay selected NFL Hall of Famer, Paul Hornung with the first overall pick.
Notre Dame had 76 players selected in the draft during the 1950s. Perhaps no pick was better than the legendary Paul Hornung. Hornung played nine season with the Green Bay Packers, leading them to two Super Bowl victories, while being elected to two Pro-Bowls. Hornung was also named Player of the Year in 1960 and 1961.
Overall Notre Dame had 11 first round picks during the 1950s.
In 1962, Notre Dame produced their first real steal of the draft. After being completely passed over in the NFL draft, Nick Buoniconti had to wait until the 13th round of the AFL draft to be selected. Despite Notre Dame coach Joe Kuharich telling scouts that Buoniconti was too small to play professional football, the Boston Patriots gave the Irish linebacker a shot. Standing at only 5'11" and 220, Buoniconti was anything but small on the field. Playing fourteen season with the Patriots and Dolphins, Buoniconti was named to 6 all-star teams, 2 pro bowls, played in 3 Super Bowls, and was named team MVP three times. In 1973, the year after the perfect season, Buoniconti recorded a team record 162 tackles from the linebacker position. His inspired play was rewarded as he was named to the all-time AFL team and inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2001. All this after being passed over 302 times in the draft.
Notre Dame had a total of 105 players selected during the 1960s. With professional football expanding first with the AFL and then with the merged NFL, more and more players were being drafted. Perhaps the only Notre Dame player, better than Buoniconti, was the fifteenth overall pick of the Vikings in the 1967 draft, Alan Page.
After leaving Notre Dame as an All-American, Page went on to dominate the NFL. Page was a regular ironman of the NFL, playing in an unheard of 236 consecutive games. In addition, Page played in four Super Bowls. Using his catlike reflexes, Page went on to nine consecutive Pro-Bowl appearances. Over the course of his career, Page had 28 blocked kicks and 173 sacks. In true Notre Dame fashion, Page excelled after football too. Page went on to practice law and was named to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Notre Dame had a total of 9 first round picks during the 1960s.
Despite a relatively low number of draft picks during the 1970s, Notre Dame still produced two Hall of Famers, neither of which were first round draft picks. The highest picks of the decade were Walt Patulski, who was taken first overall in 1972 by the Buffalo Bills, and DT Mike McCoy, who was selected 2nd behind Terry Bradshaw in the 1970 draft.
Dave Casper waited for 44 players to be selected before he was finally drafted in 1974. As the second round pick of the Oakland Raiders, Casper was a bargain. Playing eleven seasons in the NFL, seven with the Raiders, Casper is remembered most for his clutch performances. After the famous "Ghost to the Post" play, in which Casper caught a 42 yard post pattern to setup the game tying field goal, Casper then ended the game in overtime with a 10 yard touchdown reception. That performance lifted the Raiders over the Baltimore Colts in the AFC playoffs. Casper is also remembered for the "Holy Roller" play in which he slightly kicked a fumbled ball into the end zone, landing on it for the game winning touchdown. Casper was named to five Pro Bowls and inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2002.
In the 1979 draft, Joe Montana was selected 82nd overall in the third round. The Forty-Niners, actually received the pick via Seattle, who had received the pick from Dallas. Essentially the greatest quarterback of all-time had been selected with a twice-traded pick. Montana proved to be another Notre Dame steal, as he won four Super Bowls, and three Super Bowl MVPs. Some incredible numbers to consider: Montana orchestrated 31 fourth quarter comeback wins, and had 39 300 yard games in his career. Seven times he threw for over 400 yards in a game, and his career 92.3 quarterback rating is second all-time.
Overall Notre Dame had only 62 draft picks in the 1970s, 7 of which were first rounders.
Only 43 Notre Dame players were drafted into the NFL during the 1980s. Many of the draft picks were some of the most exciting players to ever play for Notre Dame. Unfortunately college success did not always translate until NFL success.
The Irish had six players selected in the first round, the highest being Tim Brown with the sixth pick in the 1988 draft. Other prominent names included Dave Duerson, Mark Bavaro, Steve Beuerlein, and IrishEye's own Blair Kiel. Bavaro played ten seasons in the NFL, playing with the Giants, Browns, and Eagles. He was elected to two Pro Bowls and won two Super Bowls under Bill Parcells with the Giants.
Tim Brown, the 1987 Heisman Trophy winner, was selected sixth overall by the Los Angeles Raiders in 1988. Some questioned whether Brown could be an NFL receiver or whether he would be a career return specialist. Brown proved all of his doubters wrong, when he finished tied for third overall in career receptions with Steve Largent, trailing only Jerry Rice and Chris Carter. Despite being named to the NFL All-90s team, and nine Pro Bowls, Brown carried out a fairly quiet career. Keeping in character, Brown left the game quietly as well. His retirement press conference was attended by a small number of media, only two Raiders' officials and one teammate: Jerry Porter.
Overall, Notre Dame had only six first round draft picks in the 1980s: Bob Crable, Tony Hunter, Greg Bell, Eric Dorsey, Tim Brown, and Andy Heck.
As Lou Holtz brought Notre Dame football back to the top, he also produced a large number of NFL draft picks. Some NFL scouts said that Holtz's style of play produced great college athletes, but not undersized NFL prospects. Offensively this seemed to hold true, as guys like Rocket Ismail and Reggie Brooks, could not seem to catch on to the NFL game. However, Holtz did produce a number of defensive stars as well as some pretty successful running backs and lineman.
In all 68 players were drafted into the NFL. Overall, Notre Dame had 11 players selected in the first round of the draft during the 1990s. The names include: Todd Lyght, Derek Brown, Rick Mirer, Jerome Bettis, Tom Carter, Irv Smith, Bryant Young, Aaron Taylor, Jeff Burris, Renaldo Wynn, and Luke Petitgout. Other prominent picks included Chris Zorich, Craig Hentrich, Tim Ruddy, Bobby Taylor, Lake Dawson, Paul Grasmanis, Marc Edwards, Allen Rossum, Shawn Wooden, and Bert Berry. It is amazing to think that Notre Dame did not win a national championship with all of their talent during the early and mid 90s.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the 1990s picks was Rick Mirer. Coming out of Notre Dame, the biggest question was who would the Patriots pick? Would it be Drew Bledsoe or Rick Mirer? Unfortunately for Mirer, Bledsoe turned out to be the better pick. Mirer, who was at one time Notre Dame's "Golden Boy," never quite made it in the NFL. Despite a promising rookie season, Mirer disappointed fans in Seattle, and was traded to the Chicago Bears. Relegated to a career backup role, Mirer bounced around to the Jets, 49ers, Packers, Raiders, and Lions.
Despite 27 players being selected in the draft, Notre Dame has been in a drought as far as the NFL draft is concerned. Littering the draft with second day picks, Notre Dame has not had the NFL difference makers that warrant high round picks. Jeff Faine, who was selected in the first round of the 2003 draft, is the only first round pick Notre Dame has had since 2000. Faine, who was a warrior at Notre Dame, is now struggling for a position in the NFL.
Simply put, there are two reasons why Notre Dame has not faired well recently. The first, which was evident of the Davie eras, was an abundance of undeveloped talent. Davie had some star power, but his coaching staff did not develop it to be NFL caliber. Many players slipped into the late rounds, only to blossom under proper tutelage from their respective NFL staffs. Prime examples of this would be David Givens, Tony Fisher and Gerome Sapp.
The second reason was a lack of talent to begin with, which was then underdeveloped. This was the Tyrone Willingham era. Willingham took guys like Julius Jones and Justin Tuck, both of whom had first round talent, and turned them into second and third round picks. Perhaps the biggest example of this has been the one-year turnaround of talents such as Maurice Stovall, Dan Stevenson, and Brady Quinn. Stovall, widely considered a bust up until this year, was groomed into a potential first round draft pick, in only one year under Weis. Stevenson, who was an average blocker at best, was invited to the combine and instead of sending out job resumes, will actually be sitting by the phone on Draft Sunday. Quinn, who will not be entering the draft until next year, could have easily left this year and been a first round pick. Prior to this season, Quinn showed flashes of brilliance, and toughness, but far too often had the deer in headlights look as defenses blitzed.
As Charlie Weis continues to prove he is the hardest working football coach in America, his results are already beginning to show. This latest commitment from Jimmy Clausen represents more than just landing the best quarterback recruit in decades. Take a look around. Weis has nearly every kid in the top 100 considering Notre Dame to some extent. Weis has brought the recruiting intensity back to level it was at in the late 80s under Holtz. He has made Notre Dame football exciting again, not only to fans and alumni, but to high school kids around the country, most significantly the potential recruits.
This excitement means that Notre Dame will have more talent. In addition, the exemplary coaching abilities of this staff dwarf the past staffs in terms of development. Not only will Notre Dame bring in talented freshman, but they will graduated even more talented seniors. The NFL scouts have taken notice. Perhaps even greater than the Holtz years, Weis prepares his players for the NFL. He has learned from the best and knows what it takes to win championships. As mentioned by Jimmy Clausen, Weis knows how to get players to the NFL.
As the draft comes and goes this weekend, remember what it feels like to have only three or four guys selected. Remember the frustration as 1-AA players go before Notre Dame guys in the later rounds. Remember it, for it will soon be a thing of the past. The wheels are in motion. Talent is pouring in, and Notre Dame is getting better and better. The fact is that better developed talent equates to higher draft picks. Likewise, higher draft picks intrigue blue chip recruits. As long as Weis continues to work as hard as he is, Notre Dame will continue to produce top NFL talent. The drought is ending and the floodgates are all set to open.