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Jay Berwanger won the inaugural Heisman Trophy in 1935 for the University of Chicago and became the No. 1 player taken in the first NFL draft a few months later.
He chose to work at a rubber company and be a part-time coach for his alma mater rather than try to make a living playing football.
More than five decades later, Oklahoma State Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders threatened to sue the NFL if it did not allow him to be drafted while he still had college eligibility.
In the early days of the NFL, college football was king and playing professionally was not something most players aspired to do. By planting its flag in large cities, embracing television exposure and playing a more entertaining style, the NFL surged in popularity in the middle of the 20th century and turned college football into a means to an end for many players.
Now college teams brag about sending players to the league, even while NCAA officials and college sports leaders try to downplay what has become obvious.
“Well, I definitely think college football is sort of the minor leagues in a way. Like a breeding ground for the NFL,” said Eric Winston, who played 10 years in the NFL as an offensive lineman and is currently the president of the players’ association.
College football was already entrenched in American culture when the NFL was established in 1920 with most of its teams in small Midwestern towns.
“Baseball was the national pastime, but college football was the greatest sporting spectacle,” said Mike Oriard, a Notre Dame graduate and former NFL player who has written several books on the history of football.
Games matching Notre Dame and Army packed Yankee Stadium in New York in the 1920s and ’30s, even during the Great Depression. The Rose Bowl game was a yearly event on the West Coast on New Year’s Day. College football was seen as a worthy and noble enterprise: amateurs pl
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