By Jeremy Hritz
There are many firsts within football organizations that are memorable and historical, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are no exception. From the first playoff win (1972 Divisional Round win against the Raiders), to the first-ever Steelers Hall of Famers (Bert Bell and Johnny “Blood” McNally), these history nuggets are worth knowing, remembering, and celebrating, as it keeps alive the legend and tradition of the black and gold.
The same goes for the first-ever Steelers draft pick in the inaugural NFL Draft in 1936, something all Steeers fans should know. The ‘36 Draft took place in the Commonwealth, as Andrew affectionately calls it, in Philadelphia at the Ritz Carlton, and curiously enough, the Eagles selected first overall, while the Steelers picked third. Off the board first to the Eagles was Heisman Trophy winner, Jay Berwanger, Halfback out of Chicago, while at pick number 2, the Boston Redskins selected Quarterback Riley Smith from Alabama. This set the stage for the Steelers to make their pick, and yes, history.
At #3 overall, the Steelers chose a player with a recognizable name, and just not in football. This player, a Halfback from Notre Dame, went by Bill Shakespeare, Bill short for William, and I don’t need to explain the literary significance and insult your intelligence.
Shakespeare, a halfback and punter in high school, went on to play for the Fighting Irish, where he had a notable enough of a career to earn his way into the College Football Hall of Fame. With the Irish, Shakespeare played in what was voted the best game in 100 years of College Football against Ohio State in which he threw the game winning touchdown pass with no time remaining on the clock. Talk about touchdown Jesus.
Though drafted by the Steelers, professional football did not offer a livable, comfortable wage, so “The Bard of Staten Island” shifted his mindset to business and focused his career in that arena instead of football. Ironically enough, before he did so, he acted in a film, The Big Game.
While we could never imagine a 3rd overall draft selection turning down the NFL for a career in business today, this was a reality in the 1930s. However, Shakespeare was also a man dedicated to his country, and he fought in World War II, earning several honors including the Bronze Star for Gallantry for his contributions in the Battle of the Bulge. And while football is a worthy cause, it does not even deserve a fraction of the nobility and honor to the men and women who sacrificed all for the sustenance of freedom in the United States.
While he was raised in New York, he lived in Ohio, where he was President of the Cincinnati Rubber Company. In 1974 at the age of 61, Shakespeare passed away, leaving behind two sons who carry on his name.
While he never had a touch for the Pittsburgh Steelers, he will forever be remembered, not just for his unforgettable name, but the fact that he was the first-ever chosen by the organization to represent the city of Pittsburgh. Had his goals been different and he dedicated himself to the team instead of a career in business and service in the military, his story and folklore would certainly be deeper and richer, but he will always be the city’s first.
Here’s to you, Bill. Forever you are enmeshed in the steel and soul of the franchise that continues to thrive but that was ignited by the inaugural draft you were a part of in 1936.