After two years in the Windy City, the NFL draft is on the move again. This time it will set up shop in Philadelphia. No doubt the boos might be deafening for Roger Goodell and any draft picks associated with the Cowboys, Giants and Redskins. They call it the City of Brotherly Love. Emmett Smith famously said, “You gets no love in Philly.” When it comes to the Chicago Bears draft plans though, that town was generous to them in the past.
The last time the draft was located in Philadelphia was way back in 1961, almost 56 years ago. Most people these days weren’t even alive yet or are too old to remember it. Upon doing a little research though, Bears fans may find that draft to be one of the most unique in franchise history. Not only did it usher in one of the organizations’ all-time icons, but also may have been one of the most tragic what-if stories.
The 1961 Chicago Bears draft was odd
The late, great George Halas was still head coach in those days. He’d regained much of his mojo over the past few years when it came to the draft. It showed that year. Not only did the run of picks he made prove fruitful, it also in part set the stage for the teams’ NFL championship run two years later.
Put it this way. The Bears made 20 picks in that draft. Seven of them would end up becoming Pro Bowlers. None was more memorable than the headliner. A young man from Pitt by the name of Mike Ditka.
Ditka was really the one who turned the tight end position into an offensive weapon way before anybody else. He would retired with over 5,800 yards and 43 touchdowns, landing himself in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Not too shabby. By rights the rest of the class that followed should’ve turned the Bears into a dynasty.
- Mike Ditka – HOF tight end
- Bill Brown – 4x Pro Bowl running back
- Ernie Ladd – 4x Pro Bowl defensive tackle
- Keith Lincoln – 5x Pro Bowl fullback
- Mike Pyle – 1x Pro Bowl center
- Bob McLeod – 1x Pro Bowl tight end
- Jim Tyrer – 9x Pro Bowl offensive tackle
That is an unreal haul. So why in the world didn’t it produce like it should’ve? The reason can be cut down to three simple letters: AFL. Or the American Football League. By 1961 the rival pro league was starting to gain traction, luring top college players into their fold and away from the NFL. No draft emphasizes such casualties of war better than this one for Chicago.
Ernie Ladd and Keith Lincoln both went to the San Diego Chargers. Bob McLeod chose to join the Houston Oilers and Jim Tyrer was a prime heist by the Kansas City Chiefs. If that weren’t bad enough the Bears compounded the losses by trading Bill Brown after just one season to the upstart Minnesota Vikings. There he’d blossom into a star.
There may have been no greater victim of the AFL’s rise than the Bears. The 1961 draft wasn’t the only one of that decade where they lost out on future stars because of it. Some could say the eventual decline in the late ’60s and bottoming out in the early ’70s were a direct result of it. While it produced a once-in-a-lifetime player like Ditka and did help them win a championship, there is still so much that could’ve been.
Now the Bears return to Philadelphia. The AFL is long gone. Can they reproduce some of that magic they had five and a half decades ago? If they do, there won’t be any talent poaching this time. It will be all theirs, and the ramifications could be profound.