When the newly minted Los Angeles Rams called his name first during Thursday night’s NFL Draft in Grant Park, former Cal quarterback Jared Goff essentially became an instant multimillionaire—the latest addition to one of the richest corporations in the country in the National Football League. He hasn’t signed a contract yet, but if recent history is a guide he’ll likely get a multiyear rookie deal worth in the range of $20-$25 million.
Of course, Goff doesn’t have to go to work for the Rams, but why wouldn’t he? It’s a laughable idea that he might say “nah” to the riches and fame of pro football and opt to join his father Jerry as a firefighter or be a wage slave at a factory. A football is ridiculously more profitable to carry than a lunch box.
That wasn’t the case at the dawn of the NFL Draft 80 years ago. In 1936, University of Chicago halfback and inaugural Heisman Trophy winner Jay Berwanger was chosen first by the Eagles and traded to the Bears, but he couldn’t hash out a deal with George “Papa Bear” Halas. Berwanger asked Halas for $25,000 (the equivalent of about $430,000 today) for a two-year contract—a substantial amount at a time when most players made about $150 per game.
”He asked me what I wanted,” Berwanger said. ”I said $25,000 for two years and a no-cut contract. We shook hands, said goodbye, and he and I have been good friends ever since.”
Berwanger did something that would seem unthinkable today: he benched himself, bypassing the NFL in favor of a blue-collar career in manufacturing.
The son of a Dubuque, Iowa, blacksmith, Berwanger went on to work at a rubber factory in the Chicago suburbs. He left during World War II to become a flight instructor, where he later became a lieutenant commander. Back in the ‘burbs after completing his service, he founded a company that made plastic and sponge-rubber strips for vehicles. By the time he sold the business in 1992, it was grossing $30 million a year—infinitely more than he would have made avoiding tackles in the NFL.
Berwanger’s remarkable story is trotted out from time to time around draft time—usually to demonstrate how far the NFL has come. Back in 1936, Halas met Berwanger in a U. of C. dorm lobby, interrupting a date the student was on in order to negotiate his contract. Yesterday, thousands of people swarmed NFL Draft Town in Grant Park and millions tuned in to ESPN to watch Goff shake hands with Roger Goodell. Times, they have a-changed.
The unsung aspect of the tale of Jay Berwanger isn’t about the ever-expanding heights of the NFL but the degradation of blue-collar work. Berwanger didn’t choose a career in banking or law—he picked a rubber factory over the glory of sports. Can you imagine a University of Chicago student—even one without a pro football pedigree—graduating in June and choosing the same career path? In post-Depression America, when labor unions were at their strongest, it was not only possible to live on a blue-collar salary, one could sustain a large family. Once a hub for blue-collar work, Illinois continues to compromise industrial jobs (only 7.5 percent of the total jobs in the state are production-related) and the ones that do exist are increasingly low-paying. Last year, Illinois ranked dead last among the 13 midwestern states in average wage at $35,426, according to IllinoisPolicy.org.
Put another way, Rams QB Jared Goff is likely to make—oh, about 112 times what he’d probably get at an Illinois factory. Goff was lauded in the Los Angeles Times for his “blue-collar work ethic” but chances are the 21-year-old never seriously considered a blue-collar career. Or at least one that didn’t involve a blue-collared football jersey.