This day in sports history: The player who didn’t know he’d been drafted for 50 years

Jay Busbee
·4 min read

You think today’s NFL draft with its cascade of analysis, speculation, and mocks is a sprawl of chaos? This week’s draft will only be seven rounds. Imagine, if you will, a 32-round draft.

That was the case back in the first half of the 20th century, when NFL teams would draft players like kids piling up Halloween candy — with regard only for volume, not quality. That’s how you end up with one of the stranger stories in NFL draft history: the tale of the player who didn’t realize he’d been drafted for more than 50 years.

The year was 1944. The world was at war, and the Eagles were on the clock. With their 20th selection, the Eagles picked a fullback out of Syracuse by the name of Norm Michael. Philadelphia didn’t exactly spot Michael waiting in the green room; the team picked him first and then decided to reach out to him to give him the good news.

Michael had some game; he was 6’2” and 192 pounds, which qualified as “bruising” in the 1940s, according to one report. His finest moment came as a freshman, when he ripped off a 58-yard run to the 4 against Colgate and scored a couple plays later. Sadly, in what would become a recurring theme for Michael, he broke his leg on the next possession and was out for the year.

At least one Eagles draftee never even got the chance to play with the team. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
At least one Eagles draftee never even got the chance to play with the team. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

Michael was quick, he was strong, he was one of the top-rated backs in the country … but he was apparently injury-prone, suffering a broken leg, two fractured wrists and a broken nose in his three years at Syracuse. One scouting report at the time dubbed him “a first-class fullback so long as his bones maintain the particular spirit of unity.” (Man, you can’t beat old-time sportswriting.)

So he dropped to the 20th round, where Philadelphia decided that Michael was worth a late flyer. Problem was, after drafting him, the Eagles couldn’t find Michael. And with good reason: Michael had already decided he was done with football and enlisted with the Army after his junior year.

By the time of the draft, he was already stationed at Maxwell Field in Alabama. Three months after that, the Allies invaded Normandy, and, well, nobody was much concerned about what a 20th-round pick did or didn’t do.

Teams suffer draft-day clerical errors all the time. The Buccaneers once drafted the wrong player due to a bad phone connection (ominous foreshadowing alert). The Vikings let the clock run out before they made their first-round pick in 2003. On a more somber note, Canadian football teams drafted players who were, alas, deceased … two years in a row.

So the fact that the Eagles couldn’t get hold of Michael, particularly in wartime, isn’t all that unusual. Here’s where it gets weird, though. After the war was over and Michael returned stateside, he didn’t hear from Philadelphia. At all. In fact, he didn’t realize he’d even been drafted for more than half a century.

Michael only learned he’d been drafted in 1999 while reading an article about Syracuse players drafted in the NFL. (Another Syracuse alum, Donovan McNabb, would have a bit more impact with the Eagles.) He’d spent his life working in sales and cheering for the Buffalo Bills, never realizing he could have had a much closer association with an NFL team.

“I still haven’t heard from the Eagles,” he laughed in 1999. “I guess I may have missed my window of opportunity.”

While Michael presumably could have reported to Eagles training camp as a 78-year-old fullback, he took a more modest approach. “My son sent them a letter after we found out,” he said at the time. “I think he wanted to see if the Eagles owed me a signing bonus. Think of the interest I could have had. Fifty-seven years’ worth.”

We’re not likely to see a story like Michael’s ever again, for any number of reasons. But it remains one of the NFL draft’s best strange tales. Plus, admit it: You’d still like to see some analyst create a 32-round mock draft.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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