It’s difficult to imagine now, but there was a time when the Falcons had to trade for the draft’s No. 1 overall pick. The team had just begun play in 1966, and had had a knack for picking at the back of the first round during its early years—1966, 1968 and 1970 all saw the Falcons pick eighth; they did not have a first-round pick at all in 1967 and 1969.
They didn’t have much of a supporting cast around him, but Steve Bartkowski’s Falcons tenure is defined by its excellence: he was a three-time Pro Bowler and led Atlanta to a 1980 Super Bowl appearance. Bartkowski’s greatness is often overlooked in large part because he was born one year too late; if Bartkowski had come along 10 years later, he’d likely be a Hall of Famer. That’s because during the ’70s, the NFL was stocked with exciting young QBs; Bartkowski was sandwiched between Roger Staubach and Terry Bradshaw on the list of best players at his position.
Steve Bartkowski arrived in New York, went to his hotel room and waited. Bartkowski was not afraid of what would happen in a few hours, but of New York itself, and he did not want to get lost or make mistakes.
So he stayed put. The quarterback from California was the first pick in the 1975 NFL Draft, and unlike today, when dozens of players and their families waited in green rooms for their names to be called and they could shake hands with Commissioner Roger Goodell, Bartkowski did it alone.
Steve Bartkowski was the first pick in the 1975 NFL Draft after the Falcons made a promotional move to get him. Manny Rubio/USA TODAY Sports
It was in the back of the New York Hilton ballroom that Bartkowski waited for his moment with then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, not in an arena full of fans.
It was like a dream. It was one of those instances where everything happens and you project yourself into the action and it doesn’t feel real until you have a chance to go back and think about what just happened, Bartkowski said. One of those cases. Pete stands at the podium and announces that I’m the first pick in the NFL draft, and at that moment it overwhelms you like a bolt of lightning.
You get lost in the fantasy, so to speak.
Fantasy is running out for the Atlanta Falcons. A week before the draft, Atlanta reached a deal with the Baltimore Colts to move from No. 3 to No. 1, and also sent Pro Bowl-winning offensive lineman George Kuntz to Baltimore.
What is now a common move in the NFL – a team trading first-round picks (among other things) to get a quarterback – was a very different scenario in the mid-1970s. The deal between Atlanta and Baltimore would be the first exchange of a first-round pick to acquire a quarterback in the Super Bowl era.
It was a different time. Conscription was not the spectacle it is today. The mass industry for preparing information for the public has not been invented. There was no NFL Combine. No professional days. No more months of waiting, guessing, poking and prodding. The teams were guided by the films they saw and the conversations they had. When they saw a player they liked getting the results they wanted, they often took him into the ranks.
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The 1974 NFL season ended in 12th place. January with the Super Bowl. The project took place on Tuesday 28 and Wednesday 29 January.
It’s interesting when you think about it, because there’s so much controversy about the scouting system not being complete this year or last year, right, said agent Lee Steinberg, who was hired after the draft to replace Bartkowski. No combination. No personal meetings with the players or anything. If you think about it, the 1975 convocation, I think it was the last year it happened, was in January.
In some ways, this year’s lineup could be a return to the past. In 1974, Bartkowski was the best passer in college football with 2,580 yards. He was the only quarterback selected in the first two rounds of 1975. He was Atlanta’s target.
The agreement was not unanimous. Prior to the draft, the Atlanta Journal wrote that Baltimore general manager Joe Thomas showed football sense by making a trade and bringing in an offensive lineman of Pro Bowl caliber. Thomas himself told the newspaper that it was a deal he felt was fair to both parties.
After the draft, Newsweek condemned the Falcons’ decision, calling Thomas’ deal with Atlanta one of the most disastrous moves for feigning interest in Bartkowski.
Thomas has given up almost nothing, writes Newsweek’s Peter Bonventre. But they did get offensive leader George Kuntz in return. He used his spot in the draft to select North Carolina linebacker Ken Huff, whose development we should keep an eye on.
Bartkowski played 11 seasons in Atlanta, completing 56.2% of his passes for 23,470 yards, 154 touchdowns and 141 interceptions. The Falcons made the playoffs three times when Bartkowski was the starting quarterback.
In his senior year, and then at the Hula Bowl and Senior Bowl, Bartkowski began to realize he had a chance to be hired at a high level. That was before there was practically anything about conscription. The only information he has gathered himself is that he has seen future Hall of Fame players Randy White (#2, Dallas) and Walter Payton (#4, Chicago) play.
A week before the switch, Bartkowski received a phone call in the house he was renting with his college friends in Orinda, Calif. Falcons coach Marion Campbell was on the phone at the time.
He introduced himself. He told me a deal was in the works and they were going to trade for the first pick and I would be their choice, Bartkowski said. It was a great night in Orinda. I remember. We had a wonderful party that night.
Campbell and Bartkowski spoke for about 10 minutes. Bartkowski then called his parents. He wanted them to be the first to know the news – or at least the first after his neighbors. Plus, he would have been the only player present who would have gone to New York for service. He wasn’t wearing a sport coat or tie, and he didn’t want to look bad in front of Roselle, so he gathered a few things to get ready.
The only thing I regret is not cutting my hair, Bartkowski said. I don’t know if you’ve seen the pictures of the sketches, but I look like a hippie, but you know I went to the hippie cultural center in Berkeley, California.
It was a unique experience.
Just the opposite of today, where the draft is an event and the quarterback exchange is almost an annual tradition.
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