LIONS’ PICK IN 1950 DODGED DRAFT HYSTERIA

Down in Houston, not far from where Andre Ware sits this morning — no doubt waiting for a phone call from his agent to find out if he’s become a millionaire yet — there lives another Detroit first-round draft choice. He’s a little older than Andre. OK, a lot older.

His name is Joe Watson. Forty years ago, he, too, was in Andre’s position. With a few noticeable differences.

To begin with, the Lions never told him he was their No. 1 pick.

“Back then, there was no draft on TV or anything like that,” recalls Watson, a retired oil company manager. “The day it happened, I was down at Rice, where I played college football. I think I was hanging around the football office. My coach told me I had a phone call. It was the Lions’ coach, Bo McMillin.

“He told me Detroit had chosen me in the draft. That’s all. Not No. 1. Nothing like that. Back then, you didn’t even care what round you were taken. It didn’t make much difference. Coach McMillin said he’d come down to Houston to talk to me. And a few months later, he did.

“I met him at the Shamrock Hotel. In his room. Just me and him. He said,
‘Joe, we’ll pay you $7,500 to play this year.’ I said, ‘Gee, I’ve got a good job with Gulf Oil. I don’t want to play for less than $8,500.’

“He said, ‘Joe, That’s an awful lot of money.’ I said, ‘I understand. I’d rather not play then.’

“He said, ‘Let me talk to my bosses and see what I can do.’ “

Hmmm. You may have noticed the lack of agents in this story. That’s because there were no agents back then. No agents. No press secretaries. No personal managers. No front- office bumbleheads.

Sounds like heaven, huh? Less money, more work

Which is not to say there weren’t salary disputes. There are always salary disputes. I believe salary disputes date back to the Egyptian pyramids, where one of the workers complained that a handful of water and some dusty bread was not enough for laboring all day in the hot sun. The task master thought about this for a minute, then dropped a boulder on his head.

Today, things are more complicated.

Today, Andre Ware sits in Texas, demanding $1.5 million a year, even as the Lions play their next-to-last exhibition game without him. And today, quarterback Don Majkowski, with only one standout NFL season, sits at home demanding $2 million a year — even as his fellow Packers prepare for the season without him.

And back in 1950, Coach Bo McMillin eventually called young Joe Watson on the phone and said, “OK, I talked to my bosses and I got you $8,500. Now get up here and start practicing.” And Watson, an All-America center, came up the next day. And he started every game that season. He snapped the ball to the famous Bobby Layne. He blocked for the famous Leon Hart and Cloyce Box.

And when he wasn’t playing center, Watson was out there on defense, playing linebacker. “There was never a game that I played less than 50 of the 60 minutes,” he recalls. “You went both ways. That was just expected. They don’t do that today.”

Of course not. If they did that today, they’d want twice the money.

Two weeks too late

I ask Watson whether there were any holdouts back then. He laughs and says, “Hold out for what?” I ask Watson whether anyone renegotiated in the middle of a contract. He laughs again. “Almost nobody had a contract for longer than a year to begin with.”

I ask how he would have reacted had the Lions offered him a million a year, as they have offered Ware. “Well,” he says, “I wouldn’t let an agent stand in my way. I’d push the agent aside and say, ‘Let me sign that contract.

I’ll deal with you later.’ “

Things didn’t quite work out that way for Joe Watson. After the 1950 season, the Lions changed coaches. Watson and the new coach, Buddy Parker, haggled over a $1,000 increase which McMillin had promised. Parker said he’d talk to his bosses.

“I told him fine,” Watson recalls, “but I asked him to be sure to let me know at least two weeks before training camp, so I could square things away with Gulf Oil.

“Well, the day training camp opened, he called and said, ‘I got you
$9,500. Now come on up.’ I told him, ‘Sorry, Buddy. But I can’t do that to my employers. I told them they’d get two weeks’ notice and it wouldn’t be responsible of me to leave now.’ “

He stayed in Texas.

He kept his promise.

He never played football again.

You talk to guys like Joe Watson, a happy man with healthy knees who just turned 65, and you hear words such as “responsibility” and “maturity” and “who needed an agent?” And you start to realize a few things. Mostly, you realize sports were probably a lot more fun back in 1950.

“If you ever run in to Andre Ware, will you tell him your story?” I ask Watson before hanging up.

“Andre wouldn’t believe me,” he says, and he’s probably right.

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