Heading the suggestion of Philadelphia Eagles owner Bert Bell, the National Football League in 1936 staged its first draft of college seniors. Today the draft is a much-anticipated annual ritual, but in that first year few recognized the significance of what was taking place.
Even the nine NFL teams were ill-prepared to enter into the annual sweepstakes that would soon prove to play such a critical role in the future success of each team. Scouting consisted of nothing more than collecting a few clippings from a major newspaper or two and perhaps observing a few local college stars in action. Each team may have prepared a short list of players that might be considered prospects but it is a cinch that those lists contained primarily the names of the best publicized players that played for the so-called major colleges of the East and Midwest.
So it was in that climate that Chicago Bears owner George Halas stared blankly at his dwindled list of prospects when it came time to begin the ninth and final round of the 1936 draft. He didn't recognize a single remaining name so, on a hunch, selected a guard from Colgate, Danny Fortmann. "I like that name. I'll take him!" Halas exclaimed as he made the selection.
Had he known the facts about his new draft pick, Halas almost certainly never would have selected Fortmann-and that would have proven to be one of the biggest mistakes he ever made. On the surface, though, there wasn't much about Fortmann to excite the Bears coach.
At 6-0 and 200 pounds, Fortmann was to small for line play in pro football. He was just 19, certainly not old enough for the NFL ranks. He was a Phi Beta Kappa scholar and, while that wasn't necessarily bad for a pro football player, that rare honor alone could not help him alone knock down opposition ball carriers or lead the interference.
Happily, Fortmann turned out to be one of the finest all-around guards in pro football history. He earned all-NFL honors six straight years from 1938 through 1943 and, in 1965, he became only the second guard ever to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
By the time his rookie season opened, Fortmann had turned 20 but he was still the youngest starter in the NFL. He was also a man with determination and talent and he excelled as a little man in a big man's game during an era that 60-minute performances were in vogue and pro football was largely a ground-dominated game decided in the trenches of the scrimmage line.
In this setting, Fortmann did it all. On offense, Danny called signals for the lineman and was a battering-ram blocker. On defense, he was a genius at diagnosing enemy plays and a deadly tackler.
Interestingly, the No. 1 draft choice of the Bears in that first 1936 draft was a jumbo-sized tackle from West Virginia, Joe Stydahar. Joe and Dan were destined to play side-by-side on the left of the Chicago line for the next seven seasons.
They started together in the East-West shrine game in San Francisco on New Year's Day and then played in the College All-Star game in Chicago that summer before joining the Bears. The Bears were a dominant team in pro football during the Stydahar-Fortmann years-- from 1936 to 1943, the "Monsters of the Midway" finished first of their division five times, second twice and third once-and there is no question that the talented Chicago line played a big part in this success.
"It helped me tremendously to play next to Joe for so many years," Fortmann once said. "A true partnership built up. We got to know exactly what to expect from one another."
It is not surprising that Fortmann and Halas developed a strong rapport with one another through the years.
"George was firm but fair, tough-minded, and a master of psychology," Fortmann summarizes.
He reached his peak as a psychologist in preparing for he Bears for the 1940 NFL Championship showdown with the Washington Redskins. Just three weeks earlier, the Redskins had edged the Bears, 7-3, in a closely-contested game that saw the Bears protest vehemently on some of the closest calls.
In the days following the game, Washington owner George Preston Marshall repeatedly referred to the Bears as "cry babies" and Halas was quick to take advantage of the tactical blunder.
"For three weeks, George kept reminding us of the close loss and what Marshall was saying about us," Fortmann recalls. "I have seen some highly charged teams during my playing days but the Bears that day were the highest emotionally of any team I ever saw."
The Bears scored on Bill Osmanski's 68-yard dash on the second play of the game and the rout was on. By half-time the score was 28-0 and, even though the Bears used every player on their squad, the score mounted rapidly. The final 73-0 whitewashing was the most one-sided defeat in pro football history.
Fortmann jokingly will tell you that he actually made the key contribution that day by winning the coin toss to start the game. Although the skill involved may be questioned, it is true that the successful flip enabled the Bears to receive and, within the seconds, the massacre was on. Dan still has one of the prized momentoes, the silver dollar used in the pre-game ceremony that day.
Fortmann praises Halas for another most important reason. For it was his interest and understanding that made impossible for Dan to pursue his medical studies while playing pro football. Fortmann had already enrolled in the University of Chicago School of Medicine by the time the Bears opened training in 1936 and it was obvious that there would be a time conflict.
"I wanted to play pro football but I was also determined to go to med. school. Except for the fact that the summer quarter overlapped two weeks into the Bears' summer training period, I could substitute the summer quarter for the fall quarter at med. school and proceed on a normal course toward my medical degree," Dan recalls.
"But George allowed me to miss two weeks of summer practice each year while I finished up at school. Of course, I practiced on weekends. But without George's understanding and cooperation, I could never have prepared for my future."
During Fortmann's internship and residency, Both in Detroit, Halas continued to make concessions so that Dan could pursue both his medical ambitions and his active pro football career.
Dr. Fortmann entered the Navy in 1943 and did not return to the NFL. He left an indelible record behind. He had been a super-star during the period when his team, the Chicago Bears, was truly one of the very best pro football teams ever assembled. Fortmann was one of the major reasons why this was so!