The Pittsburgh Steelers got their season off to a whiz-bang start Sunday. Of course, that inevitably brought to mind William Shakespeare.
I was flabbergasted a while back when I discovered that William Shakespeare was the first player ever drafted by the Steelers. I stumbled across this by accident. Historically, the best discoveries are made through accidental stumbles rather than intentional ones – just ask Columbus, Cook, Magellan, etc. For that matter, ask Popeye. I believe he discovered the amazing properties of spinach because he was desperately trying to avoid eating lima beans, as all rational people do. At least, I’d like to think that’s how it happened, and that’s the only proof needed in today’s climate. Now, there’s climate change.
William Valentine Shakespeare was a football star at Notre Dame in the 1930’s. This particular Shakespeare was not the Bard of Avon, but was called the Bard of Staten Island (where he was raised) and the Bard of South Bend (where he was praised). He was also called the Merchant of Menace. I don’t know if he ever wondered, “What’s in a name?” but he claimed to be a direct descendant of the Master of the English language. Ironically, he flunked his sophomore English class. Well, following in Will’s footsteps must have been a lot of pressure.
Among Shakespeare’s accomplishments at Notre Dame was an 86-yard punt (against Pitt) that is still an Irish record. He also threw the winning touchdown as time ran out in Notre Dame’s 1935 victory over Ohio State. That game has since been voted the best game in the first 100 years of college football. He also sometimes played the villain, as when he ran for a 56-yard touchdown against my alma mater, Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University).
Shakespeare was named a first-team All-American in 1935. He finished third in voting for the first Heisman Trophy, which was won by Chicago’s Jay Berwanger. He led his team in most offensive categories, including running, passing, kickoff returns, punting, scoring, and competitive hot dog eating. He lost to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his Northwestern team that year, though. A Shakespearean tragedy, indeed. And I’m not making this up, to use Dave Barry’s popular phrase. I could also say Shakespeare led his team to victory over Elizabeth Barret Browning and her fellow Purdue Boilermakers. I would, however, definitely be making that up.
The NFL held its first draft in 1936, and Shakespeare was the third player chosen. The Steelers, then known as the Pirates (not to be confused with the baseball team, which had been known as the Alleghenies), chose him as their first pick, thus making him the first Notre Dame player ever drafted. (The first draft was obviously ripe to produce a lot of firsts.) However, after some off-season practices, and pondering whether to be or not to be a pro, football Will decided that business was a better career than the low-paying NFL of the time. (The first player chosen in that historic draft, Mr. Berwanger, also couldn’t come to terms and never played professionally.) As it turned out, that was a wise move, as Shakespeare eventually became president of the Cincinnati Rubber Company.
We can therefore conclude that Shakespeare was technically a Steeler or maybe a Pirate (but definitely not a Penguin), but he never took a snap for them. Whether he said, “Parting is such sweet sorrow” as he left, history does not record. Still, he qualifies as a nice trivia answer or two, which is more than I can claim.
In 1983, Shakespeare was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, much to his chagrin, as he had died in 1974. As an aside (which is one of my best talents – I can never make a decent straight-ahead, come-to-the-point argument, but my asides are to-die-for), let me say that I hate posthumous Hall of Fame inductions. What good does that do the poor chump who never knows he made it? Any organizations out there that are considering me for your Hall of Fame, please make it snappy.
Forsooth, I won’t be around forever, thou knowest.