By Andrew Fillipponi
Photography: Cayla Zahoran
The Steelers franchise had a poetic beginning. In 1936, the NFL held its first official draft. On that date nearly 80 years ago, the Steelers franchise got off to an auspicious start. With the third pick, Pittsburgh selected Notre Dame running back Bill Shakespeare.
“This must be a misprint,” I said with a snicker as I came across that name in my Steelers media guide. How could that be? The Steelers had a player named after the Bard of Avon? Who knew! My 28 years on Earth without this bit of trivia felt like a life wasted.
For the purpose of this column and my own curiosity, I combed the archives, vaults, and history books (OK, maybe just the Internet) for facts on the Steelers’ Romeo. He grew up in Staten Island and went on to Notre Dame. According to Notre Dame’s athletics site, he holds the school record for the longest punt, an 86-yarder he booted against Pitt. Hey, maybe the Chief was in the house that day. As a halfback, he led the Irish in passing yards his senior year. Man, was football a different game back then. Shakespeare would finish third in the Heisman voting.
“To be or not to be?” Bill asked himself that shortly after the draft. Shakespeare’s Steelers career was hardly a page turner because he never had one. Despite being a top pick, Shakespeare refused to sign. This would become Steelers custom. In total, nine of the Steelers first 17 first-round picks never played for the team.
All that glistens is not black and gold. What made Shakespeare turn down the Steelers? Rubber. The man bypassed the NFL for a more lucrative career, a job with the Cincinnati Rubber Manufacturing company, a place he worked at for decades, eventually climbing the ladder to company president. “When the rubber meets the road,” I’ve heard Coach Tomlin use that before. He was probably quoting the wrong Shakespeare when he said it.
Shakespeare would also become a decorated veteran. He served in WWII and received a Bronze Star, the fourth highest individual military honor awarded by the United States of America.
There’s a lot more about Bill Shakespeare I wish I knew. Did he like the name? Did he ever think about growing a beard or a mustache to look more like his namesake? Was he an English major at Notre Dame? Did he marry an Anne Hathaway? Why did the Steelers draft him? The Internet didn’t have all my answers.
“Nothing can come of nothing.” In this case Shakespeare would be wrong. The Steelers were a hapless team for decades. Down on their luck, given up for dead. Now, they’re the kings of football (and Bill always liked writing about royalty).
Foreshadowing, personification — there are literary devices at work here. The Steelers are the NFL’s model franchise. They are a team with a storybook history. Starting with a Shakespeare was fitting.
Thank you, Steelers. I finally found a Shakespeare worth studying.