February 3, 2017
On any given Sunday, any team can beat any other team.
If you watch American football like I do, chances are you have heard some version of the above sentence, or just the phrase “on any given Sunday.” Heck, you have heard it if you know of the film “Any Given Sunday,” starring Al Pacino, Jamie Foxx, and Cameron Diaz.
As I did the research for this post, the answer I was looking for was pretty straightforward. But the interesting information concerns the man who is credited for coining the phrase in question.
Who Coined the Phrase ‘Any Given Sunday’?
The first source I consulted was Quora. That is basically a website where various users answer questions posed by other members, so that should be used with caution. However, it was a starting point that helped me find more definitive sources.
On the Quora site, I found just one response to the question posed. Chris Cameron pointed to Bert Bell, who served as NFL commissioner from 1946-1959. Bell supposedly said, “On any given Sunday, any team in the NFL can beat any other team.”
But as pointed out on a Kgb Answers Page:
This had not been true of Bell’s Eagles. They almost always lost, in part because Bell had named himself coach of the team and he wasn’t very good at it.
Who Was Bert Bell?
Pete Rozelle is often cited because of his memorable accomplishments. Bert Bell is basically the forgotten commissioner, who had a 27-year history in the NFL.
Bert Bell was born DeBenneville Bell on February 25, 1895. He was born into a wealthy and influential Main Line family. He attended the Episcopal Academy, Delancy School, and Haverford School. He went on to enroll at the University of Pennsylvania in 1914.
All I ever wanted to be was a football man.
Football was always a large part of Bell’s life. He was the captain of the football, basketball, and baseball teams as a senior in high school. He went to Penn because of its football program.
While at Penn, Bell had a diversified role. He kicked and returned punts, kicked field goals, and played on defense. In his first year, he played freshman ball, moved on to the “scrub” team in his second year, and finally became the Quakers’ varsity quarterback. That year (1916), he led Penn to the Rose Bowl.
Before his career at Penn was over, Bell was detoured to serve in World War I. He worked in the 20th General Field Hospital in France. The GFH was formed at Penn.
Bell returned from the war in 1919 in order to play one final season at Penn. For the following 9 years, he stayed on to work as an assistant coach for John Heisman and Louis Young.
For the next two years (1930-1931), Bell moved on to Temple and served as an assistant there (“Bert Bell”).
Bell’s Time As an NFL Owner
Bell completely moved on to the NFL 2 years later. In 1924, he co-founded the Frankford Yellowjackets (Blevins). In 1933, He and three former teammates at Penn bought the team. They then moved the team to Philadelphia and renamed it the Eagles in honor of the symbol of Franklin Roosevelt’s National Recovery Act.
For a time, Bell served as the team’s coach, business manager, publicist, and ticket seller. He was the one keeping the team afloat (“Bert Bell”). By 1937, the Eagles lost $100,000. Bell became the team’s head coach that same year.
Bell became involved with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1940. He became a part owner of the team with Art Rooney. The team was sold to Alexis Thompson. In 1941, Bell and Thompson would trade teams (Blevins).
Bell’s Stint As NFL Commissioner
Bell became selected as NFL Commissioner on January 11, 1946. He replaced Elmer Layden, who was the league’s first commissioner (“NFL Draft”). Bell sold his interest in the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In 1946, one of the first things Bell had to do as commissioner was deal with a betting scandal that tainted the 1946 NFL Championship between the Bears and Giants, the Bears won 24-14. Afterward, Bell helped to create laws in most states that outlawed a player’s nondisclosure of bribing attempts (Blevins).
After the 1949 season, Bell oversaw the absorption of three teams from the All-America Football Conference: the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns, and San Francisco 49ers.
Bell was appreciated. When he started out as commissioner, he was under a 3-year contract at $25,000 a year. In 1947, he signed a five-year deal at the same yearly salary. By 1949, he signed a 10-year deal that brought his salary up to $30,000.
Bell died on October 11, 1959. He suffered a fatal heart attack while watching the Eagles and the Steelers play at Franklin Field in Philadelphia (“Bio”). There was two minutes left in the Steeler-Eagles game and he was in the end zone stands (“Bert Bell”). The Eagles scored the winning touchdown in the game at the same time Bell suffered his fatal heart attack (“NFL Draft”).
Bell had suffered a heart attack the previous February and had been under a doctor’s care for 2 years leading up to his death.
He wanted to retire as commissioner so he could own the Eagles again. But alas, it could not happen.
Bell was survived by former Broadway actress Frances Upton, whom he married in 1934. The two had three children together (Blevins).
Bell was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1963 as a charter member.
As commissioner, Bell did his best to sell his sport. He tried to get NFL football games on TV as much as possible. And he promoted his players being featured in commercials and on billboards. He also paid for his tickets to games (despite have the rights to free box seats as commissioner) and sometimes took the opportunity to talk directly to spectators.
Bell was also behind a few innovations during his lifetime.
As an assistant at Penn, he came up with the “hidden ball” play.
He set up revenue sharing for teams in order to help small-market teams.
In the 1950’s Bell established home-game blackouts. Another one of Bell’s earliest decisions was to bar the broadcast of a team’s home games in their cities. The reasoning was that the broadcasts could cut into gate revenues (“Bio”).
But his most important innovation was establishing the draft.
About the Draft
In 1935, while the owner of the Eagles, Bell established the NFL draft system for the first players. The first draft would be held on February 8-9, 1936 at the Ritz Carlton in Philadelphia. Bell’s father, John, owned the hotel.
Greg A. Bedard says that the draft system for every professional sport originated with the system Bert Bell created. Bell came up with the idea of a draft when he went to the University of Minnesota in 1933 in order to sign Stanly Kostka, the fullback and linebacker of the Gophers. Kostka eventually signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Similar to college-recruiting, professional teams would normally travel to colleges in order to sign players. And like college recruiting, more successful teams would often snag the best players. That was a largely inefficient system for a professional league.
Bell wanted to create a new system in order for the teams to have an even chance of filling their rosters. He figured it would help the league survive if more teams had the chance to find talent. At the time, the NFL was dominated by Chicago (Bears), Green Bay (Packers), New York (Giants), and Washington, D.C.’s teams.
You Want to Know Something?
If someone had asked me who was the best commissioner the NFL even had — and in all of sports — I might have told you Pete Rozelle. But there were inherent biases in that.
For one thing, I have a very limited knowledge of other commissioners in other sports. But I do know of past commissioners (like David Stern of the NBA and Bud Selig of Major League Baseball) and I hold a negative opinion of them.
As It Pertains to the NFL
Pete Rozelle saw the greatest expansion of the NFL. When he took over as Commissioner in 1960, the league had 12 teams. By the time he retired in 1989, there were 28 and the league rivaled baseball basketball as the national pastimes. Part of that growth was the 1970 merger with the American Football League, which brought in teams like the Oakland Raiders and Buffalo Bills.
Paul Tagliabue was loved by members of the press. But NFL fans hated his guts, namely because of how he handled teams like the Raiders, concussions and the NFLPA. Tagliabue was also uncharismatic.
Roger Goodell may be even more hated than Tagliabue and the press has felt more freedom to criticize him. Goodell has faced more scandal and uglier ones at that, including Spygate, Bountygate, Deflategate, the referee strike, and the Ray Rice scandal. Goodell is also inadequately dealing with concussions (which we now know can lead to CTE). Many NFL fans see Goodell as weak and bristle at the fact that he has made over $44 million a year since the last Collective Bargaining Agreement (2011).
Rozelle was beloved because at the heart of things, people believed that he was truly a fan of the sport. I could not say much of the same for Tagliabue and it appears it’s more about the money for Goodell.
But Now …
I honestly think Bert Bell was the best commissioner the NFL ever had.
Bell was largely an advocate for the players. At the time Bell was the Eagle’s owner, he allowed players to stay at his home. Many players did not make enough to make ends meet (“Who”).
As commissioner, Bell recognized the NFL Players Association (the player’s union), despite the fact that the commissioner was hired by the owners. He also helped players by assisting them with loans, off-season jobs, and by giving out his phone number (“Bill Bell”).
Bell had the mind and drive to balance the needs of teams with the needs of players.
Additionally, most of his innovations have served the NFL and other sports well. He paved the way for his sport’s long-time survival and I feel other commissioners can learn from his example when it comes to dealing with the players and fans of their respective sports.
In the meantime, here’s a video (I didn’t make this):
Why Did I Choose This Famous Saying?
It should be obvious for those awaiting the Super Bowl, which will be played this coming Sunday. This is, of course, the last Sunday in the NFL Season.
The two teams playing in Super Bowl LI are the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons. Brady wants to earn his fifth ring, which will put him ahead of all QB totals and Atlanta wants to earn its first Lombardi Trophy.
Also, the saying does ring true at times. One can see it when underdogs win, especially late in the season when division rivals play spoiler. But the beauty of it all can be seen when underrated teams execute game plans and win a game here and there.
Bedard, Greg A. “Bell’s idea, NFL draft, began 75 years ago. The Boston Globe. 24 Apr 2011. Web. Retrieved 3 Feb 2017. <http://archive.boston.com/sports/football/articles/2011/04/24/bells_idea_nfl_draft_began_75_years_ago/>.
“Bert Bell (1945-1959).” The Sports E-cyclopedia. Tank Productions. 26 Aug 2002. Last Updated 9 Aug 2007. Web. <http://www.sportsecyclopedia.com/nfl/comish/bbell.html>.
“Bert Bell Bio.” Pro Football Hall of Fame. Web. Retrieved 2 Feb 2017. <http://www.profootballhof.com/players/bert-bell/biography/>.
Blevins, David. The Sports Hall of Fame Encyclopedia: Baseball, Basketball, Football, Hockey, Soccer. The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2012. Print. Pages 68-69.
“On Any Given Sunday.” Only A Game. 16 Dec 2009. Web. Retrieved 3 Feb 2017. <http://onlyagame.legacy.wbur.org/2009/12/16/on-any-given-sunday>.
“When did the phrase ‘Any given Sunday’ emerge?” Quora. https://www.quora.com/When-did-the-phrase-Any-given-Sunday-emerge
“Who coined the phrase any given sunday?” Kgb Answers. 1 Feb 2012. Web. Retrieved 2 Feb 2017. <http://www.kgbanswers.com/who-coined-the-phrase-any-given-sunday/4443057>.