By Bob Barton '57
In the 67 years since the National Football League established its player draft, two Yale athletes have been first-round choices. Name them.
One is easy: Calvin Hill, the NFL's offensive rookie of the year with Dallas in 1969.
But the other?
Larry Kelley? No. Dick Jauron? Sorry. Eric Johnson? No, no, no.
Answer: Francis "Fritz" Barzilauskas, class of 1948, who died in 1990.
If you didn't know, don't feel bad. For one thing, Barzilauskas was a lineman. For another, as a pro he played mainly for bad teams. And for a third, he was drafted by a franchise -- the Boston Yanks -- that in a few years ceased to exist.
If Barzilauskas' name does ring a bell, it may be for any of several reasons. After his pro career he came back to Yale and was around for some 25 years, coaching freshman linemen and running the intramural sports program. His son, Tony, played a spot of football for Yale in the late 1960s, and a nephew, Carl Barzilauskas, was in the NFL from 1974 to 1979 with the New York Jets and Green Bay.
The draft in which Fritz was picked was in December 1946, two days after the Chicago Bears beat the New York Giants for the NFL title. The draft then was not, as now, carried out in the spotlight of the national media. In fact, some teams kept their draft choices secret. The NFL was at war with another pro league, the All-America Football Conference, which coveted the same players. The NFL's aim was to get its draft picks signed before the other league, drafting a week later, could make them offers.
The Bears that year had a bonus pick and chose Bob Fenimore, a back from Oklahoma A&M. The Detroit Lions, with the worst record, came next and chose Glenn Davis of Army, the Heisman Trophy winner. Boston, last-place team in the NFL's Eastern Division, then took Barzilauskas.
Barzilauskas had been one of many World War II veterans on the 1946 Yale team, ranked 12th in the season's final Associated Press poll. He had played tackle for Yale in 1945, guard in 1946. He also had spent two football seasons at Holy Cross before joining the Army, so the '46 season used up his eligibility.
He offered a lot to attract pro scouts. Twenty-six years old -- he'd been in the Army Air Forces nearly four years -- he was physically mature. At 6 feet 1 and 225 pounds, he was hefty for a college lineman in that era but known for his ability to pull out and block. "A good man and a hell of a good football player," says Bill Schuler, who played tackle for Yale and signed with the New York Giants that winter. "He was quick and strong, just a strong guy."
Though Barzilauskas came from Waterbury and Schuler from Birmingham, Ala., they had something in common. Barzilauskas had flown in a B-26 -- a medium bomber known to airmen as "the widow maker" -- and had been shot down over Sinzig, Germany. After a march of 300 miles he had spent eight months in the Nazis' Moosburg prison camp.
Schuler had piloted a B-24 heavy bomber and been shot down, also winding up in Moosburg. They didn't meet, however, until the fall of 1945 at Yale.
After Yale's 7-1-1 season in 1946, Barzilauskas signed with the Yanks for a reported $9,000 a year. The Giants hired Schuler for $8,000. "There wasn't much money in pro football then," explains Schuler. "A top quarterback got maybe $25,000."
Barzilauskas helped the Yanks to their best record ever in 1947, when they were third in their division at 4-7-1. They slumped the next year and in 1949 moved to New York, rechristened the Bulldogs and coached by a Yale alumnus, Charley Ewart. Things got no better, and when NFL and AAFC merged in 1950, the Bulldogs were among four franchises that died. Their players were reallocated, and the Giants got Barzilauskas, who finished his career with their division runners-up in 1951.
Back in Waterbury, working as vice president of a Nash auto agency, Barzilauskas put his football knowledge to work on Yale's behalf. For years he was line coach for Yale's freshman team and scouted forthcoming opponents.
Those were fun times around the football training table in Ray Tompkins House, and a lot of the fun revolved around Barzilauskas and Harry Jacunski, the end coach. The two would travel to scout Navy or Cornell or Temple or whomever Yale was playing next, and together they represented more than a quarter-ton of football savvy. "They'd come down to the training table on Friday morning," remembers Don Scharf, a student manager in the early 1950s. "They'd take enough food to feed the whole Yale team, load it into their station wagon, and off they'd go."
Whatever Yale contributed to his girth, Barzilauskas earned his keep. Among the linemen he tutored as freshmen were Ben Balme, All-America guard on the unbeaten 1960 team; Mike Pyle, captain of that team and later center and captain of the Chicago Bears; and Alex Kroll, who later transferred to Rutgers and made All-America.
"Fritz was the best teacher I ever had in football," Pyle says. "He had just a great presence -- a real block of a guy, just about square, with his background in the Army, going to Yale, playing pro -- a good old-fashioned tough guy. He was a great person to have in the Yale program at the time.
"He knew football inside and out from a lineman's point of view, and he knew the tricks."
Tricks? Indeed. One chilly morning 40 years ago -- it seems like only yesterday -- a freshman lineman named Otis Troupe, after a class in Connecticut Hall, was excitedly telling some friends about Barzilauskas' style. The face mask then was a relatively new device, and helmet technology hadn't caught up.
"Mr. Barzilauskas tells you all the stuff the pros do," said Troupe, his eyes fairly lighting up. "He shows you how you can put your forearm on the other guy's face bar like so. Then you just push, and you bring his helmet right down over his eyes!"