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The heroic story of the Steelers’ first-ever draft pick — William Shakespeare

By JOE STARKEY | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | Published: April 27, 2020

PITTSBURGH (Tribune News Service) — The Depression-era NFL barely existed. College football was king. The three-year-old Steelers were called the Pirates, and their owner, Art Rooney, was struggling to keep them afloat as the calendar turned to February, 1936.

“In those days, nobody got wealthy in sports,” Rooney said later, as recounted in the book “Rooney.”

“You got two thrills. One came Sunday, trying to win the game. The next came Monday, trying to make the payroll.”

No single player was going to salvage that situation, but when the “Steelers” stepped to the chalkboard (yes, chalkboard) at the Philadelphia Ritz-Carlton to make the first draft pick in franchise history, they chose well.

They chose a bona fide celebrity, a dazzling Notre Dame man who’d thrown the winning pass in the greatest college game ever played. A figure so revered that he appeared in Wheaties ads next to Lou Gehrig and was about to land a movie role.

It would have been fascinating to see how that guy influenced the club’s fortunes. But alas, he never played a down.

What became of him?

That, dear friends, is the purpose of our gathering. For now, just know: He moved to a stage far greater than Hollywood or the NFL, where he encountered a living hell.

There is a history in all men’s lives. This one is worth a tell …

(Curtain opens).

———

ACT I: ‘What’s in a Name?’ (Romeo and Juliet)

Bard or football player? That was how David Shakespeare and his brother, Edward, would answer when someone asked, “Are you related to William Shakespeare?”

Incredibly, the inquisitor sometimes meant football player. That’s how big William Valentine Shakespeare — better known as Bill — had become at Notre Dame. His nephews would beam and regale their questioner with stories.

Imagine walking through life named William Shakespeare. It can’t be much different than introducing yourself as Napoleon Bonaparte or Sigmund Freud. Would anyone believe you? The last name alone is a conversation piece.

“I hear it almost every day,” says Bill’s great nephew, Craig Shakespeare of Colt’s Neck, N.J. “Somebody will see my credit card and say, ‘You must be good at English.’”

Headline writers swooned when Bill Shakespeare arrived at Notre Dame. “The Merchant of Menace,” they called him. And when the Irish took on Northwestern star Henry Longfellow, it was, of course, “Shakespeare Meets Longfellow.”

None of that stopped Bill from passing the name “William Shakespeare” to his first-born son. It has been passed down twice since. Some in the family claim a relation to the immortal Elizabethan playwright, though it has never been proven.

Maybe the name bears some kind of mandate for greatness, or at least literary flair. Bill’s 76-year-old namesake is an award-winning adventure crime novelist in St. Petersburg, Fla., though he uses the pen name “William Valentine” to avoid the hassle. His brother, Warren, is an accomplished musician in Manhattan, and their cousin Edward Shakespeare is a playwright (talk about pressure) in New Jersey.

Asked once if he was kidded for his name, Bill Shakespeare said, “Numerous times, from boyhood. Hotel clerks have given me the fishy eye more than a few times.”

Legend has it Ernest Hemingway almost gave Bill a black eye. Pittsburgh Press sports editor Chester Smith told the story in 1963 in his column “The Village Smithy.” The setting was Havana, Cuba, where Shakespeare worked. A former Pittsburgh sportswriter named Jess Carver lived there and had become friendly with Hemingway.

Carver ran into Shakespeare one day and asked if he’d like to meet Hemingway, who was posted up at a local tavern. They found Hemingway in a heated argument. The introduction was delayed.

“Hemingway saw a stranger sitting there,” Smith quoted Carver telling him. “Getting up, he reached his hand toward Bill and said, ‘Hello there — I’m Ernest Hemingway.’ Bill said, ‘Glad to know you, I’m Bill Shakespeare.’ You should have seen the look on his face when Hemingway let go a haymaker.

“And the look on Hemingway’s face when I convinced him my friend really was Bill Shakespeare.”

———

ACT II: ‘Some have greatness thrust upon them’ (Twelfth Night)

By all accounts, Bill Shakespeare beat everybody at everything from his earliest days in Staten Island. Bobby Thomson — who would author baseball’s famed “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” — lived nearby and considered him his idol.

The “Bard of Staten Island” was set to play with future NFL star Don Hutson and a kid named Paul “Bear” Bryant at Alabama, but that was before Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne intercepted him at a banquet and turned him toward South Bend.

The two would never unite. Rockne died in a plane crash. He was replaced by one of his ex-players, Elmer Layden of the famed Four Horsemen.

Shakespeare was a star by his junior year of 1934. He played left halfback, akin to a running shotgun quarterback. He also played defensive back, returned kicks and punted. His 86-yard punt against Pitt still stands as a Notre Dame record.

Off the field, he was magnetic. He sang, played the saxophone and owned every room he entered. One publication described him as “dark, handsome, easygoing and well-built, with 179 pounds distributed on his 5-feet-11 frame.”

All of Staten Island threw Shakespeare a party for beating Army in ‘34. They even bought him a car (license plate “ND-63” for his number). But it was his exploits the next year in Columbus, Ohio, that carved his place in football lore.

Notre Dame was a three-touchdown underdog, which seemed about right as mighty Ohio State took a 13-0 lead into the fourth quarter. Some 81,000 Buckeye fans were poised to celebrate, as much of the country listened to Red Barber’s radio call.

Nobody came back from that kind of deficit in those days. Notre Dame tried. But when the Buckeyes recovered an onside kick with a minute left, leading 13-12, the Columbus Dispatch ordered a special edition — “OHIO STATE WINS!” — to be printed and rushed to the stadium.

Then came a fumble. Then came a play that lives forever: Shakespeare took a lateral, ran backward, planted, “aimed like a squirrel hunter” and fired 30 yards to the end zone. Future NFL great Wayne Millner leaped high, corralled the ball and landed with a victory that in 1969 would be voted “Game of the Century.”

“Notre Dame suddenly grabbed victory, not only from the jaws of defeat but out of defeat’s esophagus,” wrote fabled sportswriter Damon Runyon. “You wouldn’t have given a share of your worst ‘29 stock for their chances.”

Shakespeare finished third in the first Heisman Trophy vote and was selected for the College All-Stars game against the defending NFL champion Detroit Lions at Soldier Field in Chicago.

It would be the last meaningful football game of his life.

———

ACT III: ‘Put money in thy purse’ (Othello)

There was no Mel Kiper in 1936, when all nine NFL teams gathered for something called a “draft” Feb. 8 in Philadelphia. Teams scouted by magazine and word-of-mouth. Evidence strongly suggests no Pittsburgh newspaper ran as much as a blurb on Rooney’s Pirates drafting a Notre Dame star third overall.

No one cared, if they even knew. It was assumed most of the big-name draftees would opt for better-paying jobs. Philadelphia Eagles owner Bert Bell had pushed for a draft to end the bidding wars for college players. He suggested the worst team (his) go first.

“It was supposed to help the weaker teams,” Art Rooney told the Los Angeles Times 50 years later. “I don’t know if it did or not. It didn’t seem to help us.”

Sportswriters assisted team owners with their picks, sitting side-by-side in a smoke-filled room at the Ritz-Carlton. The Eagles almost took Shakespeare first. They’d sent him an interesting letter a month earlier. It made no mention of his Wonderlic score or 40 time.

“My dear Shakespeare,” it actually began, “We have followed your play with a great deal of interest, and the purpose of this letter is to find out if you will play professional football in the fall of 1936.”

Imagine Shakespeare’s thoughts as he read (if he read) the following line lower in the letter: “Professional football gives a college man a great opportunity to get a start in life after graduating and is in no way detrimental to his future.”

The Eagles would end up taking Heisman winner Jay Berwanger, but upon hearing his demand of $1,000 per game — nearly 10 times the norm — traded his rights to the Chicago Bears. He never played, taking a $25-a-week job in a foam rubber company instead.

Shakespeare, too, got on with his life’s work, choosing power drills over practice drills (the Pirates eventually traded his rights). He took a sales job with Thor Power Tool. His son says he never regretted that decision.

“He told me they offered him twice what the Steelers offered,” Bill Jr. recalls. “Through my life I’ve thought about that, what that would have been like if he’d played. I guess he was born about 65 years too soon. I think he just went on from there.”

He did — to places unimagined.

———

ACT IV: ‘I’ll fight, till from my bones my flesh be hacked’ (Macbeth)

He could have settled for training soldiers during World War II. That was the Army’s plan for Bill Shakespeare when he enlisted in his late 20s.

“He would have been the guy on the raised platform, leading calisthenics,” Bill Jr. says. “But that wasn’t the way his mind worked, I don’t think. He was an infantry lieutenant.”

Indeed he was, with the 424th regiment of the 106th Division, which happened to be the first division ambushed in the bloodiest land battle in American history.

The Battle of the Bulge. It sounds almost romantic in retrospect. But the name belied the butchery.

From it’s beginning at 5:30 am. on Dec. 16, 1944, to its merciful end six weeks later, the battle pitted more than a million men against each other in and around the Ardennes Forest in East Belgium. The Western Front.

This was Hitler’s mad final gamble, a stunningly insane surprise offensive, meant to push the Allies back toward the beaches of Normandy. It worked for a while, too.

American survivors told of fellow soldiers shot execution-style, losing extremities in the bitter cold and literally going mad from the constant shelling. Nazi firepower tore the trees apart, sending flaming arrow splinters into Allied fox holes. Food was scarce. Communications were erratic.

The cost of the Allies’ eventual victory — one that dismantled the Nazi war machine for good — was steep. Some 80,000 Americans were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Most of the 106th was destroyed or captured. One of the POWs was Dan Bied, who in a column for the Des Moines Register 50 years later wrote of the 424th regiment holding for days, despite being “outnumbered and outgunned.”

He also wrote of individual acts of heroism, like this one:

“Lt. Bill Shakespeare, a pre-war gridiron star at Notre Dame, was a weapons platoon officer in the 106th. Our division’s history book cited him for ‘bagging a German captain of the 116th Panzer Division who had a map case full of papers, including the attack plan of his unit.’”

According to various other accounts, those papers also included a German plot to kidnap General Dwight D. Eisenhower (in Paris at the time). Whether the plot was real is debatable, as the German infiltration plan sent English-speaking soldiers behind enemy lines to sow confusion and panic.

In any case, Shakespeare, who also served in the Northern France and Rhineland campaigns, was awarded the Bronze Star for gallantry. He would receive four battle stars — and at least one battle scar.

“He had a crease in his ear where a bullet grazed him,” Bill Jr. says. “That’s all he said it was.”

And that was one of maybe two times Bill Shakespeare ever spoke to his son of what his eyes had seen in the Ardennes Forest.

“He just wouldn’t talk about it.”

———

Act V: ‘No legacy is so rich as honesty’ (All’s Well That Ends Well)

Bill Shakespeare was posthumously inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983, part of a class that included Dick Butkus and O.J. Simpson.

He’d settled into a quiet life in Cincinnati with his high school-sweetheart wife, Olga. He rose to president of Cincinnati Rubber Manufacturing Co. before his death of a stomach ailment at age 61, in 1974 — the year the Steelers won their first Super Bowl.

And even if he never developed any Pittsburgh ties, his sons sure did. Both went to Washington & Jefferson College — Bill Jr. after a knee injury ruined his football career at Akron. Bill Jr. married a Baldwin girl. Warren earned his MBA from Carnegie Mellon.

To hear some who knew him tell it, Shakespeare was a humble man who lost neither his well-toned frame nor his ability to command a room. He loved golf, fishing and hunting. He spoke multiple languages. His competitive nature would flare up now and again, like the time he slid a little too hard into third base at a picnic.

“Just a really good bearing,” Bill Jr. says.

“He could tell a story,” says nephew David Shakespeare, who spent time as chairman of the Heisman Trophy committee. “The most charismatic person I’ve ever met.”

A Notre Dame priest delivered the invocation at Shakespeare’s funeral, which came far too soon.

“It’s just sad to see a sickness overtake somebody like him, always so strong and full of life,” Bill Jr. says.

Shakespeare spoke of his football exploits only when asked. An obituary in the Journal-News of Hamilton, Ohio, included this nugget: “Francis J. May of Hamilton, a business associate of Shakespeare’s, said there were no pictures of him in his office … just a small trophy from Look Magazine proclaiming him an all-time All-American.”

(Curtain closes)

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