Including last weekend’s festivities, UNC has had over 200 players selected in the NFL Draft over the decades that it has existed.
Players picked range from the Hall of Famers like Lawrence Taylor to guys who wouldn’t play any professional games at all. However before all of them, and long before Charlie Heck and Jason Strowbridge were selected this year, the very first Tar Heel was selected all the way back in 1938.
Andy Bershak was born and raised in Clarion, Pennsylvania but came down to Chapel Hill to attend college at UNC. By the time his career was over, he would become one of just a handful of Tar Heel football players to have their number retired.
In his career at Carolina, he would become a two-time All-American, making the second team in 1936, and a consensus first-teamer the following season. Bershak was a two-way player, described as a “defensive terror” on one side of the ball, while leading UNC in receiving in 1937 on the other side. By the time his career ended, he was called the “greatest end” in UNC history.
Besides just being a two-way player on the football field, he was also a two-sport athlete. Bershak was a member of the basketball team, playing on UNC’s varsity team from 1936-38. In those three years, he helped Carolina to a Southern Conference Tournament championship in 1936, and a regular season title in ‘38. He would win the Patterson Medal for the top athletic performer at the school in 1938.
As you would guess, that amount of athletic prowess put him on the radar of the pros.
The NFL Draft had come into existence in 1936 as a way to try and appease owners of some of the lower rung franchises. The first two editions went by without any UNC players being selected, however that would change in 1938. In the fifth round, with the 36th overall pick, the Detroit Lions selected Bershak, marking the first ever Tar Heel selected in an NFL Draft. Two others, Tom Burnette and Hank Bartos, would followed him that same year, being picked in the 8th and 12th rounds respectively.
If we go back a couple paragraphs, I mentioned how the Tar Heels selected over the years range from legends to players who never player a pro game. Bershak actually falls into one of these categories, and it’s not the one you might expect considering his collegiate career.
Sometime during the spring of his senior year at Carolina, Bershak fell ill and was diagnosed with nephritis. The illness would end his sporting career, and he would play for the Lions or any other NFL or professional team. He would return to Chapel Hill and help coach the football team, but would pass away in 1943, just 28 years old.
Burdette would be the first UNC played picked in the draft to actually have any sort of career in the NFL, playing one season for the Steelers.
There are no shortage of UNC players who went on to have all kinds of NFL careers after being selected in the draft. However, the first one ever is also maybe the saddest.
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“University of North Carolina Football” by Adam Powell
“University of North Carolina Basketball” by Adam Powell