By Dave Sulz
As the National Football League celebrates its 100th season this year, its early founders would be flabbergasted to see the amazing heights the league has reached today.
Every NFL franchise is worth at least $1 billion, and the league earns an estimated $15 billion per year through such sources as television rights, merchandise sales, licensing rights and corporate sponsorships. It’s light years removed from the league’s humble beginnings.
In its first year in 1920, the league then known as the American Professional Football Association featured teams in such less-than-metropolitan centres as Canton, Akron and Dayton, Ohio; Racine and Decatur, Illinois; Hammond and Muncie, Indiana; and Rochester, New York. The famed Jim Thorpe not only played for and coached the Canton Bulldogs, but served as the league president.
By 1922, when the league was renamed the National Football League, it had expanded from 14 to 22 teams, but was not big-league in status compared to major league baseball. The new team based in Marion, Ohio, for example, was sponsored by a dog kennel. Other franchises were located in such places as Toledo, Ohio; Rock Island, Illinois; and Evansville, Indiana.
Instability marked the league’s early years and by 1928, there were just 10 franchises, including teams in Frankford and Pottsville, Pennsylvania. By 1932, there were eight teams, including the Portsmouth Spartans in Ohio and the Staten Island Stapletons. Pro football clearly was not a big-time sport and appeared to be heading in the wrong direction. On the football scene, it even played second fiddle to the college game.
But things started to pick up for the NFL in the 1930s. The league opened up the passing game, permitting passes from any point behind the line of scrimmage instead of from at least five yards behind the line. The rule help produce more scoring and that, aided by the addition to the league of stars such as quarterback Sammy Baugh and receiver Don Hutson, the Jerry Rice of his day, the NFL began to make headway among football fans.
Even in the NFL’s difficult early days, there were colourful characters, such as Bronko Nagurski, a Hall of Fame fullback and lineman for the Chicago Bears. A big man for his day at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, Nagurski was a powerful runner as well as a devastating blocker and tackler. His strength was legendary. In fact, he was so strong, he once knocked down a horse.
As Arthur Daley described it in his book “Pro Football’s Hall of Fame,” one Bears game featured such an overflow crowd that police on horseback were called in to keep the spectators away from the field. One mounted constable was stationed at the back of the end zone when Nagurski burst through for a touchdown and his momentum carried him through the end zone, where he collided with the horse, knocking the animal over. That’s strong.
Nagurski was one of the colourful figures of pro football’s rough-and-tumble early days, back when players performed on both offence and defence. They earned their meagre money in those times before TV revenue expanded the league’s coffers.
The television age of the NFL got a tremendous shot in the arm by the broadcast of the 1958 championship game between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts. It was the first post-season game to go to sudden-death overtime, with the Colts pulling out a 23-17 victory. Considered by many to be the greatest title game ever, it helped launch the NFL into a new age of popularity and prosperity.
Today, there are teams in all the major markets in the U.S. and the NFL is considered to be the top dog among North America’s professional sports leagues. While players at one time battered their bodies for a few dollars a game, today’s pros are now paid millions of dollars to play football.
If someone had told the original NFL players of the 1920s that’s what the future would hold for their game, they would likely have shaken their heads and laughed.
Back then, they were just hoping their team would be around for another season … or the next game.