Are you ready for some football? |

Are you ready for some football?

With the 2008 football season now underway, it is interesting to look into the early days of professional football. Pro football evolved from semi-pro games played as a diversion for miners and steel mill workers in Pennsylvania and Ohio in the 1890s.

The first professional league was the Ohio League in 1916, which the Canton Bulldogs dominated for three years. The Green Bay Packers appeared on the scene in 1919, and compiled a 10-1 record under the direction of Earl “Curly” Lambeau. In 1920, the American Professional Football Association was formed, to bring order out of chaos. Jim Thorpe was named its first president because of his athletic prowess and fame. But realizing that Thorpe was better at running the ball than running the league, the managers replaced him with Joe Carr the next year.

There were fourteen teams in the 1920 AFPA League, mostly from smaller cities like Akron, Canton, Dayton, And Columbus, Ohio; Hammond and Muncie, Indiana; Decatur and Rock Island, Illinois; Racine, Wisconsin; and Buffalo and Rochester, New York. That year, among conflicting claims, Akron was awarded the league championship. The Decatur team was the “Staleys,” sponsored by Staley Corn Starch and headed by George Halas, player-owner, who moved the team to Chicago in 1921.

The Green Bay Packers joined the AFPA League in 1921, but had to withdraw when it was disclosed that they had been using college players still enrolled in school, in violation of AFPA rules. Lambeau bought the defunct franchise for fifty dollars, and went broke due to poor attendance and bad weather, but was bailed out when local merchants arranged a $2,500 loan. Hard to believe!

In 1922, the AFPA was reorganized as the National Football League and made up eighteen teams, including the Oorang Indians, an all-Indian team based in Marion, Ohio, featuring Jim Thorpe. The team disbanded after only two years. The Canton Bulldogs returned to their supremacy, going undefeated in both 1922 and 1923.

In November, 1925, George Halas signed the University of Illinois super-super star running back, “Red” Grange to the team he had renamed the Chicago Bears. The 1926 NFL had 22 teams, including the newly formed Duluth Eskimos, who had signed an All-American fullback from Stanford by the name of Ernie Nevers. In 1927, the NFL reduced the number of teams to 12 by weeding out the financially weaker teams. Both Grange and Nevers retired in 1928, but returned to the game in 1929, when in a game with the Chicago Bears, Nevers scored six touchdowns and four extra points, for a personal one-game record of 40 points, which still stands. That year the first night game was played on November 3 in Providence, Rhode Island, and Green Bay won the championship.

Here are some teams you may never have heard of. The Pottsville, Pennsylvania Maroons, who were contenders for the 1925 league title with the Chicago Cardinals.

The Cardinals were named the winners by Joe Carr, who had succeeded to president of the NFL. Two others were the Frankford (a Philadelphia suburb) Yellow Jackets, who were the 1926 NFL champions, and the Providence Steam Rollers, who were league champions in 1928.

An entertaining sidelight on the sport is the movie “Leathterheads,” directed by and starring George Clooney, which comes out on DVD September 23. It is a fictional tale of a Duluth team in 1925 which coincidentally recruits an All-American college fullback. Oddly, the Duluth team in the movie is called the Bulldogs, which has always been the name of the Canton team. The movie ends with a freak final play in a game in the mud with the Chicago Bears. Part of the fun is Renee Zellweger, who plays a feisty sports reporter from the Chicago Tribune.

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