Are You Ready for 100 Years of Football?

By Richard Hallman, M.Ln.


Happy Anniversary, National Football League!


Like most aspects of American culture, football is relatively young. It evolved from college soccer and rugby games in the late 19th century. Professional football predates the NFL (originally dubbed the American Professional Football League) by about 30 years. The first professional players were "ringers," paid under the table to help amateur sports clubs win. William (Pudge) Heffelfinger pocketed $500 to help the Allegheny Athletic Association blank the Pittsburgh Athletic Club 4-0 in 1892. So, he was the first professional football player. Paying players became common and above board (or table) pretty quickly.

When the NFL formed as the APFL in 1920, three states accounted for 11 of the 14 teams: Ohio (five), and Illinois and Indiana (three each). New York (two) and Michigan (one) rounded out the league, which officially became the National Football League in 1923. If you look at a map, it was a cozy collection of Northeastern and Midwestern states. The league started off with 10, teams but four more joined before the end of the year. Here is a chronology of events.

Football was obviously a big deal in Ohio. The league was founded in 1920 in Canton, where the Pro Football Hall of Fame is located. Football is still the true religion in Canton, and the annual Hall of Fame induction ceremonies are called “Enshrinement Week. “

In my imagination, all of the players are thick, heavy-set guys with broken noses and names like Bronko, or Knute. (Yes, they were both real people: bruising pro Bronko Nagurski and Knute Rockne, who was a college player and coach.) There are still some names like that, such as the recently un-retired "Gronk," otherwise known as Rob Gronkowski.

Over time, the NFL and its players began to look a little more like the rest of the country. Kenny Washington is considered to be the first black NFL player, who signed with the LA Rams in 1946. But there were a few black players in the early days, including Fritz Pollard, who was quarterback and head coach of the Akron Pros in 1920. (He’s in the Hall of Fame.)

It may be hard to believe or remember now, but originally, the Super Bowl was a game designed to pit the winningest teams from the two “Conferences” (the AFC and NFC) against each other. In Super Bowl I, way back in 1967, the Green Bay Packers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 35-10 in Los Angeles (because who wants to be in Green Bay or Kansas City on January 15?). Nowadays, in addition to being one of the country's quintessential sporting events, the Super Bowl is designed to showcase musical superstars and sell us stuff. They still manage to fit a game in around the edges of halftime and Miller Time.

So a lot has changed in the NFL over the last 100 years. There’s a players union now and sometimes the helmets actually work. Now, when folks gather virtually around the water cooler, football discussions may turn to political themes or just go straight to flame wars. Heck, even pigskins are a myth. Footballs were never made from oinkers, although there is a teeny-tiny truthful connection.

None of this should take away from the experience of sitting down on a Sunday or possibly Saturday afternoon to watch a game that may be played in a stadium with no fans or a few fans, and enjoying watching very large men run around feinting and passing, tackling and grunting, and curing our football fever. Pass the Bud Light please!

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