This year marks the 100th season of the National Football League — despite deserving to have been smitten from the Earth after its 99th, when referees blew the most obvious pass interference call in the history of the sport, if not the history of eyesight, during the NFC championship game between the New Orleans Saints and the usurper Los Angeles Rams.
A hundred years is a lot of ground to cover, especially for football, which has one of the richest and most dynamic histories of any sport played in America today. To learn more about the first century of the premier professional football league, I reached out to Jim Weathersby, the prolific author behind the website The Sports Historian (www.thesportshistorian.com), which chronicles every sport you’ve ever heard of, from 19th-century golf to today’s Little League. He certainly lived up to his reputation during our hour-long conversation.
Professional football existed as a small, regional activity as early as the 1890s, he says, and grew out of college football. “College was king,” says Weathersby, and after players graduated, professional football was a good way to make a little extra money. The sport was limited to regional teams, with its strongest presence in Ohio. The Canton Bulldogs and the Massillon Tigers were early pre-NFL rival football teams; their fans were devoted and their players were serious about the sport. In those days, players wore virtually no padding, and are best recognized today by the now seemingly strange leather helmets seen in in old films and photographs. Still, if you were to build a time machine and use it to watch these first professional football games, you would certainly recognize the game being played. (The same isn’t true, however, for the earliest college football games in the late 1860s and ’70s. Football was then still in its infancy, and college athletes in the Northeast played something more akin to rugby or soccer. The actual football looked a lot like a soccer ball or volleyball.)
THE FATHER OF AMERICAN FOOTBALL
Football as we know it was devised by a man named Walter Camp. A Yale player and then coach, Camp (while serving on rules committees for the nascent American sport) devised such things as the line of scrimmage, the snap, the safety and the offensive lineup still used today. He was a man of seemingly boundless energy, writing hundreds of stories about football for the top magazines in America, to say nothing of the 30 books he authored. Today he is recognized as the Father of American Football.
“By 1930, the game had evolved to what we see today,” says Weathersby. “You didn’t have the protection with the massive pads and the facemask — the equipment and the uniforms still had a ways to go — but the actual football itself was certainly oblong, and the game fairly close to what would be played even in the 21st century.” Throughout the 1930s, running plays were the order of the day.
What might startle you most about the early days of professional football are the players themselves. The speed and size of the professional football player pre-World War II are unrecognizable when compared to the gladiators on the field today. “With these guys, the linemen might be 180 pounds,” Weathersby explains. “If you’re lucky, he’s 200 pounds.” In comparison, linemen today are well over 300 pounds. Without modern equipment, it could get ugly out there. “Football was a vicious, tough game.”
Just after World War I, it occurred to those Ohio teams that it was time to get organized and solve three major issues plaguing the sport: player salaries, players moving from one team to the next as they chased the highest offer, and teams snagging players away from colleges. The year was 1920, and the solution they came up with was to form a league. They first called it the American Professional Football Conference. One month later, they changed that to the American Professional Football Association. And then in 1922, they rebranded one last time, and they became the National Football League.
The first few years of the NFL were spent in survival mode. No one had any idea how to make this thing work aside from, “Let’s play some football!” There was almost nothing national about the National Football League; it was made up mostly of teams in the Midwest, New York and Pennsylvania, and for 20 years, teams formed and folded like clockwork. There were no champion teams because there were no championship games. “League reps would get together the first of the year after a season and vote on who should be number one,” says Weathersby, “much like the way they used to do college football polls.”
To get things moving forward, the league cut away the weaker, less financially sound teams, and stabilized at 12. In 1925, the Chicago Bears signed a top-ranked college player named Red Grange and, suddenly, the media took notice of this “pro football” experiment. Grange was just an unbelievably popular player, and that Thanksgiving, he played his first game with the Bears at Wrigley Field versus the Chicago Cardinals, a crosstown team. Thirty-six thousand fans attended — the largest in NFL history at that time — and though the game ended 0-0, the league was suddenly on the map. The following month, Grange’s presence on the field saved a team called the New York Giants, which was tottering on bankruptcy until he came along, bringing 73,000 fans with him. (This time the Bears won.)
Things really picked up speed in the 1930s, which saw the first championship game (Bears vs. Giants in 1933), the first draft (1936) and the first locally televised game (Brooklyn Dodgers vs. the Philadelphia Eagles in 1939 on NBC). World War II killed the league’s momentum, but when soldiers returned from Europe and Japan, the NFL went mainstream. The Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles, San Francisco got a team (the 49ers), Cleveland got yet another team (the Browns), and Baltimore got the Colts. Meanwhile, the rules of the sport were changed to facilitate faster-paced, higher-scoring games. (The T formation was a big part of this.) Audiences and thus revenue exploded, and fans started turning their attention from college ball to the pros.
THE GREATEST GAME EVER PLAYED
Perhaps the seminal event in NFL history occurred in 1958, when the Baltimore Colts played the New York Giants in a championship game. It was the first championship game to be nationally televised, and it went into overtime, with the Colts prevailing in sudden death, 23-17. That audience and the watercooler conversation to follow ignited an interest that resulted in professional football overtaking baseball and college football in popularity by the mid ’60s. During this time, the league cashed in on its newfound popularity by managing the licensing of team logos for merchandise. This soon blossomed into a billion-dollar business, and finally put money in the pockets of team owners, who, for most of the NFL’s history, never turned much of a profit.
In 1966, the NFL merged with a rival professional football organization, the American Football League. The merger would take four years to complete, and in the interim, league owners decided to hold an annual championship game between the top AFL team and the top NFL team. The first such head-to-head was held in 1967, and was called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. The Green Bay Packers played the Kansas City Chiefs. By 1969, this contest would be renamed the Super Bowl. (The 1967 contest was retroactively named Super Bowl I.)
Once the merger was complete, the NFL reorganized slightly, adding teams, and rebalancing and renaming its two erstwhile rivals — now as the American Football Conference and the National Football Conference. They would also keep the Super Bowl tradition alive. In 1970, Monday Night Football premiered on ABC, bringing in an entirely new audience with such technological innovations as slow motion and multiple camera angles, as well as celebrity guest stars and a lively trio of commentators: Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell and Don Meredith.
In case you are wondering, the New Orleans Saints joined the NFL in 1966; they played in Tulane Stadium and spent 40 years being beaten pretty soundly, with the occasional punctuation of a winning season. In 2009, however, football would be changed evermore for the better, when Drew Brees led the team to victory in Super Bowl XLIV. I pause here to note that, 10 years later, that felony failure to throw a flag on the Rams in the NFC championship game was the second instance in the same game (indeed, the same quarter) in which refs magically missed a pass interference call against the Rams (indeed, again, against Robey-Coleman). The restraint exhibited by the ghost of Tom Benson during both calls was impressive enough; a lesser spirit would have reached a phantom arm from the field below and pulled the referees one by one beneath the Superdome and deep into the belly of the Earth.
THE FUTURE OF FOOTBALL
If the first 100 years were about assembling a professional football league and setting it on sound financial footing, the next 20 years will likely be devoted to solving the problem of traumatic brain injury inflicted upon the game’s players. Football is a thrilling, violent sport where anything can happen because very large, very fast men have set themselves the task of moving a little brown ball from one side of a field to the other. But when you get very large, very fast men set in violent opposition, things can get ugly out there. In the mid 1990s, the NFL established a group called the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee to look at the effects of concussions sustained over a professional football career.
“At first, they kind of downplayed it,” says Weathersby. “They argued that there wasn’t much connection between repeated hits to the head and concussions.” By the early 2000s, the evidence was essentially irrefutable, and the medical community picked up the flag and ran with it. In 2006, Roger Goodell became NFL commissioner, and began reshaping the sport into what we see today. Though he defended the league before Congress, he later implemented the NFL concussion protocol, whereby professional concussion spotters and neurologists on the field and in booths keep watch for players who look as though they have received concussive injuries. (The specialists can even speak directly — via wireless headsets — with referees, who can stop the game if a player appears to have symptoms of trauma.) Those players identified as being injured are immediately pulled for on-site evaluation by physicians. Some remain sidelined for the duration of the game. Some are medically evacuated to hospitals for further brain scans. Except for the team doctors, who are consulted, everyone involved is unaffiliated with the NFL.
Meanwhile, the NFL has implemented rule changes on tackling: A player can no longer lead with his helmet. And there is an ever-evolving effort to improve player equipment — though ironically, the helmets of today are only scarcely better for the concussion problem than the leather helmets of the 1920s. Because head-on-head contact isn’t likely to result in skulls smashing open and brains spilling onto the field, players are essentially incentivized to collide heedlessly with one another with more force than they might otherwise use. In short, the system isn’t perfect.
In the meantime, the most pressing change in store for the league involves its referees. In the 99th season, all you needed to be a referee in the NFL was a white hat, a striped shirt and a whistle. In its 100th, the league might consider adding eyeglasses to the list as well.