To celebrate our 100th season, we are going back to our roots to honor the 13 Original Towns and 14 charter teams that started the NFL in September of 1920. Through youth and high school football grants, integration of the towns into the 2019 NFL Draft, and the building of a new, turf field in Dayton, Ohio – the site of the first-ever NFL game – we will recognize where our League was first established. Scroll down to dive into the early history of the NFL and learn more about the humble beginnings of America’s favorite sports League.
In the summer of 1920, Art Ranney and Frank Nied formed the Akron Pros – a game-changing team that included the likes of Bob “Nasty” Nash and Fritz Pollard, the first-ever African American player and coach. On April 30, 1921, after an 8-0-3 season, the team was awarded the American Professional Football Association, or APFA (now NFL) Champion title, as well as the Brunswick-Balke Collendar Cup. What happened to the Cup after that day, however, is a mystery. Never again mentioned in League minutes, the Cup very well may be hidden in an Akron attic somewhere – the dusty symbol of the NFL’s first championship.
Today, Buffalo is the home of the Buffalo Bills. The Bills, however, were not the first NFL football team to call the city home. That honor goes to the Buffalo All-Americans, a founding team of the National Football League in 1920. In the team’s first season, the All-Americans went 9-9-1, and believed they deserved to win the championship – and the Brunswick-Balke Collendar Cup. At that time, though, championships were decided by voting, and the All-Americans ended the season with a 3rd-place slot in the American Professional Football Association – now known as the NFL.
In 1920, ten football teams gathered in Canton, Ohio to create the American Professional Football Association (APFA), now known as the National Football League (NFL). Four more teams joined the League later that year, rounding out the 14 Original NFL Towns. Canton, Ohio, now known for its Pro Football Hall of Fame, was the home of the Canton Bulldogs. In the early 1900s, the Bulldogs were a dominant football team, boasting famous players such as Olympic Gold Medalist and hailed football hero, Jim Thorpe. The Bulldogs won back-to-back NFL championship titles in 1922 and 1923. To this day, the Bulldogs still hold the NFL record for most consecutive team wins, with 25 straight.
CHICAGO, IL, Racine Cardinals
In 1920, when the Cardinals hosted the Decatur Staleys (now Chicago Bears) for the first time, they formed the NFL's oldest rivalry – what we now know as Cardinals vs. Bears. With the help of superstar, Paddy Driscoll, the Cardinals won 7-6, and the battle for pro football dominance in Chicago began. Despite being eventually overpowered by the Chicago Bears, the Cardinals moved to Arizona – becoming today’s Arizona Cardinals – and are, along with the Bears, the only two franchises still in operation since the League’s founding.
CHICAGO, IL, Tigers
Although the Chicago Tigers were the first-ever team in the NFL’s history to disband, they nonetheless occupy an important part in NFL history as one of its founding teams. In the club’s single season, the Tigers went 2-5-1 and played their home games at Cubs Park, now known as the famed Wrigley Field. Perhaps the team’s most prominent game was against the Racine Cardinals, who were also based in Chicago. Tigers owner Guil Falcon reportedly made a deal with Cardinals owner Chris O’Brien to play for the right to be the sole Chicago team – and after the Cardinals won 6-3, the Tigers disbanded at the end of the season.
Players That Made An Impact
1920 Canton Bulldogs
1920 Decatur Staleys
1920 Canton Bulldogs
1920 Racine Cardinals
1920 Canton Bulldogs
1920 Decatur Staleys
1920 Decatur Staleys
1920 Decatur Staleys
1920 Rock Island Independents
Though the Cleveland Tigers ended their inaugural APFA (now NFL) season with a 2-4-2 record, the team put up 7 points against that season’s champion, the Akron Pros – the only points the Pros allowed in the entirety of the 1920 season. In the 1921 season, the Cleveland Tigers became the Cleveland Indians, and shared both a field and name with the city’s baseball club. Although the Cleveland Indians football team disbanded after that season, the city’s passion for the game, and for their Cleveland Browns, remains strong.
When the National Football League was founded in 1920, Columbus, Ohio was known for its many railroads. Many of the men that played for the Columbus Panhandles – the city’s NFL football team – worked on the Panhandle section of the Pennsylvania railroad, including the famed Nesser brothers. The six brothers turned the Panhandles into a major attraction with sellout crowds nearly everywhere they went. Ted Nesser’s son Charlie joined the team in 1921, as well, marking the only time in NFL history where a father and son played on the same team. In 1922, the Panhandles were discontinued due to cost and salary demands.
In 1916, the Dayton Triangles organized as a recreational football team, comprised of employees from three Dayton factories: the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (Delco); the Dayton Metal Products Company, and the Domestic Engineering Company (now called Delco-Light). The team got their namesake from the three companies and because they played at Triangle Park in North Dayton. In 1920, Dayton Triangles team manager Carl Storck attended the first-ever organizational meeting and a few weeks later, on October 3, 1920, the Triangles hosted the first-ever NFL game against the Columbus Panhandles at Triangle Park, winning 14-0. Though the NFL no longer has a club in Dayton, NFL FLAG games are played to this day at Triangle Park.
NFL 100 in Dayton, Ohio
To honor the lasting legacy of football and pave the way for future generations, the NFL Foundation, in partnership with FieldTurf & Vasco — who will lead construction and installation — will fund the installment of a new artificial turf field in the city of Dayton at Kettering Park.
Continue below to learn more about the Original Towns
The Decatur Staleys American football team was created in order to build morale within the Staley Manufacturing Company. Professional baseball player George Halas joined the Staleys during the first NFL season. After Halas pushed the team to play in downtown Chicago to garner larger crowds, A.E. Staley transferred ownership over to him because of the team’s success in their new city. Halas eventually renamed the team the Chicago Bears, because, in his words, “football players are bigger than baseball players, so if baseball players are cubs, then certainly football players must be bears.” The Chicago Bears are now one of the most storied NFL Clubs in League history, and George Halas’ daughter Virginia McCaskey currently owns the team.
A group of University of Detroit athletes, led by Bill Marshall, paved the way for professional football in Detroit by forming the Heralds in 1905, after the university eliminated its football program. The Heralds were the first independent football team in America to wear numbers on their jerseys, and to publicize their players to make the game more fan-friendly. The Heralds quickly became a competitive team when they signed big name stars like Kent "Skeet" Lambert, Nord Sacksteder, and Tommy Hughitt. In 1921, the team was renamed the Detroit Tigers, but disbanded in the same season – just one year after the APFA’s (NFL’s) inception.
It is said that the American Professional Football Association (now NFL), was initially deemed viable because of a 1919 game between the Hammond Pros and the Canton Bulldogs, that boasted somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 fans. Unfortunately, most of the Hammond players had full-time jobs, little time to practice, and played most of their games on the road, lending to the team’s seven-year, 5-26-4 record. Nonetheless, the Hammond Pros are remembered for being the most inclusive team in early NFL history, with five of the ten African American players in the League playing for Hammond at one point in time. In 1926, the NFL disbanded 12 of its clubs to make the League more manageable – one of which was the Hammond Pros.
The Muncie Flyers – first called the Congerville Flyers – originated through the Congerville Athletic Club in 1905. Though the Flyers lasted five seasons in the American Professional Football Association (APFA), now NFL, the team’s success wasn’t plentiful: The Flyers played its first NFL game October 3, 1920, losing to the Rock Island Independents 45-0. From 1920 to 1921, the Flyers played only two more APFA teams, losing both of those games without scoring a single point. Today, Ball State University resides in Muncie, with a Division I football team, so football is still an important part of Muncie’s past, present and future.
ROCK ISLAND, IL
When the Independents became a charter member of the National Football League, their squad was already a well-known. In the team’s opening game, Rock Island beat the Muncie Flyers 45-0. The Independents left the NFL in 1926 to become a charter member of the first American Football League, only to fold with the rest of the League a year later. Though the team’s existence in the NFL was short, the Rock Island Independents produced four Pro Football Hall of Fame members, including Ed Healy, Jimmy Conzelman, Jim Thorpe, and Joe Guyon. Today, the city celebrates its football history each year with a Vintage American Football game.
When the American Professional Football Association (APFA), now NFL, was founded in 1920, it was believed that American football throughout Ohio and the Midwest was played at a different caliber, than that of New York. The Jeffersons fared well in their first season, ending the season with a 6-3-2 record. Leo Lyons – the team’s manager, coach, player and owner – worked to recruit top collegiate players, even if they hailed from different states. The residents of Rochester didn’t want to support “outside” players and this ultimately lead to the teams demise. Leo Lyons remained a prominent figure in the NFL – serving as its Honorary Historian and a major contributor to the Pro Football Hall of Fame until his passing in 1976.
Photos courtesy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame