Remembering the NFL's humble origins on its 100th birthday

The lack of grandeur is startling now, the two yellowed, typewritten pages chronicling a small after-hours business meeting bearing no hint that a sporting and cultural behemoth was being birthed that night in Canton 100 years ago.

"New Business," the minutes of Sept. 17, 1920, typed on the stationary of the Akron Professional Football Team read. "It was moved and seconded that a permanent organization be formed to be known as American Professional Football Association. Motion carried."

Two years later, the minutes reflected that on June 24, 1922, a team owner named George Halas made a motion to change the name of the association to something more memorable -- the National Football League. But that first meeting, a century ago in Canton, little more than 60 miles south of where Ohio's two teams will mark the anniversary Thursday night, represents the starting point of the game we know today.

The real birth certificate of pro football, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is an accounting ledger from a game played in November of 1892 between teams from athletic clubs in Pittsburgh. There is a line item noting that William "Pudge" Heffelfinger, a former Yale All-America guard, was compensated $500 to play in the game, the first documented case of a person being paid to play football.

But the competition was a disorganized mess, a compendium of upstart leagues -- the Ohio League was the dominant one -- and athletic club rivalries that encouraged players to constantly jump from team to team, following the highest bidder. Even the best teams weren't making any money, because not enough people paid to watch to offset the ever-rising costs of players.

The game itself had become significantly more popular in the early 1900s, but a manpower shortage because men were joining the military service for World War I, and the government banning large gatherings because of the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 quashed the movement toward having a league.

Then, in 1919, there was a hunger for things to return to normal -- sound familiar? -- and the nucleus of teams from Ohio wanted to see if they could open up the Ohio League to all the pro teams that wanted to play. Football started looking so good to some of the financial backers of the teams that they started talking about forming a league. That got the attention of Ralph Hay, the young man who owned the Canton Bulldogs, the powerhouse team of the Ohio League. Hay liked to use the local papers around town to deliver messages and he did it then. Yes, Hay told the papers, a league was needed. And if it occurs, it will be on the ground floor in Canton.

"It was kind of a power move," said Joe Horrigan, the recently retired executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "We're the big team and we invited you to play, so we'll control this."

The response was even better than Hay expected. Fifteen men showed up, representing a collection of 10 franchises that were considered the most important pro teams in the Midwest. That forced the 29-year-old host to move the meeting out of his office and onto the showroom of the auto dealership he owned on the ground floor of the aptly-named Odd Fellows building at the corner of Cleveland Avenue and 2nd Street SW.

Hay, a Canton native, had been selling cars since he was 18, and a few years later, he went into business for himself, selling, among other models, the Hupmobile. Hay would become one of the most successful auto dealers in Ohio, and when he was 27, Hay decided to buy the Bulldogs team. Hay loved football, but what he really wanted to do was use the team to promote his car dealership.

A meeting on the ground floor of the Odd Fellows building -- in the showroom of an auto dealership -- gave birth to the football league that would eventually become the NFL. (Courtesy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame)
A meeting on the ground floor of the Odd Fellows building -- in the showroom of an auto dealership -- gave birth to the football league that would eventually become the NFL. (Courtesy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame)

The 10 franchises represented at Hay's meeting were the Akron Pros, the Canton Bulldogs (Jim Thorpe, the famed Olympian and the team's star halfback, was there with Hay), the Racine Cardinals, the Cleveland Indians, the Dayton Triangles, the Hammond Pros, the Muncie Flyers, the Rock Island Independents and the Rochester Jeffersons (Leo Lyons was there) and the Decatur Staleys, representing the Staley Starch Company, who had yet to play a game. Only two of the franchises survive to this day -- the Racine Cardinals are now the Arizona Cardinals. And the Decatur Staleys, who were represented at that meeting by the man their owner had hired to run the company's athletic department and coach the football team, Halas, moved to Chicago and were rechristened the Bears.

"Thinking back to September 17, 1920, and that meeting in Canton, Ohio, I am pretty sure none of us had the remotest idea what we were starting," Halas said in recorded remarks celebrating the 50th anniversary of the NFL in 1970.

Without enough chairs for everyone, some of the men sat on the running boards of the Hupmobiles, providing the romantic image that is part of NFL lore. Halas later recalled in that recording that Hupmobiles were among the most elegant cars of the post-World War I era, but Halas also mused about "what a spectacular change of setting it was" from that showroom in Canton just 50 years later, "when league meetings are conducted in plush, modern meeting rooms of metropolitan hotels."

But before those men could get to the business of creating a league, they had a dropout. Hay relayed the word that the Massillon Tigers were withdrawing for the 1920 season, but were still interested in joining the league. They were essentially holding their spot and, more to the point, blocking the manager of the Akron team from buying the Tigers and making them a traveling team, Horrigan said.

Then, according to the minutes, Thorpe, the boldest name, was unanimously elected as president of the fledgling league. A $100 fee was instituted to join the association, and Thorpe was instructed to form a committee to work with a lawyer on a constitution, bylaws and rules for the association. Each team was to mail to the association secretary, Art Ranney of the Akron Pros, a list of players used in the 1920 season by January 1, 1921, and the secretary would furnish each club with a copy of the roster. Ranney earned an early footnote in league history: In the meeting minutes, he mistakenly listed the Cardinals as from Racine, the Wisconsin town. The Cardinals, though, were based in Chicago and played their home games at Normal Park, which was located on the city's Racine Avenue.

"That's how humble it was," Horrigan said.

Finally, the minutes note that a Mr. Marshall of the tire division of the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company, which is now best known for its boating brands like Sea Ray and Boston Whaler, presented a silver loving cup to be given to the team that won the association's championship. Any team that won it three times would be adjudged the owner.

"And this gave all of us a feeling we were involved in a project that had dignity and stability," Halas said of the cup.

The meeting was adjourned. For a league that now favors flyovers and fireworks, the news of the new association was met with little fanfare. The Canton Repository, the local paper, relegated the story to Page 3, with the news of the Bulldogs' signing of tackle Wilbur "Pete" Henry the lead story. Other newspaper reports explained the goals of the new league were to combat players' salary demands, to keep players from jumping from team to team and to protect college eligibility by forbidding college players from also playing with pro teams.

"Pro football is a pretty simple proposition," Horrigan said. "You want to maximize profit as owners and players."

The minutes from the Sept. 17, 1920 meeting in Canton, Ohio, announced the formation of the American Professional Football Association. (Courtesy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame)
The minutes from the Sept. 17, 1920 meeting in Canton, Ohio, announced the formation of the American Professional Football Association. (Courtesy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame)

Four additional teams soon signed on. On Sept. 26, the first game featuring a team from the APFA, the Rock Island Independents, was played in front of 800 people. A week later, the first game featuring a matchup of two APFA teams was played, with Dayton defeating Columbus. The league was still haphazard, though, and teams were allowed to play non-league opponents to fill out their schedules.

Less than a year later, the association was already being reorganized and it took on the broad outlines of the league we know today. There was a new president, Joe Carr, whom Horrigan calls the most undersold figure in the early history of the league. (Carr, who had worked in Minor League Baseball and been a sportswriter, revived the Columbus football team in 1907 by filling out the roster with railroad employees, The Columbus team eventually became a charter member of the new association.)

Thorpe's star power was important for that first year, but Carr was organized and he modeled much of what he did off of Minor League Baseball. He drafted a constitution, which gave teams territorial rights, restricted player movement, developed membership criteria for franchises and issued standings for the first time, so that the champion would not be in dispute.

In 1921 came two seminal decisions in the association. The Akron Pros named Fritz Pollard their head coach, making Pollard the first Black head coach in league history. And A.E. Staley turned over his Decatur team to his player-coach Halas, paying Halas $5,000 to retain the name Staleys for one more year. Halas did move the team to Chicago's Cubs Park. The Chicago Staleys went 9-1-1, giving Halas his first championship.

Growing up in Massillon just as the association was being created in nearby Canton was a boy named Paul Brown. Massillon was a shipping and steel town then and, like so many other area towns, it was devoted to its local high school and professional football teams. When Massillon withdrew from the association just as it was starting, the passion coalesced around the high school. Brown entered Massillon Washington High School in 1922, and although he was undersized, he played quarterback in his junior and senior years. He never got past the tryout at Ohio State, but Brown transferred to Miami of Ohio, where he played quarterback while preparing for law school. 

Instead, when Brown graduated, his old high school football coach at Massillon recommended him for a coaching job at a small private high school in Maryland. Two years later, Brown returned to Massillon to resurrect his high school team. 

During his nine years at Massillon, Brown began the innovations that made him one of the most influential people in football history -- he invented the playbook and tested his players on its contents, and he began the practice of using hand signals to send in plays to his quarterback. Massillon became one of the most dominant high school teams in the country. After a stint at Ohio State and as the coach of the football team at a naval training base during World War II, Brown accepted a job coaching a team based in Cleveland for a new league to be a rival of the NFL. The Cleveland Browns -- named by popular demand for Brown against his wishes -- of the All-America Football Conference were born in 1946, and Brown was given an ownership stake. Brown continued to be a trendsetter: He employed Black players when other teams would not, and he developed a version of the T-formation. And his team won four consecutive championships. When the AAFC folded after the 1949 season, three teams joined the NFL. The San Francisco 49ers, the Baltimore Colts and the Browns. 

The team named for Brown had changed ownership hands, and Brown's relationship with owner Art Modell was strained. He was fired in 1963 and was sidelined until the upstart American Football League put a team in Cincinnati in the mid-1960s. Brown was a big investor and was given the titles of coach and general manager, and he was also allowed to represent the team in all league matters. He essentially created the Bengals from scratch, making Brown largely responsible for the development of the two teams that will play Thursday night.

The extraordinary growth of the NFL can be traced in the hour's drive from Cleveland's modern First Energy Stadium, where the anniversary will be marked, to that street corner in Canton. The old Odd Fellows building is long gone, replaced by the Canton Post Office and then the Frank Bow Federal Building, which now houses a number of Stark County offices and is known for murals painted in the 1930s that depict the steel manufacturing process. There is a plaque noting the spot's significance in NFL history. Less than three miles away is the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where Thorpe and Halas are enshrined, as is Carr.

Hay, though, is not. The Bulldogs won the championship in 1922, but Hay was still losing money on the team. Before the 1923 season, he sold the team to a group of local businessmen, ending his link to the NFL. When the league first began, the Bulldogs, as a powerhouse, were a sought-after opponent for other teams. The league Hay had helped create had become increasingly successful pretty quickly, so that Hay couldn't compete in a small town like Canton with teams in bigger cities like Chicago and Cleveland, which didn't need to bring in an opponent like the Bulldogs. In 1927, Carr eliminated the financially weaker teams and consolidated the best players on the more successful teams. Those teams were increasingly in the large cities of the Northeast. Fittingly, the New York Giants won the championship that year.

"It was a strange turn of events for Hay and other small-city franchises," Horrigan said. "They literally built the league. But by the end of the decade, they were all but gone."

The men who played for those teams, though, are not forgotten. In Canton, a block from where that fateful meeting was held, on decorative pylons that are part of the new Centennial Plaza, the names of every person who played in the NFL during its first 100 years -- more than 25,000 of them -- are inscribed.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @JudyBattista.

Related Content