Thanks to television's impact on the viewing public, football threatened to supplant baseball as America's favorite professional sport as the 1950s wound to a close. The December 28, 1958 National Football League championship game, which witnessed the Johnny Unitas-led Baltimore Colts' defeat of the New York Giants 23-17 in overtime, set the stage for professional football's enormous popularity during the years ahead. Some 30 million television viewers watched the stirring contest, which helped the pro game to finally join the same league as both the national pastime and college ball.
First organized at the close of the nineteenth century, professional football remained less highly regarded and considerably less popular than the college game. By 1889, charges were leveled that Ivy League players had been given financial inducements. Then, on November 13, 1892, Yale All-American guard Walter "Pudge" Heffelfinger and Princeton end Ben "Sport" Donnelly received $500 and $250 respectively, plus expenses, to join the Allegheny Athletic Association for a contest against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club. Other players, many from the college ranks, including Bucknell's Christy Mathewson, were soon hired by various teams throughout western Pennsylvania, upstate New York, and Ohio. Football thrived in the Midwest, with teams from Akron, Canton, Columbus, Dayton, and Massillon fiercely competing in the Ohio League. After its 32-game winning streak was broken by Canton in 1906, Massilon won the rematch; more importantly, sportswriter Grantland Rice highlighted the games, allowing pro ball to attain a measure of national attention.
During the 1910s, college athletes like Notre Dame's Knute Rockne, Brown's African American halfback Fritz Pollard, and Rutgers's black All-American end Paul Robeson competed alongside the greatest star of pro football's earliest days, the Canton Bulldog Jim Thorpe, who received $250 a game. An All-American halfback at Carlisle, Thorpe had competed in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, where he captured both the decathlon and pentathlon. Following revelations that he had been paid for playing baseball in the Carolina League, Thorpe's gold medals were taken away. Led by Thorpe, its stellar performer and gate attraction, Canton dominated the Ohio League, considered the pro game's premier league, from 1916-1919. Thorpe, Robert W. Peterson suggests, "lifted professional football out of the minor sports among the truss ads on the nation's sports pages to a position of some respectability." Yet pro football long proved unable to win the kind of fan allegiance reserved for college football, baseball, or boxing.
On September 17, 1920, representatives from 11 teams, including Thorpe and George Halas, player-coach of the Decatur, Illinois, Staleys, gathered in Canton. They agreed to form the American Professional Football Association and named Thorpe league president. While $100 fees were called for, Halas later acknowledged "that no money changed hands." Sixteen-man rosters were generally employed, thus requiring players to play both offense and defense. Decatur's linesmen averaged 206 pounds, their backs only 174. Players had to provide much of their protective gear, while some teams offered helmets, socks, and jerseys. Stars averaged about $150 a game, with quarterback Paddy Driscoll of the Chicago Racine Cardinals receiving $300. Akron, with an 8-0-3 record, was awarded the Brunswick-Balke Collender loving cup in April 1921 for having captured the "world's professional football championship."
Franchise shuffling abounded, but three teams appeared that provided a foundation for the league's future: Halas's Chicago Bears, Curly Lambeau's Green Bay Packers, and the Chicago Cardinals. In June 1922, team managers renamed their organization the National Football League. Professional football's success remained problematic, however, as the Packers performed on an open field and had to pass a hat among their fans at halftime. Then, in 1925, the pro game received a great boost from Halas's signing of University of Illinois All-American Red Grange. After wrapping up his collegiate career, Grange appeared in a Thanksgiving Day game against the Cardinals, attended by 36,000 fans. Barnstorming tours followed, enabling Grange, managed by C.C. Pyle, to pull in over $200,000 from gate receipts alone. A knee injury in 1927 ended Grange's broken-field running, but new stars were arriving, including Duluth's Ernie Nevers and Cleveland's tailback Benny Friedman, who immediately established new passing records; on Thanksgiving Day, 1929, Nevers scored all of the Chicago's Cardinals 40 points in a rout of the Bears. As the decade closed, the top teams were Timothy J. Mara's New York Giants, now quarterbacked by Friedman, and the Packers, led by halfback Johnny Blood. The Packer's three-year title streak was ended in 1932, when the Bears, relying on running backs Bronko Nagurski and Grange, defeated Portsmouth 9-0 in the NFL's first playoff game.
As the Great Depression wound on, dooming a number of franchises, seeds were planted for the NFL's eventual ascendancy to the top tier of American sports. Now, passes could be delivered anywhere behind the line of scrimmage, a task soon made easier by the reduction of the ball's size. Goal posts were placed on the goal line, also allowing for increased scoring. Significant too was the establishment of two divisions and the waging of a championship game. Attendance rose, with over 79,000 watching the first annual College All-Star game, in which the finest collegians battled the NFL champ. New owners joined the NFL ranks, including George Preston Marshall, eventual boss of the Washington Redskins, the Philadelphia Eagles's Bert Bell, and the Pittsburgh Steelers' Art Rooney. In 1936, the NFL introduced the player draft, with Heisman trophy winner Jay Berwanger the first player selected. The Packers and the Bears were the decade's top teams, each winning three titles from 1933 onward. The 6′2″, 225-pound Nagurski averaged nearly five yards a carry in a run-oriented offense, while halfback Beattie Feathers, in 1934, rushed for a then record 1,004 yards, averaging 9.9 yards a carry. The passing combination of Arnie Herber or Cecil Isbell to Don Hutson accounted for much of Green Bay's success. The lightning fast 6′1″, 180-pound Hutson snared 99 touchdown passes in his 11-year career while leading the league in receiving and touchdowns eight times and in scoring on five occasions. Washington also relied on the passing game, thanks to Marshall's signing of TCU's Sammy Baugh, who steered the Redskins to the championship in his initial season in 1937.
The 1940s also ushered in a series of changes, including pro football's first national radio broadcasts, the explosive T-formation, wartime losses, the Cleveland Rams's move to Los Angeles, a competitive struggle with a rival league, and African American ballplayers, who had been excluded from the game for over a decade. The 1940 championship was broadcast nationwide, as the Bears avenged a regular season loss in destroying the Redskins 73-0. The Bears's T-formation attack was guided by quarterback Sid Luckman, who also took Chicago to titles in 1941, 1943, and 1946. Victimized by Chicago in both the 1940 and 1943 championship contests, Washington managed to break the Bears's streak in 1942. The greatest passer of his generation, Baugh, in 1945, established a 70.3-percent completion record (later broken) after setting a season punting mark of 51.3 yards per kick five years earlier.
World War II service depleted the ranks of the NFL, requiring the Chicago Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers to merge during the 1944 season. Old-timers like the Bears's Bronko Nagurski temporarily returned to the gridiron, while George Halas served as a naval lieutenant commander in the South Pacific. By 1945, peacetime arrived and attendance rebounded to an average of nearly 29,000 spectators a game. But a new war broke out, a four-year battle with the rival All-American Football Conference. The AAFC was dominated by Paul Brown's Cleveland Browns, starring quarterback Otto Graham and fullback Marion Motley. While taking his team to four consecutive league championships, Brown initiated a series of coaching innovations: employment of full-time, year-round assistant coaches, use of intelligence and psychological tests, reliance on play-books and classroom instruction, timing of players's 40-yard dashes, use of messenger guards, grading of players through film analysis, and placement of spotters in the stadium to help with play selection.
The postwar period ushered in the African Americans' reentry into professional football. In 1946, Motley and guard Bill Willis signed with the Browns, while the Los Angeles Rams' halfback Kenny Washington and end Woody Strode became the first African Americans to play in the NFL since 1933. The Los Angeles county commission pressured the Rams, newly arrived from Cleveland, to give former UCLA All-American running back Washington a tryout, threatening to deny use of the expansive Coliseum. Black ballplayers began to trickle into both major leagues, including Emlen Tunnell, who became a standout defensive back with the New York Giants, and Buddy Young, a 5'5" scat-back with the New York Yankees.
During the 1950s, professional football began to be perceived as a major sport. The decade opened with the admission of three teams—Cleveland, Baltimore, and San Francisco—from the now dissolved AAFC into the NFL. The Browns immediately proved their mettle, crushing the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles, 35-10, in their opening game. Cleveland went on to take the title that year, captured six straight division crowns, and two more NFL championships through 1955. Other outstanding teams of the era included the Rams, who relied on twin quarterbacks, Bob Waterfield and Norm van Brocklin, throwing to ends Tommie Fears and Elroy "Crazlegs" Hirsch; the Detroit Lions, featuring quarterback Bobby Layne and halfback Doak Walker; and the New York Giants, starring halfback Frank Gifford and linebacker Sam Huff, and boasting a brilliant coaching staff that included offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi and defensive coordinator Tom Landry.
By the mid-1950s, televised pro games were drawing in more and more fans. The sudden-death championship game between the Colts and Giants in 1958 proved to be one of those epochal moments in sports history. In the following decade, technological innovations such as instant replays and slow motion shots allowed for a closer examination of the game's key moments. Television even helped to bring about new leagues: the American Football League in 1960, the short-lived World Football League in the mid-1970s, and the United States Football League in the following decade. Managerial acumen helped to ensure the sport's popularity too, ranging from its largely Irish-Catholic early owners to commissioners Bert Bell and Pete Rozelle, who devised a potent economic cartel. Thanks to Rozelle, the NFL signed lucrative television contracts, including one with ABC that resulted in the establishment of the enormously popular Monday Night Football game.
Thus, pro football's golden age had arrived, initially illuminating new stars like the Browns's fullback Jim Brown, who won eight rushing titles in nine years and led Cleveland to the 1964 championship, and the Baltimore Colts' Johnny Unitas. Weeb Ewbank's championship teams in 1958 and 1959, quarterbacked by former Steelers castoff Unitas, preceded the Lombardi dynasty in Green Bay. From 1961-67, the Packers, led by quarterback Bart Starr, halfback Paul Hornung, and fullback Jim Taylor, won five NFL championships. In 1960, Hornung, a former Heisman award-winning quarterback at Notre Dame, had scored a record 176 points on 15 touch-downs, 15 field goals, and 41 extra points. Capping a run of three consecutive NFL titles, Green Bay also won the first two Super Bowls, held after the 1966 and 1967 regular seasons. The Bears, who captured the 1963 championship, remained competitive, with stars like linebacker Dick Butkus, tight end Mike Ditka, and halfback Gale Sayers, who, during his rookie season in 1965, scored a record 22 touchdowns, including six in one game against San Francisco.
The Super Bowl became, along with the World Series and the Olympic Games, the greatest sports extravaganza. It was the byproduct of both the television revolution that changed the sporting world and a new territorial skirmish that the NFL now contended with. In 1960, Lamar Hunt had helped to establish the AFL, which was awarded a multi-million dollar television contract from NBC. The AFL's signing of star collegians, particularly Alabama's Joe Willie Namath, who inked a four-year contract with the New York Jets for the then unheard of sum of $427,000 on New Year's Day 1965, eventually brought about a merger of the two leagues. In the first two Super Bowls, pitting winners of the NFL and the AFL, Green Bay displayed the older league's supposedly clear superiority. But in January 1969, the heavily favored Colts fell to the New York Jets, 16-7, a result earlier guaranteed by Namath, who had become a media darling, with his stylish locks, playboy allure, and rifle-like arm. New stars shone brightly, including Buffalo running back O. J. Simpson, who established a rushing record in 1973 with 2003 yards.
The 1972 Miami Dolphins, led by coach Don Shula and quarterbacked by Bob Griese and Earl Morrall, became the first team to complete a season undefeated. The Dolphins repeated their championship run the following year, but Chuck Noll's Pittsburgh Steelers, with quarterback Terry Bradshaw, were the team of the decade, winning four Super Bowls, twice against Tom Landry's Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys, guided by quarterback Roger Staubach, managed two Super Bowl titles of their own. In the 1980s, Bill Walsh began constructing the latest dynasty in San Francisco, eventually capturing three Super Bowls before turning the team over to George Seifert, who won two more; quarterback Joe Montana led the 49'ers to all but one of those championships. The Cowboys, coached first by Jimmie Johnson and then by Barry Switzer, garnered three additional Super Bowl crowns, relying on the so-called "Triplets": quarterback Troy Aikman, halfback Emmitt Smith, and receiver Michael Irvin. By 1994, 135 million fans watched Dallas take a second straight Super Bowl match-up with the Buffalo Bills.
Like other major professional sports, football, by the mid-seventies, was ensnared in a series of legal battles resulting in strikes, cancelled games, and eventually, free agency. Franchise free agency also occurred with one team, the Oakland Raiders, who moved to Los Angeles and then returned to the Bay area. Despite such turmoil, professional football continued to thrive, thanks in part to record-setting performances by the likes of Miami quarterback Dan Marino, 49'er receiver Jerry Rice, and Lion running back Barry Sanders.
—Robert C. Cottrell
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