Pro Football Before The NFL

     The Allegheny Athletic Association of Pittsburgh was the first known organization to pay an amateur to play football.  On Nov.12, 1892, Pudge Heffelfinger, three-time Yale All-American guard, became the first professional football player by going to Pittsburgh to play for the AAA against archrival Pittsburgh Athletic Club.  He was secretly handed $500 after the game by jarring loose a fumble, recovering the ball, and running it into the end zone to win the game.

     At the time, touchdowns only counted as four points and football em-phasized kicking.  The goal after a touchdown was worth two points and a field goal was worth five points.  The football was round, making it easy to drop kick, and the playing field was 110 yards long.  Forward passes were illegal and a team had only three downs to gain five yards for a first down.  There was no minimum number of players required on the line of scrimmage and everyone could be moving when the ball was snapped.  Offenses consisted of a flying-wedge-type, mass and momentum plays.  Players wore very few pads and played the entire 90 minutes or were carried off the field.

     The next week, the AAA paid former Princeton end Sport Donnelly $250 to play against Washington & Jefferson, and despite having two pros, the AAA lost the game.  In 1893, the AAA paid Pete Wright, James Van Cleve, and Ollie Rafferty $50 per game.  Donnelly stayed on, but was paid to coach–he played for free.  Other Pittsburgh teams began hiring players, but the AAA dominated local football for the next two years. 

     Thirty miles away, southeast of Pittsburgh, the Greensburg Athletic Association hired husky Lawson Fiscus, a bruiser who played one year at Princeton, for $20 a game in 1894.  Greensburg’s rival, nearby Latrobe,  fielded a team in 1895 and hired 18-year old John Brallier for $10 and expenses to quarterback against Jeannette.  He led his team to a 12-0 win and honestly believed himself to be the first professional football player.

     A new Pittsburgh team, the Duquesne Country and Athletic Club, started playing in 1895, intending to use only amateur players.  After four games, before playing Pittsburgh AC, they began hiring stars and soon became the most professional team in town.  Games had been shortened to 70 minutes in 1894 and in 1897 the value of a touchdown increased to five points, while the goal after went down to a point. 

     In 1898, Steel Magnate William C. Temple took over running the DC & AC to become the first individual team owner.  His team went undefeated through two seasons and soon other steelmen wanted their own teams.  In 1900, A.C. Dinkey stole most of the DC & AC players for his Homestead Library & Athletic Club, offering them higher salaries.  For the next two years, his team reigned supreme.

     Major League Baseball entered pro football in 1902 when the Athletics and the Phillies both organized football teams in Philadelphia and Pitts-burgh.  Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss backed a team made up mostly of former DC & AC/HLAC players.  These three Pennsylvania clubs modestly called themselves the National Football League and installed Dave Berry, newspaperman and the organizer of the Latrobe team, as league president. 

     New York Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson played fullback for the    Pittsburgh football team.  The Athletics‘ football team was managed by Connie Mack and listed Rube Waddell on its roster.  On Nov. 21, 1902, the Athletics won the first night football game 39-0 over Kanaweola AC at Elmira, N.Y.  Players from the two Philadelphia teams joined together to play as New York in an indoor World Series, an invitational tournament held over New Years in New York’s Madison Square Garden.  Surprisingly, the Syracuse AC team won with a team featuring Pop Warner at guard.

     After 1902, football faded in Pittsburgh, but 60 miles to the north, oil-rich Franklin, PA formed the ultimate all-star team for its 1903 game with rival Oil City.  They hired so many outstanding players that Oil City refused to play.  Nevertheless, Franklin took on the best area teams and then went on to sweep the second (and last) New York Indoor World Series, finishing the season undefeated, untied, and unscored upon.

     Ohio started fielding professional teams in 1903 when the Massillon Tigers hired four veteran pros from Pittsburgh to help them win the state football championship from Akron.  The next year saw at least eight Ohio teams using pro players on a regular basis.  When speedy halfback Charles Follis signed with the Shelby AC, he became the first black pro.  Talk about forming a pro football league began, but quickly ended when Massillon beat everyone in sight. 

     In 1905, the Canton Bulldogs were formed, primarily to beat Massillon.  The two teams from Stark County were traditional rivals.  Each team scrambled to hire the best players in the country and salaries soared.  Canton hired Michigan All-American halfback Willie Heston for $600 for the big showdown with Massillon, but the star proved a bust and Massillon won a third-straight Ohio state championship, 14-4. 

     In 1906, rulesmakers legalized the forward pass and provided a neutral zone along the scrimmage line.  Also, first downs were now accomplished by gaining ten yards in three downs and six players were now required to be on the line of scrimmage at the snap.  All these changes tended to reduce the use of mass plays, the main cause of injuries.

     Canton and Massillon feverishly signed stars for their 1906 games.  The Bulldogs were temporarily the toast of Ohio when they handed the Tigers their first loss in three years, 10-5.  However, Massillon kept its champion-ship when it beat Canton in a rematch, 13-6.  In the end, both Canton and Massillon had spent themselves broke, killing big-time pro football in Ohio for years–not until 1912 did renewed public enthusiasm call for large-scale pro football again. 

     The game was changing–the forward pass had been legal for six years, though it was rarely used except in desperate situations.  Touchdowns now counted for six points and field goals now counted for three points.  The field was now 100 yards long and the offense now had four downs to gain ten yards for a first down.  A rule prohibited substituted players from re-entering the game in the same half.  The ball still resembled a watermelon, making passing a risky tactic.  Teams usually lined up in the basic T-formation, with the standard play being a snap to the quarterback and a handoff to a back ploughing up the middle.

     Ohio teams again drew college stars to their lineups with either straight salaries or profit shares.  There were no restrictions on hiring players, and collegians played under aliases to preserve their amateur status and to allow them to jump from team to team to take the best weekly offer.  The Columbus Panhandles reported facing Knute Rockne six times in six weeks in six different uniforms. 

     Pro football flourished in Ohio, reaching a peak in 1915.  Toledo, Youngstown, Akron, and Dayton all had strong teams.  The Columbus Panhandles boasted about the six Nesser brothers in their lineup and Massillon had a new Tiger team.  Canton pulled a coup by signing Jim Thorpe, a former star halfback for the Carlsisle Indian School and gold medal winner in the decathalon at the 1912 Olympic Games. 

     Jim Thorpe was a natural star, despite flaunting every training rule.  He was a brilliant open-field runner, as well as being an unmatched power runner.  Thorpe could also pass, drop kick, placekick and punt exception-ally.  His jarring tackles struck fear in opponents and, although he did not always play at peak effort,  Jim Thorpe was pro football’s first glamorous drawing card.  He was the first player whose name preceded his team’s name on the placard. 

     Before Jim Thorpe joined the Canton Bulldogs, the team was averaging 1200 paying fans per game.  After joining the team, 8,000 fans showed up for his debut against Massillon.  The Tigers held him in check for the first game, but in the rematch he kicked a pair of field goals for a 6-0 victory. 

     Top Ohio teams hired droves of All-Americans in 1916, since enthusiasm and profits were at a new high.  Canton’s colossal line averaged 213 pounds and allowed only seven points in ten games.  At Massillon, the Tigers held the Bulldogs to a scoreless tie, but Canton took its revenge with a 24-0 slaughter in the rematch at home.  Canton’s newspapers proclaimed the Bulldogs as world champions, and the claim was repeated in 1917, although the Bulldogs and Tigers split their two games.

     In the face of the national war effort, pro football ground to a virtual halt in 1918.  Post-collegiate football received a boost when the Great Lakes Naval Training Station team brought together many of the nation’s best players.  George Halas held down an end position while Jimmy Conzel-man and Paddy Driscoll started in the backfield.  The powerhouse rolled into the Rose Bowl and emerged victorious, showing what post-graduates could produce.

     With the war over in 1919, pro football returned to Ohio.  Most of the old teams returned, along with many new ones.  Although there was a move-ment to set up an organization of some sort, all of the teams still existed as a freelance operation.  Canton hired Carlisle grads Joe Guyon and Pete Calac to join Thorpe in the backfield and Guy Chamberlain to play end.  Halas, out of the navy, signed with the Akron Pros in Indiana.  An early black star, cat-quick Fritz Pollard from Brown University, sparked Akron’s team.

     In Wisconsin, Curly Lambeau organized the Green Bay Packers with the backing of the Indian Packing Company.  At the end of a 10-1 season, the players split the profits and received $16.75 each.  For more established teams, the general pay scale provided $50-$75 per game for stars and less for the always unsung lineman–Thorpe’s pay remained exceptional.  The equipment was still primitive, with helmets being optional.

     Jim Thorpe led the Bulldogs to a pair of victories over the Massillon Tigers in an undefeated Canton season.  In the finale, the Tigers hired 45 top players, mostly to keep them out of Bulldog uniforms.  In a scoreless dead-lock in the third quarter, Thorpe–nursing a lame back–put a 40-yard placekick through the uprights to give Canton the lead.  Massillon came roaring back when, only moments later, they attempted a 45-yard field goal, but the ball bounced harmlessly out of bounds at the 15-yard line. 

     Canton was still bogged down deep in its own territory, being pursued by the relentless Tigers with more than a quarter to go.  Thorpe was equal to the task–he stood at his own five-yard line and, ignoring his sore back, smashed an enormous punt.  The wind caught the ball and it sailed high over the outstretched hands of the frantic Tigers safety man.  When it finally stopped rolling, it was across the Massillon goal line 95 yards away! Thorpe trotted off the field, having kicked Canton to another championship.

     Thorpe’s heroics closed out a free-wheeling and courageous era in pro-fessional football.  In 1920, the first organized pro football league was formed–the American Professional Football Association.

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