February 2012

Fun Football Facts to Enhance Your Super Bowl Experience

Author: Frank Dunne, Jr.

Why do we call this game football anyway? Only two guys get to kick the ball, and they’re the biggest sissies on the field! The details are a little fuzzy, but apparently there was a popular game on 19th Century American college campuses that looked like soccer, except you could bat the ball with your hands. Players mostly used their feet, though, so they called it football. It really caught on after Rutgers and Princeton played the first intercollegiate match in 1869, but by the time football powerhouses (heh, heh!) Harvard, Columbia, Princeton and Yale got together to set up some uniform rules in 1876, rugby was more popular. So the rules for the American game ended up resembling rugby more than soccer, but the name football stuck. Got that, all you hooligans who still think soccer is going pass over football? Given the option, Americans chose football from the very beginning. Now grab a helmet and get with the program!

The helmet was not mandatory in professional football until 1942.
Football swept the nation at colleges and amateur athletic clubs, but paying players was not a generally accepted practice until 1892 when Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Athletic Association paid William “Pudge” Heffelfinger $500 to play a single game, making him history’s first pro football player. Five years later, the Latrobe Athletic Association became the first to play a full season with all professionals. The modern NFL didn’t start to take shape for another two decades, but these club pro teams got the ball rolling. For instance, in 1898 Chicago’s Morgan Athletic Club formed a team called the Normals then changed the name to Racine Cardinals then Chicago Cardinals. The team relocated to become the St. Louis Cardinals, relocated again to become the Phoenix Cardinals, then changed the name to Arizona Cardinals. Yup. They’re the oldest team in the NFL.

While in St. Louis, the Cardinals were one of a handful of teams over the years to have the same name as the city’s baseball team, but check this out. In 1902, the Philadelphia Athletics and Philadelphia Phillies baseball teams actually played football, too, and joined the Pittsburgh Stars in the first known attempt at a pro football league. They called it the National Football League even though there were only three teams and they were all in Pennsylvania. It only lasted one season, and all three teams “claimed” the league championship. Maybe they should have called themselves the BCS. Incidentally, that year the Athletics beat a club team in the first-ever night game, which must have been very interesting because the first night game under lights didn’t occur until 1929. Speaking of firsts, later that season, players from the Athletics and Phillies got together and joined a five-team tournament at New York’s Madison Square Garden called the World Series of Pro Football. They didn’t win, but they did play the opening game against the Syracuse Athletic Club in the first indoor football game.

The white stripes on a football were put there in 1956 to aid visibility for night games. Before that, the NFL used a white ball with black stripes at night.
Meanwhile, a bunch of pro teams in Ohio were bludgeoning each other every year for the Ohio Independent Championship. The Ohio “league” was more of a loose association than a formal league (a 1904 attempt to get things better organized failed), but the Ohio champion was by and large considered the professional football champion until 1920. That’s when a group of teams met in Canton, Ohio (now you know why the Pro Football Hall of Fame is in Canton) to form the American Professional Football Conference, which they changed to the American Professional Football Association a month later. The APFA took to the field that year with teams from four states.

This was all decades before multi-million dollar stadium naming rights deals would become the norm, but the idea just might have been hatched in the APFA era. In 1921, owner A.E. Staley turned over control of the Decatur Staleys to George Halas and paid him $5,000 to retain the name for one more year. Halas moved the team to Chicago and changed the name to the Bears in 1922, the same year the APFA changed its name to the National Football League. This time it stuck.

That first AFPA season was pretty unorganized. Teams made their own schedules and nobody kept official stats or standings. In fact, some teams that had no shot at the championship late in the season simply left the league and disbanded—no annual debate over the merits of tanking late-season games to get a better draft choice in those days. Just take your ball and go home. Player deals were also handled a little differently back then. In that inaugural season, the Akron Pros sold tackle Bob Nash to the Buffalo All-Americans for $300 and five percent of the gate receipts. They made the deal at the game.

In 1921 the AFPA drafted a constitution and by-laws that gave teams territorial rights, restricted player movements, and issued official standings for the first time so that the league would have a clear champion, but a championship game didn’t appear until 1932. That year, the Bears and the Portsmouth Spartans (later the Detroit Lions) finished in a first place tie, and the league authorized an additional game—the first-ever playoff game—to decide the league champion. The Bears won on a two-yard touchdown pass that the Spartans disputed, claiming that Chicago’s Bronko Nagurski threw the pass from less than five yards behind the line of scrimmage, which was illegal then, but the play stood. As we would say today, “After further review, the ruling on the field stands!”

The forward pass was legalized in 1906.
An NFL championship game became permanent in 1933 when the league was divided into two divisions, Western and Eastern, with the division winners to meet in an annual championship game. The Bears beat the New York Giants in the first NFL Championship Game, and the Giants returned the favor the next year in what became known as “The Sneakers Game,” because the Giants switched from cleats to basketball shoes to get better traction on a frozen field. This was probably the first time such attention was given to players’ footwear, but I don’t think any shoe deals came out of it.

The Super Bowl era was still over 30 years away, and it took the emergence of the rival American Football League in 1960 to set it in motion. The AFL succeeded where other upstart leagues had failed, because the owners brought enough money to the party to lure players from the NFL and make their own television deals. Suddenly, teams like the Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles (now San Diego) Chargers, Oakland Raiders and New York Titans (now Jets) were drafting from the same pool of college players as the NFL, and they were getting enough of them to steal the NFL’s thunder. Realizing that resistance was futile, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle announced the AFL-NFL merger in 1966.

The Philadelphia Eagles made University of Chicago Heisman Trophy winner Jay Berwanger the first-ever NFL draft pick in 1936, but he never signed and never played pro football.
Out of that merger arose the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, which was kinda, sorta the Super Bowl that we know and love today, but not quite. The NFL Packers won the first two in 1967 and 1968, and although fans and media called the games Super Bowl I and II, the league didn’t officially adopt the title “Super Bowl” until Super Bowl III in 1969. That’s when media darling Broadway Joe Namath and the New York Jets shocked the world by beating the mighty Baltimore Colts to become the first AFL team to win the World Championship Game. A few months later, Rozelle announced the first deal with ABC to air Monday Night Football, launching the NFL on its journey to the sports/entertainment/media megatron status that it enjoys today.

That one way or another I would find a way to make this about the Jets! Enjoy the game folks!

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