NFL's 75th Anniversary
|By Jimmy Smith
Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA)
September 2, 1994
In 1920, before it was even called the National Football League, 14 teams debuted in a professional football league known as the American Professional Football Conference. It didn't become the NFL until June 24, 1922.
A total of 269 players made up the 14 teams, the smallest roster totaling 14 (Muncie), the largest 28 (Cleveland).
The original 14 teams and their records: Akron Pros (8-0-3), Buffalo All-Americans (9-1-1), Canton Bulldogs (7-4-2), Chicago Cardinals (6-2-2), Chicago Tigers (2-5-1), Cleveland Tigers (2-4-2), Columbus Panhandles (2-6-2), Dayton Triangles (5-2-2), Decatur Staleys (10-1-2), Detroit Heralds (2-3-3), Hammond Pros (2-5), Muncie Flyers (0-1-0), Rochester Jeffersons (6-3-2), Rock Island Independents (6-2-2).
Note the disparity in games played. Canton played 13. Muncie played one.
In those early days, pro football's founding fathers had some pretty silly rules.
The silliest: Substitutes weren't allowed to talk when they came into the game. The powers-that-be had a mania about coaches sending in plays from the sidelines. So referees were instructed to watch the new player to make sure he kept his mouth shut.
If a team made multiple substitutions, the umpire then helped maintain silence.
Uniforms of the day were drab and the jerseys purposely dark so they would hide dirt. Players had one uniform. When pants were muddied, they were allowed to dry, then the caked mud was scraped off with a wire brush.
The Duluth Eskimos, however, had the most inventive uniforms in the league. Though the franchise lasted five seasons, the players ran onto the field wearing three-quarter length mackinaws with lined hoods which gave them an authentic Eskimo look. The coats had igloos and the team name stitched on the back. The uniform colors were white with midnight blue numbers and piping.
In these days of multi-million dollar contracts and salary caps, consider the unusual agreement signed by the legendary Jim Thorpe for the 1925 season with the New York Giants.
Thorpe, whose physical skills were badly eroding because of age and a worsening drinking problem, was paid $200 per half-game.
He rarely could play more than that. He was 38, in poor condition and had a chronically bad right knee. Three games into the season, the Giants released Thorpe after he was involved in a late-night drunken fight at a local restaurant.
How good was the brand of football played in the NFL's first decade?
Oftentimes, not very. Unless you liked defense.
Almost two-thirds of all games from 1920 to 1932 were shutouts. In the inaugural season of 1920, only four of the 40 games were not shutouts.
Steadily, with rules changes and the progression to a slimmer, more aerodynamic football, and the offense finally picked up.
The worst year statistically was 1926, when the first rival American Football League raided NFL rosters for talent. Of 116 NFL games in 1926, 86 were shutouts, and 10 were 0-0 ties. An average of 15.3 total points were scored in each game.
But the worst day probably came on Oct. 7, 1923, according to "The Pro Football Chronicle," written in 1990 by Dan Daly and Bob O'Donnell.
The results of the day: Buffalo 9, Akron 0; Canton 37, Louisville 0; Chicago Bears 3, Racine 0; Chicago Cardinals 60, Rochester 0; Cleveland 0, Rock Island 0; Columbus 0, Milwaukee 0; Duluth 10, Minneapolis 0; Hammond 7, Dayton 0; St. Louis 0, Green Bay 0; Toledo 7, Oorang 0.
If you're counting, that's 10 games, 10 shutouts and three scoreless ties.
What kind of TV ratings would that draw?
Did we miss something, or what?
You might recall that last season, the Green Bay Packers wore patches celebrating the 75th anniversary of Packers football.
So why is the NFL celebrating its 75th anniversary a year later?
Actually, the beginnings of the Packers' franchise came in 1919 when Curly Lambeau and George Calhoun, a pair of young football players, organized a football team and went on to play 11 games against teams from Wisconsin and upper Michigan.
Lambeau worked in Green Bay for the Indian Packing Company and talked his employer into putting up some money to purchase equipment. That's how they became known as the Packers.
After a two-year hiatus, for various financial reasons, the Packers joined the NFL in 1922.
Salary cap is nothing new in the NFL.
In 1923, in fact, the league put a limit on player payroll per game: $1,800.
In 1934, the Detroit Lions set an NFL record that has yet to be surpassed. The Lions shut out seven consecutive opponents to open the season.
During that streak, no opponent was allowed inside Detroit's 20-yard line. The Lions allowed only 835 yards all year. Opponent's pass-completion percentage was less than 33 percent, and the secondary intercepted at least 19 passes, though statistics of the day are incomplete.
It took 23 ballots, but on January 26, 1960, Los Angeles Rams general manager Pete Rozelle, a compromise candidate, was selected commissioner of the NFL, replacing the deceased Bert Bell.
Bell had died of a heart attack at Philadelphia's Franklin Field on Oct. 11, 1959.
Rozelle's vision helped market the NFL into what it is today. He is the man considered responsible for pro football's television explosion.
Nov. 8, 1970, Tulane Stadium, New Orleans. At the time, many considered it foolhardy.
It turned out, however, to be one of the most exciting moments in NFL history.
With seconds remaining in the game, New Orleans Saints place-kicker Tom Dempsey, a man born with half a right foot and a withered right hand, trotted onto the field to attempt a 63-yard field goal that would give his club a 19-17 victory against the Detroit Lions.
It was a fine time for the game that many believe is the greatest in the NFL.
The Baltimore Colts and New York Giants met in Yankee Stadium to decide the 1958 NFL championship, and the Dec. 28 game was being telecast to a nationwide audience.
Just a few years earlier, the league had installed the "sudden death" overtime rule, and on this day, the Colts and Giants were tied after regulation at 17.
After the Giants punted on their first overtime possession, the Colts took over at their 20-yard line. It took quarterback Johnny Unitas 13 plays to march the Colts the 80 yards to victory. Alan Ameche ended the game 8:15 into overtime when he dove off right tackle from the 1-yard line.
For the first half of the 1960s, the upstart American Football League battled big-brother NFL for a share of the pro football spotlight.
When, after five years, it was obvious this was one rival league that wasn't going to go away, the NFL figured it had to do something. Or go broke.
The war between the leagues escalated to such a point in 1966 that the two leagues spent a then-unheard of combined $7 million to sign their 1966 draft choices.
Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt and Dallas Cowboys' general manager Tex Schramm held a series of secret meetings that culminated in the June 8, 1966 announcement that the two leagues would merge and expand to 28 teams by 1970. All existing franchises would be retained, and no franchises would be transferred out of metropolitan areas.
Congress approved the merger on Oct. 21, and in the next two years, two more NFL franchises began play, New Orleans and Cincinnati.
The leagues decided that before league play would begin in 1970, the separate league's champions would meet in an AFL-NFL World Championship game. The first game was January 15, 1967.
After the first two title games, Hunt saw his daughter playing with a toy called a "Super Ball."
The rest is history.
In the 75-year history of the NFL, several players have dropped dead shortly after games.
No one has actually been declared dead on the field. The closest thing to an on-field fatality came on Oct. 24, 1971, when Detroit Lions wide receiver Chuck Hughes collapsed in Tiger Stadium going back to the huddle near the end of a 28-23 loss to the Chicago Bears.
He was taken to the hospital and pronounced dead an hour later of a heart attack. Just before collapsing, Hughes had been sandwiched by two Bears' defenders while catching a pass. He seemed unfazed, though. It was his only catch of the season. "His heart stopped on the field," a Lions team doctor said afterward. Doctors later attributed Hughes' death to a degenerative arterial disease. He was 28.
After the 1948 opener between the Cardinals and Eagles, Chicago's Stan Mauldin died in the locker room two hours after the game of a heart attack.
In 1954, three hours after a game, Washington tackle Dave Sparks, 26, died of a heart attack. In 1960, AFL player Howard Glenn, 24, of the New York Titans, died of a broken neck not long after a game.
Stone Johnson, 23, a wide receiver for the Kansas City Chiefs, died in 1963, eight days after suffering spinal cord damage in an exhibition game against Houston.
An 8-yard slant pattern in a practice game the NFL likes to call "preseason" affairs. A dive for an errant pass. A crash of helmets.
And New England Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley, then 26, would never walk again.
The hit, by Oakland Raiders free safety Jack Tatum, seemed benign enough at the time. But Tatum's right shoulder hit Stingley directly in the face mask.
Stingley dropped to the Oakland Coliseum turf and felt nothing. "I wasn't in pain, or at least I couldn't feel any," Stingley would later say. "I just couldn't move. I couldn't feel my feet or my arms or my body."
Patriots trainer Tom Healion realized the severity of Stingley's injury quickly. Healion asked Stingley to squeeze his hand. No movement. He asked Stingley to move his feet. No movement.
"Am I going to be all right?" Stingley kept asking Healion.
Finally, Healion told him, "No, you're not."
One of the worst decisions NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle ever made, and the only one he admitted he regretted was to play NFL games two days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 24, 1963.
Still, 336,892 fans showed up at seven different game sites coast-to-coast, including three sellouts, at Yankee Stadium, Franklin Field in Philadelphia and Forbes Field in Pittsburgh.
Many in the nation's sports press panned Rozelle's decision to play.
Wrote Jimmy Cannon: "In times of national bereavement, I think our toys should be put aside."
In 1920, the year of the NFL's birth, the average price of one gallon of gasoline was 30 cents. In 1994, a gallon costs $1.40.
The median price of a new home was $6,296 in 1920. It's $150,000 in 1994. A loaf of bread could be had for 11 cents in 1920, but in '94, it's $1.39. Washing that bread down with a quart of milk would have cost you 17 cents in 1920 as opposed to 90 cents today.
Sending a first-class letter in 1920? The stamp cost you 2 cents. And it probably reached its destination. In 1994? It's 29 cents. Will it get there? It's a real crap shoot.
The most obscene inflationary figure? An NFL franchise in 1920 cost $100. And just about all of the owners couldn't even afford that, so most didn't pay it. Cost of the two most recent expansion franchises in Carolina and Jacksonville? A mere $140 million. And you can bet the money will be collected.
NAMES WORTH NOTING
The age of great nicknames is, sadly, a thing of the past. Pro football was, however, once a great treasure trove of colorful monikers.
Some examples from seven decades:
1920s: Carl "Scummy" Storck; Al "Old Pig Iron" Nesser; Larry "The Atlantic City Airdale" Conover; Stancil "Possum" Powell; Casimir "Hippo" Gozdowski; Romanus "Peaches" Nadolney; Benny "The Purple Streak" Boynton; Reggie "Laughing Gas" Attache.
1930s: Paul "Socko" Szakash; Elvin "The Red Oak Express" Hutchinson; Albert "Man 'O War" Johnson; Mort "Devil May" Kaer; George "Automatic" Karamatic; Edgar "Eggs" Manske; Carl "Moon Eyes" Littlefield; Ken "One Round" Hauser.
1940s: Al "The Human Howitzer" Blozis, Tony Canadeo, "The Gray Ghost of Gonzaga"; Bob "Twenty Grand" Davis; Johnny "Mr. Zero" Clement; Bill "Bubbles" Young; Leonard "Bear Tracks" Barnum; Fred "Chopper" Vanzo; Lamar "Racehorse" Davis; Gil "Cactus Face" Duggan.
1950s: Casimir "Slug" Witucki; Norm "Wild Man" Willey; Ed "Bibbles" Bawel; Bob "Seabiscuit" Boyd; Don "Dopey" Phelps; Ed "The Claw" Sprinkle; Clyde "Smackover" Scott; Bob "The Geek" St. Clair; Tom "The Bomb" Tracy; Frank "Gunner" Gatski; Hardy "The Hatchet" Brown.
1960s: Walter "Flea" Roberts; Noland "Super Gnat" Smith; Daryle "The Mad Bomber" Lamonica; Len "Daddy Cool Breeze" Dawson; Leslie "Speedy" Duncan; Jim "Cannonball" Butler; Ron "Dancing Bear" McDole; Sherman "Tank" Plunkett; "The Duke" (Gino Cappelletti); "The Golden Boy" (Paul Hornung) "Bambi" (Lance Alworth); Ernie "Big Cat" Ladd.
1970s: "Broadway" Joe Namath; Willie "Sugar Bear" Young; Frank "Fudgehammer" Nunley; Jack "Hacksaw" Reynolds; Mike "The Animal" Curtis; Dick "Bam Bam" Ambrose; Billy "White Shoes" Johnson; Joe "Big Bird" Lavender; Charles "Boobie" Clark; Danny "Lightning" Buggs; Bill "Earthquake" Enyart.
1980s: William "The Refrigerator" Perry; "The Diesel" (John Riggins); "Sweetness" (Walter Payton); Roy "Jet Stream" Green; Dennis "Dirt" Winston; Dean "The Tasmanian Devil" Hamel; Don "Jaws" Hardeman; Alfred "Jitter" Fields; Lionel "Little Train" James; Gary "Big Hands" Johnson; Fulton "Captain Crazy" Kuykendall; Howard "Hokie" Gajan.
GAMES WORTH NOTING
Lots of people like to point to Super Bowl XXV, the New York Giants' 20-19 victory against the Buffalo Bills, as the greatest Super Bowl ever.
How can you include the Buffalo Bills, the Super Bowl's all-time losingest loser, in the greatest of anything?
You'll recall in that one, Bills place-kicker Scott Norwood missed a last-second field goal that would have given the Bills the victory. A missed field goal. The greatest ever?
Not a chance.
The best Super Bowl ever played was XXIII in Miami, when, with 3:20 remaining in the game, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana drove the Niners 92 yards in 11 plays in just over two minutes to overcome a 16-13 Cincinnati Bengals' lead for a 20-16 victory.
Montana threw a 10-yard scoring pass to John Taylor for the winning points with 34 seconds remaining in the game.
That's what greatness is all about.
Remember "The Ice Bowl?"
Who could forget. It was Dec. 31, 1967, Green Bay, Wis. Not exactly tropical climes.
So when the day dawned in that quaint little football village and the temperature read minus-15, and the wind was howling . . . well, you'd think the home standing Packers might have something of an advantage over the Dallas Cowboys.
But there it was, less than a minute remaining and the Cowboys leading, 17-14, and the Packers poised on the Dallas 1-yard line.
Twice Donny Anderson attempted to push it into the end zone. Twice he failed. The Packers called their last timeout, eschewing a field-goal attempt that could have tied things and sent the proceedings into sudden death.
Quarterback Bart Starr huddled with Coach Vince Lombardi on the sideline and they decided to call one last running play.
There were 20 seconds remaining. Starr called a quarterback sneak, behind guard Jerry Kramer.
Kramer pushed Dallas' Jethro Pugh out of the way, and Starr went in behind Kramer. Touchdown.
Copyright 1994 The Times-Picayune Publishing Co.
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