Monday, April 9, 2012

Football History 101: The First NFL and the Forward Pass

In our last lesson on football history, we learned about the municipal amateur athletic clubs and met Pudge Heffelfinger, the first professional football player.  Today, we’ll learn about the consequences of athletic clubs skirting the amateur rules to pay players, and the formation of the first National Football League.

Turning Pro

As you’ll remember from our last lesson, the Amateur Athletic Union, to which the local athletic clubs belonged, prohibited its member clubs from paying its players.  However, you’ll also remember that many clubs found ways around the AAU’s rules to compensate “ringers,” and the Allegheny Athletic Association (AAA) outright paid Heffelfinger $500 in cash after their victory against arch rival Pittsburgh’s club.  Encouraged by Pudge's success, the AAA continued to pay other players, eventually drawing enough attention from the AAU to prompt an investigation. 

It turns out that the AAU was too late in stemming the tide of violations, however, as other Pennsylvania teams had already begun giving star players monetary incentives to keep an edge over opponents.  In fact, until hard evidence of Pudge Heffelfinger’s income was established, it was believed that a man named John Brallier had been the first professional football player; Brallier had been hired for the princely sum of $10, plus expenses by the Latrobe team to help beat its rival, Greensburg. 

The AAA, meanwhile, was ejected from the AAU in 1896.  Now, it was free to hire all the talent it wanted.  It quickly dominated the competition.  With a rogue team that had no organizational limits holding it back and able to snap up the country’s best talent, other clubs had no choice but to try going toe-to-toe in spending.  The first club to go all pro was the Latrobe Athletic Association, which fielded a team of only paid players for its entire 1897 season.

William Chase Temple
Inevitably, player salaries went up.  With payroll expenses skyrocketing, some athletic clubs suddenly found themselves in tight financial situations.  The first club bailout came to the Duquesne, Pennsylvania, club, in the form of steel magnate William Temple.  He was soon followed into team ownership by A.C. Dinkey, another steel baron, who owned the Homestead Library and Athletic Club. 

Barney Dreyfuss
In 1902, three baseball owners—Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics, Art Rogers of the Philadelphia Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss—formed their own football teams and organized themselves into a league they named the National Football League.  This first NFL was short-lived, however, only playing for one season.  The three teams played each other as well as teams outside the league, but they didn’t play all of the same opponents, nor did they play the same number of games.  Thus, determining the NFL’s champion at the end of the season was an acrimonious affair.

The Bubble Bursts

When the NFL dissolved, its best players were siphoned off the market by a single team, Franklin, which dominated Pennsylvania football to such an extent that other teams didn’t even bother signing the remaining players.  The result was a mass exodus of football talent to Ohio, leaving Pennsylvania a virtual wasteland.  In Ohio, two towns—Canton and Massillon—soon dominated the gridiron landscape by outbidding each other to get the best and brightest. 

The spiraling player salaries raised the stakes for both towns.   The high quality of football that resulted from their spending spree attracted gamblers who began staking vast sums of money on the outcomes of their games.  Naturally, rumors about thrown games and players being on the take began to circulate.  In 1906, accusations between the two cities created a cold war of sorts.  Massillon accused Canton of throwing their last game against each other.  This caused Canton’s attendance and gate receipts to suffer, which meant that it couldn’t offer players as much money.  Ironically, with a severely weakened arch rival, Massillon’s crowds dwindled, too, and they were also unable to recruit good players.  The downfall of these two great teams left a tremendous void in the professional world, and the quality of play among all teams soon suffered.  Once again, football became its own worst enemy. 

Back To School

Supporters hoping to keep football alive turned, once again, to the college level.  While the business of football was eroding the game’s foundation outside college, the college game was experiencing a surge in popularity due to two factors:  rule changes and the evolution of the passing game. 

President Theodore Roosevelt, prompted by the occurrence of 18 football-related deaths in 1905 alone, called for a meeting with representatives from Harvard, Yale and Princeton.  He told them in no uncertain terms that if drastic changes weren’t made, he would abolish the sport.  Soon after, a conference of over sixty schools implemented a series of changes, including:

& Increasing the yardage required for a first down from five yards to ten yards;

& Establishing a "neutral zone” between the offensive and defensive linemen;

& Shortening the game from seventy minutes to sixty; and

& Adding another on-field official.
The Big Scrum is a book on this moment in football history

What would be the most significant rules change, however, was the legalization of the forward pass.  Previously, one player could only throw the ball to a teammate with a lateral or backward pass.  The purpose of the change was to further reduce the mayhem at the line of scrimmage that caused so many injuries but, of course, we know that the forward pass has become an integral part of the modern game.

As with most change, the acceptance of the forward pass was slow.  There were good reasons for hesitancy, however.  For one thing, no one was sure of the best way to execute a forward pass.  The ball was much more round in shape than today’s football and was therefore difficult to throw with much power or accuracy.  Also, under these early rules, an incomplete pass was a “live” ball and could be recovered by the opposing team.  So, attempting a pass was very risky for the offense.  However, there were some brave souls who studied and experimented with the maneuver, particularly at the college and high school levels.  By 1910, most college students had experience with the passing game and would be well-versed in its arts when they turned pro.

Assuming, of course, there was a “pro” to turn to.  What would become of the fledgling pro game, and who would step up to lead it into the era of the forward pass?  Tune in next time for your next lesson in Football History 101!

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