By Jim Halloran
As we are preparing for another exciting year of NFL football let’s pause for a moment and look back on its first fifty years. Professional football was born out of the growing popularity of college football. It started with company teams playing each other. The players for these teams were salaried employees of the company who were often recruited more for the skills displayed while playing for the top college teams than their aptitude for the business world. In 1925 George Halas who was the athletic director and player coach for the Staleys Starch Company in Decatur, Illinois reached out to colleagues in similar company positions and organized the National Football League. Halas moved his team from Decatur to Chicago in 1926 and became the anchor of the 26 team National Football League. There had been several failed attempts prior to this, including in 1912 when Connie Mack the owner of the Philadephia A’s baseball team introduced the Philadephia A’s football team which included several major league baseball players. The 1926 timing for the new league was not good as the Depression ransacked many teams and by 1933 only 10 teams survived. The league was split into two five team divisions. During the 1930s the league expanded and teams were located in Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco, Baltimore, New York, Washington, Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and St. Louis. The two division structure stayed in place until 1967 when teams were added in Minnesota, Dallas, Atlanta, New Orleans and the league expanded to two conferences, the Eastern and Western, each with four divisions.
The stars from the beginning years included George Halas, Captain and end for the Chicago Bears and the great Jim Thorpe, a running back for Milwaukee. In the 1930s Bronco Nagurski ran the ball for Chicago and Don Hutson created excitement for the Green Bay Packers. World War II took its toll on the NFL with over 500 players joining the Armed Forces. After the war new stars emerged including quarterbacks Sammy Baugh, Redskins, and Bob Waterfield, Cleveland and halfback Charlie Trippi of the Chicago Cardinals. In the post war years the NFL also withstood the challenge of the All American Football League which lasted five years before merging with the NFL. The post war years also introduced the T formation and other creatively designed play calling strategies.
When televisions in the 1950s became a centerpiece of home entertainment, professional football was exposed to national audiences and it started its climb to becoming an important part of our culture. . One game in particular proved to be the catalyst for national attention. In the nationally televised 1958 NFL championship game the New York Giants lost to the Baltimore Colts 23-17 in the first ever sudden death overtime game. Johnny Unitas, the star quarterback of the Colts, led his team down the field with accurate passes to wide receiver Raymond Berry before handing the ball to fullback Alan Ameche to score the winning touchdown. Other standout players of the fifties included quarterbacks Otto Graham of the Browns and Bobby Layne of the Lions, Lou Groza, the great kicker for the Browns and the tough NY Giants linebacker Sam Huff.
By the 1960s professional football was challenging Major League baseball as America’s favorite sport. Led by the powerful Green Bay Packers, coached by Vince Lombardi, fans could not get enough football. Bart Starr, Paul Horning, Gale Sayers, Dick Butkus, Tommy Nobis were all standouts. The game had become so popular that in 1968 NBC learned a lesson when they interrupted in the final minutes of a close high scoring game and switched to the previously scheduled show of “Heidi”. The furor that erupted echoed throughout the country and forced TV networks to never interrupt a football game no matter how long it lasted.
More changes came with the successful commencement of the American Football League in 1964. By 1967 the growth in popularity of the AFL forced the NFL to have a new championship game, the SUPER Bowl in 1967. The first Super Bowl was easily won by the NFL Green Bay Packers 35-10 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. However, just two years later quarterback Joe Namath led the underdog AFL champion NY Jets to a victory over the NFL Baltimore Colts. The proven parity of the teams led to their merger in 1970.
Hopefully George Halas is looking down from heaven on autumn Sunday afternoons to witness his great creation that entertains the millions of Americans who are glued to their televisions rooting for their favorite team.
Jim Halloran lives in Madison and is the author of the book Baseball and America (www.baseballandamerica.com)