Are You Ready for Some Football?
Football in America began as a college sport, but soon athletic associations also got in the game. Though these early athletic clubs promoted the ideal of amateurism, it wasn’t long before clubs began offering the best players “incentives” to join their team. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, William “Pudge” Heffelfinger, became the first professional football player when the Allegheny Athletic Association gave him a $500 performance bonus for a game against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club in 1892. Allegheny won the game when Heffelfinger recovered a fumble and ran for a touchdown. Others believe that long before Heffelfinger, top college and club football players had been secretly receiving bonuses and incentives.
By the early 1900s, contracts between players and athletic associations were common. Clubs often paid college players to join their team. A player might play for their college team one day and a club team the next. Players also moved from club to club based on which team offered the most money. Knute Rockne played for as many as six teams in a single season.
In the early years, pro football games drew far fewer fans than college match ups. Pro football had no stars of to really call its own until Jim Thorpe signed with the Canton Bulldogs in 1915. Thorpe was already considered the world’s greatest athlete after winning both the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 summer Olympics. Thorpe helped the Bulldogs win three consecutive league championships and drew thousands of spectators to pro football games.
In 1920, eleven clubs joined together to start the American Football Association. The Association elected Thorpe as president and sold franchises for just $100. In 1922, the AFA expanded to 18 teams and changed its name to the National Football League. Thus the stage was set for what would become the all day Sunday and Monday night pastime of an entire nation.
A Fans Game
From the 100 fans who watched that first American football game in 1869 to the 144 million who saw Super Bowl XXXVIII (that’s 38 for those of us not up on our Roman numerals), spectators have always been a driving force behind the game.
In the late 1800s thousands of fans would travel by train or carriage to watch football games between Ivy League rivals like Yale and Princeton. Fans would stand or park their carriages, and later cars around the playing field. So more fans could actually see the game, colleges began building stadiums. In 1913, Yale built a stadium that could hold 80,000 fans but had no bathrooms. Whoops. After World War I, colleges across the nation followed Yale’s lead and built stadiums—shrines to the game of football.Fans followed their college team through the seasons and then into post-season bowl games. The first bowl game was the 1902 Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Michigan beat Stanford 49-0 and was declared the champion of college football. The next Rose Bowl was not played until 1914. In the 1930s many other post-season bowl games were started.The NFL also worked hard to please its fans. In 1925, George Halas, coach of the Chicago Bears signed college star Harold “Red” Grange. To show off his star, Halas took the Bears on a barnstorming tour. The Bears played eight games in 12 days in front of record crowds numbering as many as 75,000.