NFL History, Coming From Humble Beginnings By John Brecko

Pictured is Former QB Joe Namath before game, Image Credit: New York Post,

Football is a sport with a tremendous amount of history. It is over 150 years old, with the first official football game dating back to November 6th 1869 and was between Rutgers and New Jersey (later known as Princeton).

Professional football would not come around until over 50 years later and the NFL would not gain popularity until the 40s and 50s, but what if I told you the NFL’s beginnings go back further than 1920?

Back in the 1880s and 1890s there were football games outside of college going on under the banners of athletic clubs, but it was not until November 12, 1892 that someone would be paid for a game.

On that day, a man named William “Pudge” Heffelfinger was paid $500 by the Allegheny Athletic Association to play in a game between themselves and the Pittsburgh Athletic Club.

There was a written receipt uncovered decades later which would become known as “the birth certificate of the NFL”.

There would be several players that were paid for games in 1890s, including a 16 year-old quarterback from Indiana named John Brailler who was paid $10 and cakes to play in a game on September 3, 1895, but Heffelfinger was the first.

In the early 1900s, there were several attempts to get a professional football league off the ground, even one that was called the National Football League in 1902, which folded. Other leagues would start around the United States with varying degrees of success, including a league in Ohio known for having world-class olympic athlete, Jim Thorpe.

Jim Thorpe would be an instrumental figure in the National Football League coming into existence.

Football was gaining popularity but a lack of organization was keeping the sport from growing in popularity any more than it already had.

The leagues were small and would eventually need to work together to establish popularity, combine the fanbases that each league had and expand from there.

Jim Thorpe was a player for the Canton Bulldogs in the Ohio League during the 1910s. The Bulldogs, the Akron Pros and several other teams from the Ohio League along with several teams from New York, Indiana and Illinois later on to form a league.

In fact, Jim Thorpe would be named the first ever president of the then AFPA (American Professional Football Association) in the league’s inaugural season in 1920. The league would officially become known as the National Football League in 1922.

The league looks completely different today. There were ten teams that were around during the NFL’s inaugural season in 1920. None of them are still around today. Four more teams would join before the first ever NFL season would begin. Three of these cities that teams would have franchises under still have franchises in those cities today, even if these teams have different names. These cities include Detroit, Buffalo and Chicago (which are the Lions, Bills and Bears today).

The NFL would not expanded to the west coast at all until the Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles in 1945.

Even though the NFL was sustaining itself, it was not growing in popularity as quickly as the league had desired after its formation. There were several reasons for that.

The first was the fact that there were no west coast teams. To be fair having games all across the nation in the span of a season would be difficult back then. Players around this time took trains and buses to games. Keep in mind that there was no highway system back then. It takes a few days to travel cross country now, but back in the 30s it would take a minimum of two weeks.

The problem with traveling by plane back then is that your average plane ticket would cost $260 (over $3,000 today). I do not think I have to tell any adult reading this article that that is expensive. It was even more expensive back then considering this was during the Great Depression. Looking back, it seems like the NFL could not grow in terms of teams they could have any other way. However, that was not their only challenge.

Another challenge was that the NFL did not compensate their players anywhere near was well as they get compensated today. In the first few decades of the NFL’s existence, players often had to work second jobs to make ends meet because what they made from professional football was just not enough.

Average salaries were anywhere between $100 and $300 per game. Players making $100 only made what would equal around $15,000-$20,000 per year depending on how many games the teams would play. A typical middle-class income today is around $40,000 per year. $15,000 annually (or what is equal to it in the 20s and 30s) is not a livable wage on its own.

As result, many players coming out of college opted to find a regular job instead of playing professionally. A famous example is Jay Berwanger who was drafted in the first ever NFL Draft in 1936 by the Philadelphia Eagles. Berwanger was a star half back for the University of Chicago and if Berwanger were to play for the NFL, it would help the league gain notoriety.

However, he would go on to demand that he would make $1,000 per game, which was a demand the Eagles would be unable to meet at the time.

Ultimately, Berwanger and Bears owner George Halas were unable to reach an agreement on a salary when Halas wanted to sign Berwanger to the Chicago Bears and he would take a job with a Chicago rubber company and would become a part-time coach at his alma mater. Although he would later state he regretted not taking the offer, it was also a huge missed opportunity for the NFL at the time.

Despite its struggles, the NFL would find a way to eventually become successful. Playoff games would help the league find later success.

The champion was originally decided by win-loss record, with the team having the best record being crowned as champion. A tie-breaker game was needed in 1921, but the first proper yearly championship game began in 1932. That game was between the Chicago Bears and the Portsmouth Spartans. The Bears would win 9-0, the game would be seen as a huge success and there has been a championship game every seasons since.

The NFL also would continue to expand with the San Francisco 49ers joining the league in 1950. When the AFL and NFL merged a few years after the Super Bowl took shape (the game was first known as the AFL vs NFL Championship Game), the league began to look like what it would become known as today.

Leagues since then would go on to try and compete with the NFL since then, such as the USFL, the Arena Football League and the AAF and XFL being recent examples in 2019 and 2020. However, since that AFL-NFL merger, the National Football League has never really looked back.

There have been difficulties for the league since that time because most workplaces anywhere will have history like that throughout its years, but no league has been able to compete with the NFL now for half a century. That does not seem like that will change anytime soon. Looking back, just like with everything else that has a beginning, it has to start somewhere.