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Sacco Sez: Before pro football


With the 100th anniversary of the NFL coming up and Memorial Day still fresh in my mind, I thought it would be interesting to take a look way back.

Before the NFL began, football was a sport played by colleges. Rivalries were fierce, but the game was only on college campuses, which were largely elitist at the time.

But the future pro game got a huge boost in interest just at the end of World War I, and it happened in France, not America.

In early 1919 the war was over, but it took a long time to get the two million American troopers home.

General John Pershing was very concerned about that number of young Americans being distracted by any number of diversions in France.

He thought football would be the perfect diversion for hard-hitting, aggressive young men.

So General Pershing issued a general order for the Army to buy one million dollars worth of equipment and uniforms, staggering numbers all around in 1918.

He sent word that every company of every battalion was to be required to play a sport, with football far and away the favorite.

Mathematically, that meant that the best, most interested and most aggressive players totaled 20,000 infantry members became involved in a postseason single-elimination tournament overseas.

But it was even bigger than those numbers, which represented tournament play.

Pro football researchers Mark Ford and Massimo Foglio, in an excellent article which appeared in "Coffin Corner," states that a later census showed that a staggering figure of 640,000 servicemen signed up to play football.

And this was on foreign soil.

But considering how long it took to get two million troops home, despite that the war was over and won, these guys literally were just looking for something to do until they left, so football was perfect.

Anyway, there were a great many games played by this vast number of young Americans, all in Europe.

There was an eventual champion, with a team led by future NFL coach George "Potsy" Clark leading the 89th Division football team to the American Expeditionary Force Football Championship Game victory in the spring of 1919.

This was all before the NFL, but it helped plant a seed of thought.

According to Ford and Foglio, who together wrote a book called "Touchdown in Europe: How American Football Came to the Old Continent," an American syndicated columnist asked, "Why is football confined to colleges in America?"

Not to claim any connection, but once seeds are planted, something grows.

The fabled meeting at the Canton car dealership that started the National Football League took place a year and a half later.

And now we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the NFL.

But just imagine: One year before that, a half million soldiers were playing football in France.

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