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Sacco Sez: Before the NFL

Early professional American Football in this undated image, circa 1910- 1920. (AP Photo/NFL Photos)

In a few weeks it will be laser-speed, all systems go in the NFL.

And I have written several times already that the NFL has begun planning for its centennial season in 2019.

But before the 100th season, or even the first season, there was pro football. And I thought we might take a look back before all focus is on the forward.

The first attempt at a pro football league, also named the National Football League, came as far back as 1902, with baseball's Connie Mack leading the charge into the new game.

There were just three teams that year — the Philadelphia Athletics, Philadelphia Phillies and the Pittsburgh Stars. All three teams claimed the league title, and it took a ruling by the league president to name Pittsburgh as a champion.

Various efforts to organize some sort of pro football league continued for the better part of 20 years, with the NFL organizing in 1920.

But there was growth, much of it significant, before the league marked its official birth in 1920, making 2019 the 100th year of play.


It was during the time between 1915 and 1917 that there were developments that made football look more pro than semi-pro. These included player salaries, guarantees to visiting teams, actual schedules for teams and actual contracts for players, all elements that exist today.

Plus, and certainly not to be overlooked, the presence of money made the recruiting of more All-American college players possible.

The game began to look like pro football, but there still was no NFL.

That era was primarily dominated by two teams, the Massillon Tigers and the Canton Bulldogs, both from Ohio.

Games were played and records were kept, hence fan interest began in earnest, especially with the end of World War I.

There were some great players in that era, and before you chuckle and dismiss the idea, just note that two of those players, Jim Thorpe and Alfred Earle "Greasy" Neale are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The Canton Daily News at that time wrote, "Thorpe bumped tacklers, and then advanced; Thorpe sidestepped adversaries and left sheer disaster in his wake; Thorpe, by sheer strength, shook off rivals like the wind blows leaves to the ground. When yards were needed, yards were obtained."


He is credited with leading the Canton Bulldogs to the "official" professional football championship in 1915, 1916, 1917 and 1919. He certainly is one of the greatest athletes who has ever lived — as his Olympic prowess attests, as well as the fact that he also briefly played major league baseball.

According to (and thanks to) the NFL Record and Fact Book, his playing time with Canton included the years 1915-17, 1919-20 and 1926. Thorpe also played for the Cleveland Indians, Oorang Indians, Rock Island Independents, New York Giants, Tampa Cardinals and Chicago Cardinals in the actual NFL of 1920-forward.

Greasy Neale later made a big name for himself in the NFL, coaching the Philadelphia Eagles to NFL titles in 1948 and1949, but with Thorpe as the best back, Neale might have been the best lineman in the pre-NFL era.

Neale played end, and in an era that featured real fat football and very little use of the forward pass, unofficial statistics for 1917 show him with 13 receptions and five touchdowns in just five games.

They played more games than that, but stats just are not available on most of them.

Thorpe was a charter inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Neale was inducted in 1969.


In 1920, the NFL was born, and the Massillon Tigers, having suffered great financial losses in the pre-1920 era, disbanded rather than trying to make it in the new league.

The Canton Bulldogs did play, and they won the NFL titles in 1922 and 1923.

Other pre-1920 teams that hung on for a few years were the Cleveland Tigers, Detroit Heralds, Columbus Panhandles, Dayton Triangles, Hammond Pros and the similarly named Akron Pros, who won the first title in the new league with an 8-0 record in 1920.

No official stats were maintained for the 1920 season, and the championship was awarded to the Akron Pros in a league meeting on April 30, 1921. Clubs also continued to play schedules that included games against non-league opponents in 1920.

None made it past the first few years of play, and all are largely forgotten today.

But those teams and players set down some of the bricks that became the foundation for the NFL that will begin its 99th year of play later this summer, and I think it is fitting to note that there was a beginning, and that those teams were there for it.

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