On August 20, 1920, seven men, including one of America’s greatest athletes of all time, Jim Thorpe, held a meeting to organize what may be the most pivotal moment in sports history. Coming together in a local auto dealership in Canton, Ohio, the National Football League was born.
“Pro football was in a state of confusion due to three major problems: dramatically rising salaries; players continually jumping from one team to another following the highest offer; and the use of college players still enrolled in school. A league in which all the members would follow the same rules seemed the answer. An organizational meeting, at which the Akron Pros, Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Indians, and Dayton Triangles were represented, was held at the Jordan and Hupmobile auto showroom in Canton, Ohio, August 20. This meeting resulted in the formation of the American Professional Football Conference,” writes The NFL Hall of Fame.
“A second organizational meeting was held in Canton, September 17. The teams were from four states-Akron, Canton, Cleveland, and Dayton from Ohio; the Hammond Pros and Muncie Flyers from Indiana; the Rochester Jeffersons from New York; and the Rock Island Independents, Decatur Staleys, and Racine Cardinals from Illinois. The name of the league was changed to the American Professional Football Association. Hoping to capitalize on his fame, the members elected Thorpe president; Stanley Cofall of Cleveland was elected vice president. A membership fee of $100 per team was charged to give an appearance of respectability, but no team ever paid it. Scheduling was left up to the teams, and there were wide variations, both in the overall number of games played and in the number played against APFA member teams.
Four other teams-the Buffalo All-Americans, Chicago Tigers, Columbus Panhandles, and Detroit Heralds-joined the league sometime during the year. On September 26, the first game featuring an APFA team was played at Rock Island’s Douglas Park. A crowd of 800 watched the Independents defeat the St. Paul Ideals 48-0. A week later, October 3, the first game matching two APFA teams was held. At Triangle Park, Dayton defeated Columbus 14-0, with Lou Partlow of Dayton scoring the first touchdown in a game between Association teams. The same day, Rock Island defeated Muncie 45-0.
By the beginning of December, most of the teams in the APFA had abandoned their hopes for a championship, and some of them, including the Chicago Tigers and the Detroit Heralds, had finished their seasons, disbanded, and had their franchises canceled by the Association. Four teams-Akron, Buffalo, Canton, and Decatur-still had championship aspirations, but a series of late-season games among them left Akron as the only undefeated team in the Association. At one of these games, Akron sold tackle Bob Nash to Buffalo for $300 and five percent of the gate receipts-the first APFA player deal.”
The History Channel noted the league’s first season left things to be desired. “At the conclusion of the season there were no playoffs—let alone a Super Bowl—and it took more than four months before the league even bothered to crown a champion. Much as college football did for decades, the APFA determined its victor by ballot. On April 30, 1921, team representatives voted the Akron Pros, who completed the season undefeated with eight wins and three ties while yielding only a total of seven points, the champion in spite of protests by the one-loss teams in Decatur and Buffalo, who each had tied Akron and had more wins. The victors received a silver loving cup donated by sporting goods company Brunswick-Balke-Collender. While players were not given diamond-encrusted rings, they did receive golden fobs in the shape of a football inscribed with the words ‘World Champions.’
Needing a leader with greater business acumen, team owners replaced Thorpe with Columbus Panhandles owner Joe Carr, and in 1922, the APFA rebranded itself as the National Football League. While the ‘20s roared, the NFL sputtered. College football remained king, drawing crowds as big as 100,000, while NFL franchises came and went. Only after the signing of college phenom Red Grange in 1925 did pro football begin to increase in popularity.
The NFL’s first season was so quickly forgotten in the collective sports memory that the league’s official record books listed the 1920 championship as undecided until the 1970s. The whereabouts of the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Cup, only given out that one time, are unknown. The legacy of two APFA franchises continues on, however. The Racine Cardinals now play in Arizona, and the Decatur Staleys moved to Chicago in 1921 and changed their name to the Bears the following year. Ten APFA players along with Carr are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which opened its doors in 1963 not far from the Canton automobile dealership that gave birth to the NFL in 1920.”
From those inauspicious beginnings, however, blossomed an American passion. Over the decades, the league grew, and after the 1966 merger between the NFL and American Football League, which created the Super Bowl, pro football became an unstoppable source of passion for sports fans in the United States.
In 2022, for example, 48 of the top 50 U.S. programs by audience were NFL games.
Who could have guessed that the bright lights we see every Sunday during the Fall started with a handful of men making a plan one night in an auto dealership?