National Football League

Thorpe, Jim.jpg
Photograph of Olympic athlete and professional football player Jim Thorpe, ca. 1920-1929. Thorpe was a Native American of Sac and Fox descent and played football at the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In 1912 he was the Olympic decathlon champion. Thorpe was one of the early superstars of the National Football League and served as the League's first president. He played for several professional football teams in Ohio: the Canton Bull Dogs, Cleveland Indians and Oorang Indians.

The National Football League can trace its history back to the late nineteenth century when Yale All-American guard William Heffelfinger was paid $500 to play against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club. This makes Heffelfinger the first paid professional football player in the United States. Football remained mostly out of the national eye prior to the 1920s; during the 1910s, American football was a regional sport with no formal league authority. One of the more prominent divisions was the Ohio League, which attracted acclaimed athletes including Jim Thorpe. As football became a more popular sport, attempts to form a national league began. When World War I began, the sport was sidelined. With many players entering into the armed forces, organizations either had to cut down on players or abandon the team altogether. Some teams decided to start drafting the remaining players who stayed stateside. This national recruiting of displaced players started the development of a national league. There were two main areas where larger, multi-state teams were focused: the Eastern Seaboard and the Midwestern region. Private businesses and individual communities began to sponsor these teams, seeing potential for a profitable market. As football rose in popularity, local teams became a source of pride for the businesses and towns.

The first major attempt to unify the various professional football teams occurred in 1920, with the formation of the American Professional Football Association. The league was founded in Canton, Ohio, where five of the teams originated. Founders organized the calendar into an eleven-game schedule with a champion declared at the end of each season, and also struck an agreement on player poaching. The league’s roster included: the Canton Bulldogs, the Cleveland Tigers, the Dayton Triangles, the Akron Professionals, the Rochester (NY) Jeffersons, the Rock Island Independents, the Muncie Flyers, the Decatur Staleys, the Chicago Cardinals, the Buffalo All-Americans, the Chicago Tigers, the Columbus Panhandles, the Detroit Heralds, and the Hammond Pros. The American Professional Football Association’s first president was Jim Thorpe, who played and coached for the Canton Bulldogs during the 1910s. Under Thorpe's leadership, the Bulldogs were the unofficial world champions in 1916, 1917, and 1919. His contributions to the game led him to become the highest-paid player in the league during its early years. Thorpe retired as a player from professional football in 1928 while he played for the Chicago Cardinals.

In 1922, the American Professional Football Association officially changed its name to the National Football League. In the league’s early decades, there was an inconsistent turnover of teams. Numerous communities attempted team sponsorship, but quickly realized that they could not cover the expenses required of a sponsor. Additionally, teams frequently moved, lured away by other communities that offered more lucrative financial deals. During this era in football history, Ohio became home to many different teams including:


· Canton Bulldogs (1920-1923, 1926)

· Cleveland Tigers (1920-1921)

· Akron Professionals (1920-1926)

· Dayton Triangles (1920-1929)

· Columbus Panhandles (1920-1922)

· Cincinnati Celts (1921-1921)

· Marion Oorang Indians (1922-1923)

· Toledo Maroons (1922-1923)

· Columbus Tigers (1923-1924) (1926-1926)

· Cleveland Indians (1923-1923) (1931-1931)

· Cleveland Bulldogs (1924-1925) (1927-1927)

· Akron Indians (1926-1926)

· Portsmouth Spartans (1930-1934)

· Cincinnati Reds (1932-1934)

· Cleveland Rams (1937-1943)

· Cleveland Browns (1949-1996) (1999-present)

· Cincinnati Bengals (1968-present)

Because of Ohio's prominent role in professional football, the National Football Hall of Fame is located in Canton, Ohio, where the league began in 1920.

See Also