America: perhaps the most eminent nation on planet earth and, to many, the greatest too. A surplus of famous symbols and images have come to signify what the United States stands for and what the country represents, ranging from the majestic (like the soaring Bald Eagle), to the proud (like the image of John Wayne striding across the Frontier). Yet, nothing screams USA quite like the sport of American football and the multi-million dollar league in which it’s played: The National Football League (commonly referred to as The NFL).
An organisation with a rich and illustrious history, the NFL has evolved from humble origins to eventually morph into the towering enterprise and noteworthy American national treasure it is today. Here, we take a dive into the history books of American football to see exactly how the NFL came to fruition, what changes have happened along the way, and why it has become the quintessential symbol of American sport.
How Did The NFL Begin?
The NFL spans across pretty much the whole of America nowadays, and you’d be hard pressed to find a city that didn’t have some sort of football team in operation – even if the side happened to play at an amateur level. However, this wasn’t always the case. The National Football League was a non-entity until after the end of the First World War, although the sport itself had already bloomed into professional pastures as early as 1892.
As American football continued to become more popular and the game threatened to be overshadowed by matters of finance, a formal meeting was held with the aim of forming a league in which all the participating teams would adhere to the same rules. This meeting took place in Canton, Ohio with the Akron Pros, Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Indians, and Dayton Triangles all present. The outcome was a brand new organisation known as the “American Professional Football Conference”, which became the “American Professional Football Association” after a second meeting that saw several additional clubs in attendance. Four more clubs would enter the league at various points throughout the first season as the new organisation slowly attempted to find its feet.
The very first season of the NFL (which was of course still named the American Professional Football Conference back then) took place in 1920, with 13 teams in participation. These included:
- Akron Pros
- Buffalo All-Americans
- Chicago Cardinals
- Rock Island Independents
- Dayton Triangles
- Rochester Jeffersons
- Canton Bulldogs
- Detroit Heralds
- Cleveland Tigers
- Chicago Tigers
- Hammond Pros
- Columbus Panhandles
- Muncie Flyers
As you can see, the monikers for each city team appeared to be a little more playful back in the 1920’s, and very few of these sides still exist to this day.
Despite the formation of this official league, the rules and regulations were hardly set in stone. The $100 entry fee for joining the league was mandatory but there are no records of any of the teams actually ever paying it, nor was there an effective schedule in place where teams would play against one another on dates agreed by the organisational body. There was no Super Bowl game to determine the overall victor of the competition either, and it took the organisation four months to crown the Akron Pros as champions – which was decided by a vote. In a modern American football world where fixtures are meticulously plotted out and announced weeks before the season begins, this sort of carefree, laissez-faire style of match scheduling seems unthinkable, but this was the way it all went down when the NFL was in its infancy.
This first season proved to be a bumpy one. A momentous first game between American Professional Football Association sides took place on October 3rd, 1920 with the Dayton Triangles defeating the Columbus Panhandles 14-0. Lou Partlow owns the record of the very first touchdown ever scored. But as the season wore on, several teams dropped out of the running for the championship and two sides even disbanded – the Chicago Tigers and Detroit Heralds failing to find adequate funding to continue to participate in the league. There was promise to be found in these early days, but nobody at that time could have possibly envisaged how big the game was set to become in the following decades.
In 1922, the American football league would officially be renamed once again – although this time the moniker stuck. From the 1922 season forward, the organisation hosting American football would be the National Football League. Yet, despite the name change, the competition stumbled through the 1920’s, constantly overshadowed by college football and drawing paltry crowds in comparison. During the course of the decade, over forty different sides joined the league and flopped and folded within months or years – demonstrating the lack of stability present in the competition. 1921 did, however, see the Green Bay Packers sign up to the NFL – a team that has grown to become the longest-living franchise (to retain its name and location) in the organisation.
What Changes Has The NFL Seen Throughout History?
It’s safe to say the NFL has changed a bit since it first began. The first, and most blatant, difference of all is that the league today is essentially unrecognisable from the very first one that took place back in 1920. Out of the thirty-two teams who currently play in the NFL, only two of them were in force when the league first kicked off – and even these clubs are shadows of the sides they were back then. The Cardinals are still in operation – although now they play in Arizona (whereas back at the beginning of the NFL they played in Chicago). The Chicago Bears were also a founding member, but they actually played under the name Decatur Staleys for their first year in the American Professional Football Association before relocating from Georgia to Chicago for the 1921 season. They have been stationed in the Windy City ever since.
Listed below are some of the most notable moments to occur during the history of the NFL, each of them helping to illustrate how the competition has changed and developed since it first began way back in 1920.
1927 – The Strong Rise Above The Weak
In an attempt to salvage the competition from its reputation of accommodating fast-fading franchises, the organisation held a meeting and decided to officially expel any side within the league that was not financially stable or could not guarantee future financial growth. This slashed the competition from 22 teams to 12 – the bulk of the surviving sides being large cities stationed in the East of the US.
1936 – First College Draft
The official NFL draft is a big thing nowadays, but that wasn’t always the case. The first draft of college football players didn’t occur until 1936. A bit of trivia in this area is that the very first player ever selected in the draft – Jay Berwanger – actually never played in the NFL after being chosen. Instead, he took up a role in the plastics manufacturing industry.
1939 – First Televised Match
There weren’t many television sets in America at the beginning of World War II, but the NFL nonetheless aired its very first match on network NBC on October 22nd, 1939, showing the Brooklyn Dodgers facing off against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Dodgers won the game 23-14. Television broadcasts of NFL matches became more regular after the end of war, as the organisation continued to attract bigger audiences and more people in the country came to purchase their very own television sets.
1940’s – War and Ethnic Diversity
WWII had a severe and detrimental impact on all sports in the United States, as many players were forced to leave the country to fight in the military service. It was not unknown for players to play for the team near which they were based in a military camp, and Pennsylvania even formed a new team that was an amalgamation of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia – two sides that would ordinarily consider one another arch rivals.
1958 – The Greatest NFL Game Of All Time Takes Place
There have been some phenomenal games over the course of NFL history, but the vast majority of the American football aficionados repeatedly turn to December 28th, 1958 when the topic of “greatest ever game” arises. This was the first ever match to end up going into sudden death overtime. It featured the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, with the Colts eventually triumphing 23-17. It was a pivotal moment in the history of the NFL, attracting enormous attention and playing a considerable role in the sudden upsurge in popularity of the league.
1961 – NFL Corporate HQ Relocates To New York
As the NFL continued to grow in terms of popularity, the commissioning body also grew in terms of their hunger for success and ambition to expand the game further. In an attempt to strengthen the NFL’s relationships with the kingpin television networks, the organisation decided a move to New York was necessary. The corporate headquarters was officially relocated, moving from Pennsylvania across to the Rockefeller Centre in New York City.
1963 – The Hall of Fame Opens
In 1963, the Pro Football Hall of Fame officially opened – an establishment which would welcome and honour anyone involved in the NFL who was considered to have made a positive impact on the competition and sport of American football overall since the game first began.
1967 – The First Super Bowl
January 15, 1967 saw the very first Super Bowl take place – the final in which the best two performing teams after the playoffs compete against one another in an attempt to take home the Vince Lombardi Trophy. This coveted prize is named after one of the most successful coaches in NFL history, best known for his time leading the Green Bay Packers during the 1960’s and guiding them to five NFL championship victories in just seven years – one of the greatest achievements in the sport of American football.
1982 – The Very First Halftime Musical Show Takes Place
That halftime Super Bowl show that a lot of American citizens have come to love and look forward to didn’t actually materialise until 1982 – where Diana Ross performed at Super Bowl XVI. This was another key moment in NFL history with the half time show becoming bigger, bolder and more spectacular with every passing year from then on.
1987 – The NFL Players Association Goes On Strike
The NFL faced one of its most serious crisis in its history in 1987 when the NFL Players Association ultimately decided to go on strike. This took place because the participating players in the league wanted a higher proportion of league revenues. This went on for the best part of a month, and crowds stayed away whilst clubs were forced to field amateur and youth players. However, the strike failed to hold and the NFL Players Association crumbled, forcing players to go back to the playing field without being awarded many of the new terms that a lot of them had demanded during the onset of the strike.
You don’t have to be an American football fan to understand how big the NFL is today. Despite being predominantly played within the United States, the top league of American football is broadcast all over the globe and is one of the most lucrative and renowned sporting organisations on the planet. The average NFL team is now worth $2 BILLION, and games can attract six-figure attendances. The NFL has come on in leaps and bounds since it first began, and it’s difficult to picture those rocky days in the twenties when you see modern-day teams on television being roared on to victory by crowds of 100,000. Hopefully, there is much more NFL history to be made over the course of the next century.