2012 Bison Books paperback edition

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Good Old Days

1924: Thorpe, second from left, with NFL Rock Island Independents

Looks like a Saturday afternoon high school game, right? The NFL is only four years old here. Thorpe is four years away from his last football game.

It's 14 years since football was opened up in 1910, with running plays and the forward pass taking the place of deadly, scrum-like mass momentum attacks that, in 1909, had caused 24 fatalities -- fatalities -- in prep school and collegiate football.

Back then there wasn't any professional football to speak of. The Canton Bulldogs and the Massillon Tigers, teams from towns about ten miles apart in Stark County, Ohio, fought each other for what we can think of as the first Super Bowl championship games. Nobody outside of Ohio, if even, paid much attention. 

Until Thorpe joined the Bulldogs in 1915. The greatest athlete in the world brought desperately-needed attention to the struggling pro game. In recognition of that service and with profound gratitude, Thorpe was unanimously chosen as the first president of the new league in 1920. Ever wonder why the Professional Football Hall of Fame is in Canton? Or why a statue of Thorpe is the only one in the entry hall there?

The Canton Bulldogs and the Rock Island Independents did not survive the 1920s. By the end of that decade the pro game had moved to big cities -- and fan bases -- like Chicago (Bears) and New York (Giants). The Green Bay Packers remain, of course, the exception that proves the rule.  

Today professional football is America's most popular spectator sport by far. This Sunday, when the Green Bay Packers face the Pittsburgh Steelers, just remember that there is no Super Bowl without the NFL. And there would be no NFL without Jim Thorpe.