Sunday, October 3, 1920. It was the final day of the regular season for Major League Baseball, it's 45th season. Babe Ruth just completed his 1st season as a member of the New York Yankees, after he was sold to them by the Boston Red Sox after the 1919 season.
On that Sunday afternoon on October 3, 1920, the Cleveland Indians lost their final regular season game to the Tigers in Detroit, but their season would continue as 2 days later they would play game 1 of the 1920 World Series against the Brooklyn Robins (now Los Angeles Dodgers).
It was the Indians 1st trip to the World Series, so there might not have been a lot of attention being payed to an historic event happening 200 miles away in Dayton, Ohio, that also involved the city of Columbus, Ohio, 140 miles from Cleveland. For you see, on that Sunday afternoon, October 3, 1920, at a placed called Triangle Park in Dayton, Ohio, a team of football players named the Dayton Triangles played and beat a team called the Columbus Panhandles 14-0 in what was the 1st ever game of what is now the National Football League.
The NFL started their 1st ever season in 1920 as the American Professional Football Association, in an effort to have a pro football league similar to that of MLB, that was already 45 years old. They renamed it National Football League 2 years later.
The man named as commissioner of the new professional football league, was a man known as one of the greatest athletes of all-time up until that point of the early 20th century, and still one of the greatest today, 2 time Olympic gold medalist, and inaugural Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, Jim Thorpe. Thorpe was not only the commissioner of the new league, he was also head coach and player for the Canton Bulldogs.
That 1st season in 1920 consisted of 14 teams, but set schedules were not in play. In fact, teams scheduled their own games as the season progressed, and it didn't have to include teams that were actually in the league. The 1st "un-official" game happened a week earlier, September 26, 1920 when league member, the Rock Island Independents, played a non-league team, the St. Paul Ideals, and beat them 48-0. The Dayton/Columbus game, a week later was the 1st where both teams were in the APFA (NFL).
9 league teams played on that October Sunday, but of the 7 games played, only 2 were between league teams. Dayton and Columbus was the 1st. The 2nd "league" game was Rock Island playing and beating the Muncie Flyers 45-0. It was the only game Muncie played that season. Muncie couldn't get games scheduled and the few they could schedule got canceled. Muncie played just 2 games the following season before dropping out of the league. Muncie never scored a point in the 3 games they played.
That October 3rd Sunday also saw a league team named the Decatur Staleys play and defeat a non-league team, the Moline Universal Tractors, 20-0. The Staleys are one of just 2 teams from that 1920 inaugural season that still exists today. The Decatur Staleys are now known as the Chicago Bears.
The only other original team still in existence today, played their games at Normal Park on Racine Avenue in Chicago, and were then known as the Racine Cardinals. 100 years later they are known as the Arizona Cardinals, having moved from Chicago to St. Louis to Phoenix to now Glendale, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix.
The Bears and Cardinals are the only 2 teams from the 1920 season. The Green Bay Packers joined the league in 1921 and are the longest running NFL team to stay in the same city. In 1924 the Frankford Yellow Jackets joined and are somewhat related to the birth of the Philadelphia Eagles. The New York Giants came aboard in 1925, the Portsmouth Spartans, who became the Detroit Lions (1930), the Boston Braves, who became the Washington Redskins (1932), and Pittsburgh Pirates, who became the Steelers (1933).
The Dayton Triangles and the Buffalo All-Americans, later Buffalo Bisons, had the longest run of the original teams, other than the Bears and Cardinals. Each of those franchises lasted the 1st 10 years. Dayton, however, was sold in 1930, and through numerous transactions, can actually be traced to what is now the Indianapolis Colts, though the NFL doesn't formally recognize the contiuality from Dayton to Brooklyn to Dallas to Baltimore and eventually Indy.
In that 1st ever league game on October 3rd between Dayton and Columbus, 28 year old Triangles fullback Lou Partlow is credited with the 1st ever NFL touchdown. George "Hobby" Kinderline knocks through the 1st ever extra point. Rock Island's Eddie Nowak scored the 1st TD for a league team, but it was against a team that was not in the league.
Dayton finished 5-2-2 that season, but that was only good enough for 6th place in the standings. Racine (Cardinals) finished ahead of them, tied for 4th with Rock Island at 6-2-2. The Staleys (Bears) finished 2nd at 10-1-2, and tied the Canton Bulldogs for most games played that season at 13. The Staleys, coached by Hall of Famer George Halas, only loss that season came against the Cardinals. Decatur's 2 ties were both 0-0 contests against Rock Island and the eventual league champions, the Akron Pros.
Akron finished the 1920 season 8-0-3, not only becoming the 1st champion of what is now the NFL, but they are 1 of only 5 teams in 99 seasons, to finish a season with 0 losses. The Canton Bulldogs did it in 1922 (10-0-2), and again in 1923 (11-0-1), becoming the 1st back-to-back champions. The Green Bay Packers went 12-0-1 in 1929, winning the 1st of 3 championships in a row. And then there's the only team to ever have a "perfect" season, no losses or ties, the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
Finishing in 1st place in the standings is how the champion was declared that 1st season, and the next 12 seasons after that. It wasn't until 1933 that the NFL played a 1 game playoff to determine their champion. That 1 game playoff was called the NFL Championship game, and this game decided the NFL champion until 1970. However, from 1966-1969, the NFL champion had to play one extra game against a team from a new league, the American Football League (AFL), in a game now called the Super Bowl.
The league expanded from 14 teams in 1920 to 21 teams in 1921. 10 of those teams, however, played 5 games or less that 2nd season. By 1926, the NFL was up to 22 teams, but some teams were playing as few as 4 games while teams like Frankford played 17. In 1927 the NFL got rid of some of the weaker teams in the league, cutting it down to 12. It wasn't until 1935 that the NFL required teams to play a minimum number of games in their season. 12 is where they started. This number went as low as 10 games during WW2, but back up to 12 by 1947.
It wasn't until 1933 that the NFL decided to separate their teams into divisions and have the winner of each division play each other to determine a champion. December 17, 1933 was the 1st ever playoff game, the NFL Championship game. The Chicago Bears, winners of the west division, defeated the east division winners, the New York Giants, 23-21, in front of 26,000 at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Yes, that Wrigley Field.
From 1934 to 1945, the NFL didn't have a team west of the Mississippi River. That changed when the Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles after winning the 1945 NFL championship in Cleveland.
The NFL pretty much owned football in America, but that didn't stop rival leagues from popping up trying to get a piece of the pie. In 1946 the All-American Football Conference started play. They lasted until 1949 when the after effects of the war were making it hard for teams to stay afloat. The AAFC worked out a merger with the NFL that would allow 3 of their teams to join. One of those teams was the Cleveland Browns, led by legendary founder and head coach, Paul Brown, and Hall of Fame QB Otto Graham. Another would give the LA Rams a natural rival in California, the San Fransisco 49ers. The 3rd would give the Redskins a rival, the Baltimore Colts with the great Y.A. Tittle at QB.
The 1958 NFL Championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants dubbed "The Greatest Game Ever Played", is the game that really brought American football to the forefront. On December 28, 1958 in front of 64,185 at Yankee Stadium, and 45 million people watching on TV in the U.S.....in 1958, it was the 1st ever NFL game that ended in a tie where they had to keep playing until there was a winner. Sudden death overtime was played for the 1st time with the Colts winning 23-17. The game featured 15 players and coaches who eventually made the Hall of Fame including, Johnny Unitas, Frank Gifford, Raymond Berry, Art Donovan, and Don Maynard, along with Giants offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi and Giants defensive coordinator Tom Landry. This was the only NFL championship game ever decided in OT until Super Bowl LI (51) 2 years ago, the NFL's 97th season.
Probably because of that 1958 championship game, a much more serious threat to the NFL came in 1960 when the American Football League formed. This upstart league was such a threat that when the NFL worked out a merger with them 6 years later, they absorbed the whole league instead of just a few teams. The merger was agreed upon in 1966 but wouldn't take effect until 1970. In those 4 seasons before the merger, the 2 leagues agreed to have each of their champions play each other at the end of the season. The 1966 season was the 1st of these games to be played and featured the NFL champion Green Bay Packers playing the AFL champion Kansas City Chiefs on January 15, 1967 in what was called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, which later became known as Super Bowl I. When the merger took place, the AFL teams became the American Football Conference (AFC), while the NFL became the National Football Conference (NFC), except the Colts, Steelers and Browns, who were switched to the AFC. From 1970 to present, the AFC champion plays the NFC champion in the Super Bowl to decide the NFL champion.
In the mid 1970's the World Football League formed, but lasted just 2 seasons and was never a threat. In 1983 the United States Football League was formed, and were serious competitors to the NFL for talent, with players like Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker and future Hall of Famers Jim Kelly, Reggie White and Steve Young signing on. The USFL ultimately ran out of money trying to compete with the NFL and after trying to bully the NFL into letting them merge and failing, finally folded before they could get their 1986 season underway.
Dynasties in the NFL would probably have to start with the Canton Bulldogs who won back-to-back championships in 1922 and 1923, going what is still an NFL record 25 games without a loss during that stretch. The Bulldogs were actually purchased by the owner of the Cleveland Indians NFL team in 1924, merged the 2 teams and called them the Cleveland Bulldogs for that '24 season in which they won the championship. Next would have to be the 1st of a couple of dynasties for the Green Bay Packers. The 1st was their 3 consecutive championships from 1929-1931, going 34-5-2 in those 3 seasons. The Packers 2nd dynasty came under Vince Lombardi, whom the Super Bowl trophy is named after, when they won 5 championships in 7 seasons, including another 3 in a row, which also included the 1st 2 Super Bowl championships.
The Chicago Bears won 4 championships in 7 years from 1940-1946, including a 3 out of 4 stretch. The Cleveland Browns won all 4 of the championships the AAFC ever had from '46-'49, and won the NFL championship in their 1st year in the NFL in 1950, then 2 more in '54 and '55.
The Miami Dolphins were the 1st team to go to 3 straight Super Bowls, winning 2 of them, including their 17-0 perfect season in 1972. Next was the Pittsburgh Steelers dominance winning 4 Super Bowls from 1974-1979. The mid to late '80's 49ers won 3 Super Bowls in a 6 year stretch. The Buffalo Bills are the only team to ever go to 4 straight Super Bowls but they lost all 4 of them. The Dallas Cowboys won 3 out of 4 championships from '92-'95. And finally, the New England Patriots run from 2001 to present, where they've been to 9 Super Bowls, winning 3 out of 4 from '01-'04, and 2 out of 3 from '16-'18, which they're the 3rd team to play in at least 3 straight Super Bowls.
The NFL went to a 14 game schedule in 1961, and it stayed that way until 1978 when they went to the current 16 game schedule. In 1969, the last season before the AFL-NFL merger, the NFL had 16 teams. After the merger the number of teams increased to 26 teams. 6 expansion teams have been added since, starting in 1976 with the Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In 1995 the Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers were added. In 1996, the Cleveland Browns franchise moved to Baltimore to become the Ravens. Cleveland was awarded an expansion franchise that started in 1999. They got to not only keep the Browns name and colors, but the history as well. In 1997 the Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee to become the Titans, and in 2002, Houston was awarded the NFL's 32nd franchise, the Houston Texans.
32 current NFL franchises, 47 now defunct franchises, for a total of 79 franchises that have played NFL football, from the 1921 Tonawanda Kardex, who played just 1 game, to the 169 games played by the Brooklyn Tigers from 1930-1944, to the 1,386 games in 99 years by the Chicago Bears. 31 of those 79 teams have won a championship, including 5 defunct teams. 9 teams playing today have never won an NFL championship. Atlanta, Buffalo, Carolina, Cincinnati, the Texans, Jacksonville, the Chargers, Minnesota, and the Titans, though the Chargers, Bills and Titans/Oilers have won AFL championships.
The 1952 Dallas Texans are the last franchise to leave the NFL, and even they have traces from the Dayton Triangles in 1920 to the Indianapolis Colts of today, though it's not officially recognized by the NFL.
Hall of Fame players/coaches from that 1920 inaugural season, Jim Thorpe, Pete Henry, George Trafton, Ed Healey, Paddy Driscoll, Joe Guyon, Fritz Pollard, and George Halas. 279 players, 23 coaches and 26 executives/contributors from the NFL's 1st 99 seasons are in the Hall of Fame which is located where the meeting was held to form the new professional football league, Canton, Ohio.
So that's 99 years of professional football, of NFL football, as the 100th season is set to get under way soon.