Football is back! After months of not knowing what to do after I get home from church on Sunday, I can now happily settle back into my routine of watching some of the world’s most gifted athletes compete on the gridiron each and every week! So far all but four teams (the Eagles, Falcons, Vikings, and 49ers) have completed their first game of the 2015 season. These four teams begin their seasons later this evening on Monday Night Football and the raw excitement of the brand new NFL season got me thinking about the founding of professional football. I originally only meant to write about the first professional football game, but in the course of my research, I learned that the great Jim Thorpe was actually the first president of the NFL! (Eat your heart out Roger.) Seeing as this is the D(U.S.)tbin of History, I decided that it would be appropriate to start the series by telling an obscure story that the average NFL fan probably doesn’t know.
Jim Thorpe was an amazing athlete. One could even call him the Bo Jackson of the early twentieth century. Thorpe began his professional athletic career by playing minor league baseball for the New York Giants organization during the two years between his graduation from the Carlisle Industrial Indian School and his triumph in the 1912 Olympics. The compensation that he earned from those two years stripped Thorpe of his Olympic medals in 1913 and barred him from competing again. Without the ability to compete for his country, Thorpe immersed himself completely into professional athletics. Thorpe had been a lauded football player in high school, achieving All-American status three out of four years, and converted that talent into a lucrative career. In addition to playing Major League Baseball, Thorpe signed a deal with the Canton Bulldogs in 1915 that paid him two hundred and fifteen dollars a game. He played with Canton for the next five years. During this time, Canton was the class of the semi-professional Ohio League. Large crowds paid to watch Thorpe, the premier athlete of his time, play football in the same way that they paid to see Ty Cobb on the diamond. The organized professionalization of American football soon became both necessary and imminent.
The American Professional Football Association was formed on August 20, 1920 when the owners of four Ohio League teams met in an auto showroom to discuss the creation of a professional league. Up to this point, professional football had suffered from a lack of organization and credibility. Thorpe was appointed as the first president of this league, which would be rebranded as the NFL two years later, in order to grant both virtues to the league. In addition to his duties as president of the NFL, Thorpe continued to play and occasionally coach until he retired as a member of the Chicago Cardinals in 1929. Thorpe was also the first to entertain a crowd at half-time. During the intermission, Thorpe would amaze fans by kicking fifty yard field goals, a feat that is still impressive even by the current standard of NFL kickers.
Would we be enjoying NFL football today were it not for Jim Thorpe? I believe that we probably would. However, it is difficult to tell whether the league would enjoy the same power and influence that it does today. Thorpe’s talent, and more importantly the prestige which was bestowed upon his name when King Gustav V of Sweden declared that he was “the greatest athlete in the world”, helped support the league financially. His ability to work with the owners to fix the problems of salary inflation, player recruitment, and lack of organization were crucial to the survival and growth of the professional game. The NFL is now the biggest and most lucrative spectator sport in the United States. College football players no longer think twice about playing the game professionally in lieu of another career. Little boys want to grow up to be Peyton Manning. The sport’s championship is a pseudo-national holiday. All of this is possible, in no small part, due to the efforts of Jim Thorpe.
The Associated Press named Jim Thorpe the greatest football player of all time in 1950. He joined the Hall of Fame in 1963. Americans love to talk about foundings. Innovation and invention is in our blood. It’s a part of what makes us who we are as a culture and a society. Among the greatest things that a person can do in life is to create or help to create something worthwhile in this world. Jim Thorpe helped create and maintain the NFL. He saw the league through tumultuous early years and could revel in the success that it had become during his final years.1 No matter what feats Thorpe achieved on the field, his greatest contributions to the sport will always be in the main offices.
- Thorpe passed away in 1953. At that point, there were two major professional football leagues competing for dominance (the NFL and the AFL) that would eventually merge together in 1966.
“Biography.” http://www.cmgww.com/sports/thorpe/bio/bio.html 9/6/15. 9/6/15. Jim Thorpe, The World’s Greatest Athlete. Estate of Jim Thorpe.
Pro Football Hall of Fame staff. “Jim Thorpe”.
http://www.profootballhof.com/hof/member.aspx?PlayerId=213&tab=Bio. 9/6/15. Pro Football Hall of Fame.com.
History.com staff. “Professional Football is Born”. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/professional-football-is-born. 2009. History.com. A+E Networks.