Jim Thorpe was the first gridiron superstar.
Jim Thorpe was the first gridiron superstar.

The multi-million dollar contracts and slick-packaged presentations on television make the professional football game of today a potpourri of spectacular sport, big money, stardom, adulation, violence and the Theater of the Absurd. It was once called a "contact sport," but as one wag recently pointed out: "Dancing is a contact sport. Football is a hitting sport."

While the hitting aspect of the game has been around for generations, some of the other rules and regulations have been refined so many times that the original game is barely recognizable. Here's a brief look back at how pro football came to be what it is today.

Return with us now to 1895. In the same year that John Wesley Hardin was shot and killed in the Acme Saloon in El Paso, Texas, a man named John Braillier became the first professional football player. He was paid $10 (plus expenses) to play for the Latrobe YMCA. Go team! In 1897 this same Latrobe club became the first football team to play a full season with every man on the roster a professional.

Here come the Cardinals!

The Arizona Cardinals are the oldest of the pro football franchises, with roots going back to 1899. The Morgan Athletic Club of Chicago became the Racine (named after a Chicago street) Cardinals, then the Chicago Cardinals, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Phoenix Cardinals and finally the Arizona Cardinals.

In 1904 the value of a field goal changed from five points to four. Only six years before that the value of a touchdown had been upped from four points to five. Does this mean that a field goal used to be worth more than a touchdown? Evidently!

Hey, Peggy! Throw it to me!

Who threw the first forward pass in a professional game? Sammy Baugh? Bronko Nagurski? Nope, it was Peggy Parratt to Bullet Riley on October 27, 1906. Don't panic. "Peggy" was just a nickname for George Parratt of Massillon.

In 1909 the value of a field goal was reduced to three points. Pro football was in trouble due to betting scandals and the high wages being paid to players. Does this sound familiar? In 1913 Jim Thorpe began playing pro football, and by 1915 his salary had ballooned to $250 a game.

The year 1919 saw the founding of the Green Bay Packers. Curly Lambeau and George Calhoun put the team together with the help of the Indian Packing Company. In 1922 the Packers withdrew from the American Professional Football Association due to violations of league policies, but Lambeau repurchased the franchise with money from his own pocket and rejoined the league. What did this noble gesture cost Curly? $50! That same year the APFA changed its name to the National Football League.

Bulldogs are everywhere!

The first NFL title went to the Canton Bulldogs in 1922, and they won it again in 1923. In 1924 it was the Cleveland Bulldogs who won it all with a team composed primarily of Canton's best players. In 1925 Canton formed a new team and called it -- what else? -- the Canton Bulldogs.

Pro football came into its own in 1925 when the Chicago Bears signed "Red" Grange out of Illinois. The Bears went on a barnstorming tour deluxe, playing eight games in the next 12 days. Over 73,000 fans turned out at the Polo Grounds to watch the Bears and the New York Giants, and another 75,000 were on hand at the LA Coliseum as the Bears and Grange defeated the Los Angeles Tigers.

Jim Thorpe may have been the first superstar of pro football, but it was Grange who made the game big business and filled the stands wherever he played.

Click here to read Part II of this article -- Pro football from 1926 to 1945.


Bruce Amspacher has been a professional writer since the 1950s and a professional numismatist since the 1960s. He won the OIPA sportswriting award in 1958 and again in 1959, then spent eight years in college studying American Literature. This background somehow led him to become a professional numismatist in 1968. Since then he has published hundreds of articles on rare coins in dozens of publications as well as publishing his own newsletter, the "Bruce Amspacher Investment Report," for more than a decade. His areas of expertise include Liberty Seated dollars, Morgan and Peace dollars, United States gold coins, sports trivia, Western history, modern literature and the poetry of Emily Dickinson. In 1986 he was a co-founder of the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS).
''Red'' Grange's popularity helped turn football into a big business.
''Red'' Grange's popularity helped turn football into a big business.