Posted by: Simon Day | February 12, 2013

Part 2: Changing States

pop warner

Warner also won numerous awards for his perfectly square head

By the early 20th century, American Football had evolved considerably.   Walter Camp and other administrators had made the game more player and crowd friendly.   In 1892, the wonderfully named William “Podge” Heffelfinger , became the first professional player when he was paid $500 to play a game in Pittsburgh.  Many others followed suit and 3 years later Pop Warner became the first paid coach, earning $34 a week to coach the University of Georgia.

Until I started researching this, I assumed the Warner really had the first name of Pop; so I was highly disappointed to discover he was really called Glenn, and was only called Pop because he was one of the oldest players on his University team.  Disappointing, but also good to know that terrible, uncreative nicknames aren’t just a preserve of modern sport.   Warner earned his $34, by creating a number of innovative plays that have existed to this day, such as the screen pass and the spiral punt.  He also decided it would be a good idea for players to wear pads whilst playing.

In 1920, the game took its biggest leap forward as delegates from the major teams across the USA, got together in Canton, Ohio to try to add some organisation to the sport.  Jim Thorpe became the first president of, what was initially called, the American Professional Football Association.  Thorpe was one of those multi talented sportsmen that seem to have died out since the financial boom in sport.  Prior to becoming the APFA president, Thorpe had played baseball, basketball and american football professionally, and just to prove he wasn’t a three trick pony, he also won Olympic gold in the pentathlon and decathlon.  Not surprisingly, Thorpe struggled to dedicated much time to his APFA role and was replaced a year later by Joseph Carr.

Carr had far more of an administrative background than Thorpe. He had successful formed a and ran a successful baseball team (Panhandle White Soxs), before moving into American Football and founding the Columbus Panhandles, who would be one of the founder members of APFA.  Carr’s development of the Panhandles was based around a strong marketing ethic and the use of various innovations such as advertising the team in newspapers and hiring big name players.  Soon after becoming AFPA president, Carr changed the name of the organisation to the National Football League.  That was just the start of it for Carr and during his 18 year reign he introduced contracts, schedules, franchises and created strong links between the pro game and college football.   In many ways Carr was the key driver behind the formation of the NFL as we know it today.

a 1910 Offensive Line...still better than the Eagles 2012 version!

a 1910 Offensive Line…still better than the Eagles 2012 version!

The NFL grew rapidly and was becoming a behemoth of US sports.  Baseball was the number one sport in America, but Carr wanted to usurp it and take the NFL to the top.  His primary objective was to add stability and strength to franchises, thus building their identity and turnover of franchises, and Carr took steps to addressing this trend.  He sought out rich, successful businessmen to run franchises and provided continuity to the sport.

Perhaps the most famous of these new owners was Tim Mara.  Mara took over the New York Giants for $500 in 1925 and one of his first decisions was to sign…Jim Thorpe.  See, it all makes sense eventually!  The Mara family are still heavily involved with the Giants and are one of the most famous names in America.  Tim’s grandson John is currently the Giants president, whilst his great granddaughters Rooney and Kate are famous actresses.

Thanks to the likes of Mara, the NFL experienced a massive upsurge in popularity and by the late 1940’s the sport had overtaken baseball as America’s number one sport and has arguably retained that status to this very day.


Coming Next:  American Football comes to the UK…in 1910!


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