The National Football League turns ninety-five years old next month. Come January, the Super Bowl will be fifty. Take the difference in years between them — forty-five — and you have the approximate number of seasons which the NFL seems disinclined to remember.
If the NFL encompassed the entire universe (and sometimes, it seems, it thinks it does), the Big Bang would have occurred in 1958 with the so-called “greatest game ever played,” and present-day Earth would have emerged from stardust in 1967 when the Super Bowl was born.
Prior to that, pro football was . . . misty and mostly unknowable. Primitive, prehistoric.
For some time I’ve puzzled over why pro football has such a blinkered view of its own past. Then the primary reason clicked into place as I conducted an interview for my upcoming book on the Cleveland Rams.
“What the NFL has done to itself,” Joe Horrigan of the Pro Football Hall of Fame explained to me, “is to kind of mark time from when they became America’s number-one sport” — roughly coinciding with the creation of the grandiloquently titled Super Bowl — which “is kind of baloney, but it’s an easy milestone to point to. I can’t begin to tell you how little institutional knowledge the NFL actually has.”
As a result, down the memory hole go the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, with the 1950s and early 1960s consigned to a dusty shelf in the league’s back bedroom. Only in the liberated ’60s and ’70s does the NFL emerge, shiny and new, TV-ready — a sport with no past.
Imagine if Major League Baseball had done much the same with its own heritage. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Feller, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle — largely forgotten. Baseball begins with Bob Gibson and the St. Louis Cardinals over Carl Yastrzemski and the Boston Red Sox in the 1967 World Series.
The popular perception of early pro football is the deadly “flying wedge”. . . leather helmets . . . grown men missing teeth. Yet the NFL’s most scrum-like formative era was remarkably brief, perhaps a dozen or so years in duration. Within a decade of the league’s founding in 1920, Cleveland native Benny Friedman became a sensation by tossing as many as twenty touchdown passes in a single season, four in just one game. By the mid-1930s the pass was de rigueur for nearly every NFL team and was ably exploited by some of the league’s earliest star receivers including Don Hutson of the Green Bay Packers and Jim Benton of the Cleveland Rams.
But modern football as we know it — truly the current-day NFL’s Big Bang — began in 1940 with the Chicago Bears’ deployment of the T-formation offense as designed by the visionary Clark Shaughnessy. ESPN recounts that
“[…B]y positioning the quarterback directly behind the center for a hand-to-hand exchange, and by making the position the undeniable focus of an offense instead of merely a glorified blocker in the single wing, Shaughnessy forever altered the game. He conjured up the man in motion, misdirection, the counter play and the three-wide-receiver formation. Shaughnessy prioritized deft ballhandling and intelligent decision-making by quarterbacks, and made the ground game more viable and modern by drawing up quick hitters and eliminating much of the backfield traffic that slowed the run and previously rendered the game a ponderous exercise in physical superiority.”
Using the T, the Bears dismantled the Washington Redskins, 73-0, in the most lopsided NFL championship game in history. Within a few years nearly every NFL team was hastily assembling some version of the T formation. And it’s still with us today.
To watch rare footage of an NFL game from the 1940s is to witness the emergence of swaggering modern football as surely as the bluesmen of the same era presaged the bigger phenomenon of rock’n’roll. Rams quarterback Bob Waterfield in particular embodied the confident presence behind center, the backfield misdirections and rollouts and downfield arcs miraculously speared with acrobatic catches that we’ve come to expect from NFL football. By the time American servicemen arrived home from World War II in 1945 and 1946, “hungry for rest and relaxation and distraction” as Horrigan put it, pro football had emerged from a twenty-five-year experiment with a product that was engineered for postwar popularity.
But what of the players who brought the NFL to that magical moment? Many fans seem to see the league’s early era as a novelty and even a source of some amusement. Yet most players of the time were not just college-educated but college graduates, usually forestalling their inevitable business or professional careers for the sheer love of the game. Many were certain Americans would one day embrace the pro game as they had the collegiate version. Friedman committed suicide in 1982, in ill health and reportedly in despair that he never would be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame (he was, in 2005). Waterfield died a year later, his place in the Hall secure but his legend quickly fading.
“I look at the guys from that era . . . my dad played a game with four broken ribs,” Waterfield’s son Buck Waterfield told me. “How many guys today would go into a game with four broken ribs? I think you could take a team from the 1940s or 1950s, play with rules from the 1940s and 1950s, and teams from then would just kill teams from today. They were just tougher. The wide receivers would never get off the line of scrimmage; they would get a bloody nose. Toughness? I don’t think so. I grew up with all those guys. They played football because they loved it, not because of the money. Money was secondary.”
With the NFL’s centennial looming in 2020, I asked Horrigan whether the league and the Hall had some festivities up their sleeves. He said there are “lots of things to cover,” but that “the challenge will always be, what is significant versus interesting. Unfortunately the significant tends to lose out to the interesting.”
The sport’s restless forgetfulness, its disregard for its own provenance, seem to weigh a bit on Horrigan, the man charged with preserving its past.
“Baseball has always had its history. There’s always been a following,” he said.“But football — it’s still virgin territory. There’s a lot of territory that can still be investigated and reported.”