Selective Amnesia: Does The NFL Only Remember The 50 Years It’s Been Number One With America?

Benny Friedman

Benny Friedman: The NFL’s first star passer committed suicide in 1982, in ill health and reportedly in despair he never would make the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In time he was — twenty three years later.

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.”

Single Wing Offense

Single wing formation: The long snap from center (75) went either to the tailback (40) or the fullback (33), with the quarterback (26) primarily used as a blocker. In the T formation the QB became the pivot point for the offense, revolutionizing the game. (Photo courtesy Bleacher Report)

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.

Joe Horrigan

Horrigan: “I can’t begin to tell you how little institutional knowledge the NFL actually has.”

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.”

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The Rich Got Richer, The Poor Got Poorer: The Mansions And Shantytowns Of The NFL Before It Discovered League Parity

Akron Rubber Bowl

The Cleveland Rams played several games at the so-called neutral site of the Akron Rubber Bowl, including the 1941 season opener against the Steelers and this 1942 exhibition game against the Giants. With the ball is the Rams’ Gaylon Smith, later to join the Cleveland Browns.

Today we take it as a given: A professional sports team will play an even number of games at home and on the road across the course of a regular season.

Not so the National Football League in the 1930s and 1940s. This was an era in which there were distinct winners and losers both on the field and at the box office and when actions by the league office had a way of widening the divide.

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Cleveland Rams: From Nonentities to NFL Champions in Only Twenty Months

Card-Pitts

The Cleve-Pitts? The winless 1944 merger of the Chicago Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers into a team known as the “Card-Pitts” (and unofficially as the “Carpets”) instead would have been a Rams-Steelers hybrid if not for the vehement opposition of Cleveland general manager Chile Walsh.

(Excerpt from the forthcoming book, CLEVELAND RAMS: Forgotten NFL Champions)

It was the spring of 1944, just weeks before the Allied invasion of Normandy and the liberation of Europe, and the Cleveland Rams franchise felt set upon by the “open animosity” of the rest of the National Football League. Discontinuing play for the 1943 season due to the war had been a mistake, Rams owner Daniel F. Reeves admitted, and he wanted back in for 1944. The other NFL owners acceded but, by the Rams’ accounts, seemed intent on making the Rams pay for their one-year lapse in operation.

Their severity would provoke the Rams into a nearly manic quest for survival and success.

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How A ‘Little Group’ In a Cleveland Hotel Became the National Football League

NFL draft 1943

For decades the NFL’s owners met in hotels in Midwestern cities like Cleveland and Chicago, often to conduct player drafts. On April 18, 1943, Cleveland’s Charles (Chile) Walsh (right) prepares to make draft selections at the Palmer House in Chicago for a Rams team that would sit out that season due to World War II. At left: Fred Mandel, president of the Detroit Lions. (Photo courtesy of the Washington Post)

(Excerpt from the forthcoming book, CLEVELAND RAMS: Forgotten NFL Champions)

“Ohio was the anvil,” Los Angeles sportswriter Bob Oates once lyrically observed, “on which professional football was hammered.” It was not an overstatement.

Charter NFL FranchisesThe National Football League was founded in 1920 in Canton, 60 miles south of Cleveland down the Cuyahoga River valley, just past Akron and the overland portage that links the Cuyahoga with the Tuscarawas River.

So it is no surprise that among the 14 teams gathered inside Ralph Hay’s legendary Hupmobile showroom in Canton to form the American Professional Football Association (APFA) in 1920, five were from Ohio (see table). These included charter franchises the Cleveland Tigers, a mostly forgettable squad that posted an inaugural record of 1-4-2, and the Akron Pros, the league’s first champions, led by Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard, who later became the NFL’s first African-American coach.

Two years later the Cleveland Tigers were a financial failure and were gone from the NFL. But the league hardly was gone from Cleveland. The owners, meeting in Cleveland’s downtown Hollenden Hotel on June 18, 1922, acted on Chicago Bears owner George Halas’ recommendation to strike the word professional from the organization’s name (the word was “superfluous,” Halas said), and to use league instead of association, which in baseball usually applied to second-class teams – and “we were first class,” said the supremely confident Halas.

The “little group” of the AFPA became, in the course of one meeting in Cleveland, the “National Football League.”

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The Last (And Only) Attempts To Make Old Cleveland Stadium Hospitable For Football

Cleveland Municipal Stadium 1964

Cleveland Stadium in its usual gridiron configuration, with vast acreages of empty space separating the sidelines from the stands, save for two short-lived experiments: one in 1937, the other in 1941.

The Cleveland Indians just have reduced capacity and reconfigured Progressive Field to make it more accommodating to smaller crowds than it originally was intended for. But it’s not the first time a pro sports team in Cleveland has done this.

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Cleveland Football: Leading the League in Management Meddling Since 1937

Cleveland Rams president Edward Bruch

Cleveland Rams president Edward Bruch (far right) at Cleveland Stadium in 1940, the last season the team was held by local ownership. Bruch had his own management meddling moment a few years earlier while wintering in Arizona: He stepped on a practice field at the University of Arizona to evaluate a Rams prospect personally and was ejected “bodily, and with scant ceremony” from the campus. (Photo courtesy Cleveland Press Archives at Cleveland State University)

Cleveland Browns general manager Ray Farmer has drawn headlines (and the threat of league penalties) for texting plays to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan — during games!

Unprecedented, right?

Well, maybe it was unprecedented in the use of technology. But the NFL’s tenure in Cleveland has an inglorious history of management meddling, and it didn’t start with Jimmy Haslam and the drafting of Johnny Manziel, or even Art Modell and his firing of Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown.

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Lombardi Artifact Unexpectedly Reappears

Lombardi jacket

I would be remiss if I did not repeat the news that a long-lost artifact of (Flying) Vince Lombardi, the ever-vigilant patron of this site, unexpectedly reappeared in a Goodwill Thrift Store in West Asherville, NC.

Yes, for only 58 cents a hipster couple from Tennessee purchased what turned out to be a jacket Lombardi wore while a coach at West Point, with “Lombardi 46″ still inscribed on the tag. The Pro Football Hall of Fame asked the couple to donate the sweater for its archives — but no dice. The pair is holding out for the dough, and at auction the item could fetch as much as $20,000.

That’s the American spirit!

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“The Perfect Football Face”: Dutch Clark, Cleveland Rams Head Coach (1939-1942)

Dutch Clark

THE PERFECT FOOTBALL FACE: Dutch Clark in gladiatorial profile,1934. (Photo courtesy LIFE magazine)

Imaging missing play in an NFL Championship Game so you can tend to your offseason job — then, decades later, being inducted into the inaugural class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Lewis and Clark

LEWIS AND CLARK: Cleveland Rams head coach Dutch Clark (left) and assistant coach Art “Pappy” Lewis in 1941, probably at training camp in Berea, Ohio. (Photo courtesy Cleveland Press Archives at Cleveland State University)

Impossible, you say?

Not for Earl “Dutch” Clark.

For a time in the 1930s Clark was the highest-scoring and best-paid player in the National Football League, quarterbacking the Portsmouth Spartans and (after the team had moved to the big city) the Detroit Lions.

In December 1932 the Spartans and the Chicago Bears tied for first place, so a playoff game was arranged — indoors, at Chicago Stadium, due to inclement winter weather. No one, least of all Clark, anticipated the NFL season was going to extend an extra week. Can’t make it, Clark told Portsmouth coach Potsy Clark. Have to get back to my offseason job as head basketball coach at Colorado College. 

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5 Myths About the NFL in Cleveland: It’s Not Quite the Football Town You Think It Is (Or Was)

1948 AAFC Championship Game.CLE

See those empty seats in the background? This is a Browns championship game. A scant 22,891 at the 1948 AAFC title game in Cleveland watch as Marion Motley and the 14-0 Browns down the 7-7 Buffalo Bills, 49-7. Three years earlier the supposedly less-liked Cleveland Rams drew 50% more fans to a taut 1945 NFL Championship Game, in arctic weather that was nearly 30 degrees colder and as servicemen were returning from World War II.

Historical facts often are no match for the selective memories of football fans and the relentless myth-making machine of the National Football League. Think Cleveland is a football town nonpareil, conceived by a sainted Browns playoff juggernaut of long ago? After debunking these 5 myths about the NFL in Cleveland you may think the real story is a little more…uh, complicated.

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