‘Before the League’ documentary targets pre-NFL era

Published 3:23 am Thursday, October 29, 2015

Staff Report


CANTON — Pro football is the most popular professional sport in the United States, and football in general is America’s national pastime.

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But before football was a national Sunday obsession, the first professional games were played throughout Ohio in Cincinnati, Dayton, Portsmouth, Akron, Ironton, Akron, Canton, Massillon and other towns.

“Before The League,” Time Warner Cable SportsChannel’s new six-part series, looks at the kick off of pro football to celebrate the 95th anniversary of the American Professional Football Association, forerunner to the NFL. The first NFL game was played in Dayton on Oct. 3, 1920, when the Triangles defeated the Columbus Panhandles.

“Before the League” will air on the Time Warner Cable SportsChannel nationwide Nov. 17-18.

“Before The League” is a documentary produced by Time Warner Cable Sports Channel.

Included in the interviews were several people from the Tri-State area including Ironton’s Jim Ridgeway — an early professional football historical buff — along with Keith Morehouse of WSAZ-TV and Jim Kennedy and Paul O’Neill who are members of the Portsmouth Spartans Historical Society.

With rare photos, film and some re-creations, the documentary looks at the violent early years of the game, and the origins of small town teams like the Triangles, Portsmouth Spartans, Ironton Tanks, Massillon Tigers and Canton Bulldogs, plus the Buffalo (NY) All-Americans, Rochester (NY) Jeffersons, Milwaukee Badgers and Green Bay Packers.

“Before The League” devotes entire shows to the scandals, ringers, and first big stars, including African-American Charles Follis for the Shelby (OH) Blues in 1902, and 1912 Olympics hero Jim Thorpe, the Canton Bulldogs player-coach, Reds outfielder and first president American Professional Football Association in 1920.



Football was born in America in the late 1800s, evolving from a hybrid of soccer and rugby through a series of adaptations introduced on the field by college and working class men. Pioneers of the sport like Walter Camp, a student at Yale who attended the game’s first rules committee, Charles Follis, the first African American to play professional football, and William “Pudge” Heffelfinger, the game’s first documented paid player, were instrumental in creating a new sport.


Football is described as being akin to the “wild west” with teams, coaches and players exploiting loopholes in the rules. Company teams like the Columbus Panhandles, made up of working men who played football during their lunch breaks, and the original Green Bay Packers, formed as a way to advertise the Acme Packing Plant, were created to support local industry. Opportunity gave way to exploitation as ringers flooded the sport, eager to make their mark and their fortune.


From the beginning, money and competition led to historic scandals between teams like the Canton Bulldogs and the Massillon Tigers, with accusations of cheating. Brutality on the field led to the intervention of President Roosevelt, putting an end to some of the game’s most dangerous elements like the flying wedge. But coaches and players persisted in shaping rules to their advantage.


The power of celebrity to bring fans, attention and money to the game is seen with the addition by Jack Cusack of Olympic powerhouse Jim Thorpe to the Canton Bulldogs. While rule changes like the elimination of restrictions to the forward pass helped strike a balance between offensive and defensive plays.


Once again, Stark County is pivotal in guiding the future of football with the first ever owners meeting held to in Canton, Ohio to form a new league. Dayton, Ohio claims the first-ever NFL game and Fritz Pollard makes history becoming the first African American coach of an NFL team, leading the Akron Pros to the first league title.


The arrival of players like Red Grange effectively ends the sandlot era of football, pushing teams to compete for permanent rosters. The promise of increased revenue through expansion, directly threatens the small town team originally at the core of football’s identify. The Oorang Indians are a momentary exception and the smallest NFL franchise on record while small town teams like Portsmouth Spartans, Ironton Tanks and Dayton Triangles can’t compare with the success of the Green Bay Packers.