Pro football, born on the muddy fields of Canton, Dayton and Decatur, now plays out in billion-dollar pleasure domes across the country, and even overseas. At its core, through a century of the NFL, the game has been marked by visceral energy and phenomenal athleticism, pageantry and pain, cheers and tears. Herewith, 100 photos that capture pro football’s sometimes rugged, always compelling artistry.
John Elway rambles past the Browns in the AFC Championship Game at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, January 1987.
Falcons rookie Deion Sanders goes airborne against the Packers in Milwaukee, October 1989.
The Chargers’ Lance Alworth breaks free of the Bills, Balboa Stadium, San Diego, November 1965.
Sony Michel plunges into the end zone for the only touchdown in the Patriots’ 13–3 Super Bowl LIII victory over the Rams, February 2019.
Roman Gabriel of the Rams passes against the Giants at Yankee Stadium, December 1970.
The Oorang Indians, with Jim Thorpe (back row, middle). The team, made up of Native Americans, played for two seasons, 1922-23.
49ers QB Joe Montana skies against the Oilers at Candlestick Park, December 1981.
Lin Crow of the Chicago Cardinals intercepts an Eagles pass, Comiskey Park, October 1955.
Packers QB Brett Favre passes by the seat of his pants in the 2006 season opener against the Bears at Lambeau Field.
Ed Rucinski (82) of Card-Pitt—the wartime mashup of the Cardinals and Steelers—goes all out against the Redskins at Griffith Stadium in Washington, October 1944.
Miami’s Randy McMichael skies over the Saints in a preseason game in 2002.
The Colts’ Alan Ameche carries against the Bears at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, September 1955.
Bears back George McAfee runs for daylight during visiting Chicago’s 73–0 demolition of the Redskins in the 1940 NFL Championship Game.
Eric Dickerson carries against the 49ers at Anaheim Stadium.
Future U.S. Congressman Jack Kemp of the AFL champion Bills leaps to throw against an AFL All-Star team at Rice Stadium in Houston, January 1966.
Chiefs vs. Cowboys at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, in November 2017.
Cam Newton lets loose versus the Cardinals, September 2011.
Walter Payton goes up and over against the Saints in the game in which he broke Jim Brown’s career rushing record. Soldier Field, October 1984.
Bears QB Sid Luckman and teammates strike a pose at the Polo Grounds before a game against an All-Star team to benefit the Navy Relief Fund, December 1941.
Tom Brady in the pocket against the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, Ariz., February 2015.
The Eagles and Bears are lost in the fog during Chicago’s 20–12 divisional-round victory at Soldier Field in December 1988.
Peyton Manning trots to the line of scrimmage in Super Bowl 50 in February 2016.
Wrigley Field (né Cubs Park) served as home of the Bears from 1921 through 1970.
San Diego’s Mike Williams and Miami’s Bruce Hardy go up the ball during the Chargers-Dolphins AFC divisional-round game at the Orange Bowl, January 1983.
Paul Lowe of the Chargers sprints down the sideline against the Bills in the AFL title game, Balboa Stadium, San Diego, December 1965.
Rams QB Kurt Warner in action against the Titans in Nashville, October 1999.
Oilers QB George Blanda pitches out to Billy Cannon in the AFL Championship Game against the Chargers in Houston, December 1961.
David Tyree sticks the ball to his helmet to help set up the winning score in the Giants’ Super Bowl XLII victory over the Patriots, February 2008.
In Week 2 of the AFL’s inaugural season, Denver’s Austin Gonsoulin is tackled after an interception at War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo, September 1960.
Reversing roles, Bills QB Doug Flutie attempts to haul down Dolphins linebacker Zack Thomas after a fumble in the Dolphins’ wild-card win over the Bills at Pro Player Stadium, January 1999.
Kam Chancellor leaps the line on Graham Gano’s field-goal attempt in a Panthers-Seahawks divisional-round game at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, January 2015.
Sonny Jurgensen, Eagles QB, unleashes a pass against the Bears at Franklin Field in Philadelphia, November 1961.
The Browns and 49ers slog it out at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, December 1, 1974.
The Browns’ Marion Motley returns a kick against the New York Yankees in an AAFC game at the House that Ruth Built, November 1947.
The Giants’ Odell Beckham snags a pass one-handed against the Cowboys, MetLife Stadium, November 2014.
Lee Roy Selmon (63) and his fellow Bucs make a creamsicle of Chargers running back John Cappelleti in Tampa, December 1981.
The Steelers’ Jim Finks (7) and the Giants’ Ellery Williams (85) battle for the ball (and against the goalposts) at the Polo Grounds, October 1950.
The Chargers’ Jim McMahon eludes Philly’s Reggie White at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, December 1989.
New England’s Rob Gronkowski is flocked by Broncos defenders in the AFC Championship Game in Denver, January 2016.
The Astrodome roof provides a new perspective on the game for photographer Neil Leifer; Jets vs. Houston, October 1968.
Green Bay’s Billy Grimes carries the white ball on a kickoff during a night game against the New York Yanks at Yankee Stadium, October 1950.
Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes at the line of scrimmage against the 49ers at Arrowhead Stadium, September 2018.
Cedric Benson fights his way into the end zone in the Bears 39–14 NFC title game victory over the Saints at Soldier Field in January 2007.
New York’s Bob Schnelker and Cleveland’s Ken Konz contest a ball at Yankee Stadium, December 1958.
Miami’s Earnest Rhone swallows up Washington’s Joe Theismann in Super Bowl XVII at the Rose Bowl, January 1983.
Pierre Thomas touches down during the Saints’ 31–17 victory over the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV, Dolphins Stadium, February 2010.
The Bears battle the Giants during Red Grange’s barnstorming tour, December 1925.
Marshawn Lynch caps his Beast Mode TD with a backward plunge into the end zone in the Seahawks’ wild-card victory over the Saints in Seattle, January 2011.
Jim Taylor of the Packers takes on the 49ers at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco, December 1960.