Anniversaries are always a good time for list-making, and as the NFL kicks off its 100th season, The MMQB and SI dive into the colorful, convoluted history of the league that now dominates the sports landscape. Over the last century, professional football has evolved from a slap-dash enterprise in a handful of mid-sized American towns—Decatur, Rock Island, Green Bay—to the multibillion-dollar juggernaut that rules fall Sundays, boasts the most watched television programming in the country, and serves as an obsession for millions of Americans.
How did the NFL get from there to here? There’s no one way to cover such an expansive and deep-seeded narrative, so The MMQB approached it from three angles: 100 figures who shaped the league, 100 objects that tell its story and 100 pictures that capture its essence. There will be familiar faces—from George Halas to Jim Brown to Tom Brady—and some significant people whose influence is evident but whose names are not. And we wanted to convey not just the game on the field, but the place that the NFL holds in the wider culture, how it has both shaped and reflected forces and currents in our society over 100 years. The story of the NFL isn’t always pretty—no honest narrative can avoid the darker side—but it is uniquely American.
100 FIGURES WHO SHAPED THE GAME
Defensive wild man who admitted to PED use and blamed it for brain cancer that killed him
During his 15 seasons (1971-85) with the Broncos, Browns and Raiders, the defensive end was not only one of the most feared players in the league, but he was also one of the fiercest and most violent, prone to random outbursts of anger. But after retiring and being diagnosed with brain cancer in April 1991, Alzado admitted that he had taken anabolic steroids from 1969, when he was in school, all the way through his failed comeback attempt in 1990. As he underwent chemotherapy treatments, Alzado became an outspoken advocate warning others of the dangers of steroids, believing that the drugs caused his disease, although there was no proof that this was true.
Creator of Monday Night Football
The NFL wouldn’t be where it is today without the guiding hands of a few visionaries on the television side. Consider Roone Arledge, a long-time ABC executive, one of those hands. As the inventor of or creative force behind tentpole programs like the foundational and long-running Wide World of Sports, Arledge was a legend at ABC and ABC Sports. Viewing a sporting event would not be the same without him. News coverage, campaign coverage and breaking news all had his fingerprints. And the creation of Monday Night Football helped raise the image of the NFL in the American consciousness.
Biggest star of the ’30s/’40s
Before the days of Peyton Manning and his milquetoast insurance ads, there was football’s true dual threat—or in the case of Sammy Baugh, quadruple threat. Baugh could act, as he did starring as Tom King in King of the Texas Rangers, but he could also play safety. And punt. And, most notably, reinvent the game as a downfield-slinging quarterback. Baugh’s rambling style was the model for quarterbacks of decades later, with their ability both to move the pocket and and to torture defenses by elongating the play. Patriots coach Bill Belichick compared Baugh to both Tom Brady and Ed Reed, for his ability to move the ball on one side of the field, then stop it on the other.
ODELL BECKHAM JR.
Quintessential player of the social media age
Odell Beckham Jr. catapulted to fame as a rookie when he made a one-handed catch while falling backwards on Sunday Night Football in 2014. That catch launched Beckham to a stratosphere of crossover fame previously the domain of NBA players. The LSU product has a huge presence on social media, and has influenced young NFL fans with his signature hairstyle, unique fashion sense and outsized personality. His appeal transcends the NFL, and he’s as likely to turn up at runway shows as he is to spark the latest hot-button issue on TV.
Mastermind of a two-decade dynasty in New England
Bill Belichick’s successes emphasize something about pro football that is understood, but not fully appreciated: It is the ultimate sport of strategy and scheme. This is what football coaches think about, and none better than Belichick. He is a master at identifying and leveraging individual players and their attributes. Which is why his Patriots teams have never had one clear identity. Belichick finds smart, uniquely gifted players and shapes his scheme around them—and for their opponent—each week. Some of his Patriots teams have evolved more in a month than most NFL teams do in a year.
A HISTORY OF FOOTBALL IN 100 OBJECTS
Why is the NFL’s game ball called “The Duke”? Who devised the slingshot goalpost? Whatever happened to that Ford Bronco? From the Hupmobile to Shad Khan’s yacht, Tom Landry's fedora to Deion’s bandana, Frank Reich's hand warmer to Tom Brady’s draft card, here’s a century of the NFL as told through things. READ MORE
100 PHOTOS FROM A CENTURY OF FOOTBALL
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. VIEW THE GALLERY