GREEN BAY, Wis. – Exactly 100 years ago today, the Green Bay Packers made their NFL debut.
In 1920, what would become the National Football League began operation as the American Professional Football Association. After two years of beating up on regional semi-pro clubs, Curly Lambeau’s squad played its first league game on Oct. 23, 1921, at Hagemeister Park against the Minneapolis Marines.
In the inaugural Dope Sheet – the “Official Program and Publication (of the) Acme-Packers Football Team” and the name the Packers still use for their game previews – the game was hyped as a matchup between championship contenders. “The Marines have conceded that they expect to face as dangerous an opponent as they have met so far and also realize that theirs and the Packers claim to a crack at the championship teams depends very largely upon results next Sunday.”
With an estimated 6,000 in attendance, Green Bay trailed 6-0 deep into the fourth quarter. As detailed in Eric Goska’s Green Bay Packers: A Measure of Greatness, Dave Hayes recovered a fumble to give the Packers life. Curly Lambeau completed a pass to Buff Wagner to get the ball to the Marines’ 14. Art Schmaehl went down in franchise history as scoring the team’s first professional touchdown, a 4-yard run. Lambeau booted the go-ahead extra point, and the defense slammed the door to complete the 7-6 win.
“In the greatest game of football ever seen on a Green Bay gridiron, the Packers celebrated their entrance into the Professional Football league by taking the far-famed Minneapolis Marines into camp to the tune of 7-6 before a crowd that jammed every corner of the field at Hagemeister Park,” wrote The Green Bay Press-Gazette sports editor, George Calhoun.
Talk about a must-win game. This is from Packers historian Cliff Christl:
“The late Jack Rudolph, noted Green Bay historian, wrote years later the rumor was Green Bay had to beat Minneapolis to remain in the league. My suspicion is it wasn't necessarily a win-or-else ultimatum, but Green Bay needed to win, or at least be competitive, to have any chance of scheduling future home games or attractive opponents.”
That wasn’t the only time the franchise would skirt death.
The AFPA formed in 1920 and became the NFL in 1922. The Packers went 3-2-1 during their first professional season. They were briefly kicked out of the league after that first season for using players from Notre Dame – Acme Packing Co.’s J.E. Clair was refunded his $50 franchise fee from the league – only for Lambeau to reapply with 50 bucks in June 1922.
In 1929, Green Bay won the first of three consecutive NFL championships.