Forward Progress

A modest collection of teams in the heartland has grown in 75 years into a colossus—and America's favorite game
September 04, 1994

The minutes of that fateful meeting on Sept. 17, 1920, in Ralph Hay's Hupmobile showroom in Canton, Ohio, are not precise. The recording secretary, Art Ranney, somehow wrote down that 12 cities were represented instead of the actual 10, and if he got that wrong, then how many other things might he have misinterpreted or misrepresented or even, Yes, omitted?

How much did the founders of the National Football League know, and—as a congressional committee might ask—when did they know it?

The stated purpose of the meeting was "to raise professional football to the highest level." What did that mean? The cigar smoke of three quarters of a century ago clouds the picture. Papa Bear George Halas sits in one corner and Jim Thorpe, player and coach and the league's first president, sits in another, and hardworking men from hard places like Dayton and Akron and Hammond and Muncie are scattered throughout the room, leaning against the new cars. What were they thinking?

"What if we decide to move the kickoffs back to the 30-yard line and cut down the kicking tee to no more than one inch?" a voice suddenly asks from the smoke. "Wouldn't that give us more returns, more action?"

"What if we work out a gizmo inside a helmet that allows the coach on the sideline to talk to his quarterback on the field?" yet another voice asks. "That'll make it much easier to call the plays."

"What if we take $1.58 billion in television money from the Fox network for four years?" a third voice asks. "What would happen? Do you think Summerall and Madden would jump from CBS?"

Seventy-five years.

"Who are Summerall and Madden?" a voice asks. "What's a television network? What's television?"

How could anyone have known what would happen next?

"The membership fee for each of the 10 teams was $100, but as far as we can figure, not one penny ever changed hands." Joe Horrigan, curator and director of research at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, says. "These men were mostly banding together for survival. They felt player salaries were getting out of hand—does that sound familiar?—and they needed some control. These weren't rich men. Hay owned the Hupmobile franchise. Another man owned a cigar store. Halas was just the manager of his team, which was owned by the Staley Starch Company of Decatur, Illinois. I'm sure if any one of them walked in today and saw what was happening, he'd be astounded."

How could they have known?

The 75th NFL season dawns on Sunday, 13 games stretched across the coaxial cable, one more to follow on Monday night, and if Jim Thorpe wanted to play or coach or be the president, he would have to do a lot of hurried homework. True, the basic elements of the game might be familiar—man throws, catches and runs with football; man knocks other man's lard butt to the ground—but the rest would be a science-fiction buzz. The "highest level" that the game has reached is far beyond any 75-year-old levels of imagination.

The price for the last franchise sold on the open market, the New England Patriots, was $160 million. The admission fee for two expansion franchises, the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Carolina Panthers, who will begin play next year, was $140 million, an amount that does have to be paid, unlike the original $100. The salary cap for each team this year, instituted under a contract that runs until the year 2000 and gives the NFL the only settled labor situation in sports, is $34.6 million. The highest-paid player is quarterback Troy Aikman of the Dallas Cowboys, whose contract provides for an average of $6.25 million per year. A recent Harris Poll lists pro football as the nation's favorite sport, 24% of Americans saying they like it better than all other sports, 61% saying they follow it. The 1993 season had the highest total (13,966,843) and per-game (62,352) attendance in history. The Super Bowl of Jan. 30, 1994, was the most-watched television program in U.S. history.

On and on it goes. The game from the Hupmobile showroom—"All right, Columbus will play Rock Island on October 7"—has become America's every-week athletic adventure story for half of the calendar year. "America's Passion" is one of the NFL's advertising slogans, a play on baseball's longtime self-proclaimed status as America's Pastime. O.K., America's Passion. A visual game for a visual time. A visceral game for a visceral time. The players have become the stuntmen of sports, hurtling into one another, landing in the nation's living rooms. Every Sunday has become an extravaganza, a spectacle. Networks seem to rise or fall on whether they televise the games. Sums of money equal to the gross national product of some emerging countries are bet on the outcomes. On Super Sunday the entire country seems to stand still, the closest thing to an unofficial national holiday. Papa Bear has met Roone Arledge, who must have met...Steven Spielberg? George Lucas? Who?

"Pro football might be mankind's most highly publicized human endeavor," David Hill, the Australian-born president of the sports division of Fox Broadcasting, says as he discusses his network's plans for its high-priced acquisition.

Mankind's most highly publicized endeavor! How could anyone have known? What other human activities are routinely recorded from dozens of angles, the best pictures slowed down, frozen, then analyzed with a big X scrawled by an unseen hand over a particular movement only moments after it has occurred? What other events are analyzed for three days before they happen, then for three days after they happen, words flowing in a torrent about the ability of one big man to push another big man two feet to one side to allow yet another big man to pass? What other event has a man riding from city to city in his own personal bus to make $7.5 million shouting the word "Whoa!" for three hours a week loud enough for the entire country to hear?

The simple game at the core of the production has been dressed in these flashy, showbiz clothes. A separate techno-speak has been invented for basic functions, offenses and defenses changed into high-tech dance routines, computers sorting out mannerisms and tendencies, new personnel shuttling on and off the field with each change in down and distance. The equipment has become synthetic muscle, each innovation making players bolder and bolder. "I was around when the real face mask, the bird cage, came into being," Frank (Bucko) Kilroy, a guard from the 1940s and '50s, says. "The Chicago Bears had it. A lot of guys suddenly became very brave." The players have become bigger and faster, if not necessarily better. The collisions have become louder and—with a 16-game schedule, plus four or five exhibitions, plus playoffs—much more frequent.

"As a player, by the end of the season it is not a question of whether or not you're hurt, because everybody's hurt," Dr. Robert Huizenga, an internist for the Los Angeles Raiders for seven years, says. "It's a question of how hurt you are, where you are in the spectrum. I don't know how many players I'd see on an average game day, except that it was a lot. There always were a lot of people needing treatment."

How do these guys do what they do? That has become the basic attraction. Aren't they afraid? To stand on a sideline is to experience a foreign, elemental environment that is both scary and violent, even in scary and violent times. How do these guys do what they do? Trouble comes from all directions. A man could be laid flat, knocked cold in a moment. Or worse. This is not part of any usual job description, not part of any other normal game.

"Most people have never really played football, not full football in pads, not this kind of football," ESPN broadcaster Chris Berman says. "That gives it a larger-than-life aspect. In basketball, everybody's hit a 25-foot jump shot and knows what it feels like. Maybe you didn't have to shoot over Patrick Ewing, but you know what it feels like to make the shot. In baseball, maybe you didn't hit against Nolan Ryan, but you've probably stood at the plate and swung at a fastball. How many people have ever tried to keep a 285-pound defensive lineman from smothering the quarterback? You put on a helmet and you feel as if you're in a different world. How do guys even run with that helmet on, not to mention all the other equipment? That's your first thought. It's a foreign sensation just to have the helmet on your head."

Even if a man has played, he can watch what happens with amazement: How did I do the things these men do? How did I survive?

"I stood on the sidelines next to the team doctor in Cleveland watching my first game the season after I retired," says Calvin Hill, a running back with the Cowboys, the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Browns from 1969 to '81. "Someone really got hit on a particular play. I turned to the doctor and said, 'You'd better be getting out there, that guy really took a hit.' The doctor said, it's nothing. Calvin, you got hit three or four times a game like that.' Your mind just doesn't let you remember. I met a guy last year who said he met me in the nursery the day my son was born. His own son was born the same day. He said his biggest memory of the day was that I was really limping bad from some game, that I looked awful. I couldn't remember that at all. Just that my son was born. I think it's your wife who remembers better than you do, seeing you with all of the ice bags and stuff."

"I find myself watching games and saying, 'Wow, did I do that?' " Mike Singletary, linebacker for the Chicago Bears from 1981 to '92, says. "I don't like to watch games with other people. They'll say, 'How could he miss that tackle? How could he drop that ball?' They don't know all the things that are going on, whether someone is hurt or if he has emotional problems. This is a game—whether you're broke or getting divorced or if you robbed a bank or your mom is sick, whatever—where you'd better be going on all cylinders. People just don't know what's going on. Then, again, I find myself sometimes saying, 'Hey, why didn't he catch that ball?' "

Seventy-five years.

The game has never flown better across the American sky than it does right now. Baseball is on strike. Basketball has lost its biggest names. Hockey is hockey. Only a year ago there were labor problems in the NFL, and there were doubts about how much money the new television contract was going to provide, and there was talk about how boring the action had become—too many field goals cluttering up the scene. All those worries seem gone. The labor agreement has created movement and change on rosters, bad teams gaining at least the appearance of improvement, while at the same time the Cowboys have a chance to become the first team to win three Super Bowls in a row. The television money from Fox is yet another record. Rule changes have made the field goal less important.

"What has really surprised me is the effect a football team can have on a community," one of the league's new owners, Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots, says. "There are other things I could be doing with my money, but it wouldn't be doing as much good. My wife and I could give half a million dollars a year to the community in charity and it wouldn't have the effect that buying this team and keeping it here has had. A good football team can make everyone feel just a little bit better."

Pro football as a public service! Who could have thought of that? There will be the debates about the violence and the macho pretensions and the trash talking and the officiating and the inability of certain quarterbacks making "all that money" to throw a simple pass to a fullback in the flat; talk about steroid abuse and suspicious gambling lines and cheerleaders who don't even cheer. Hut none of that will stop the show from becoming bigger and bigger. The highest level could be even higher.

Seventy-five years.

"How about this?" a voice asks from that Hupmobile dealership. "If there's such a thing as television, then why don't we try instant replay? That way we can check on the calls by the officials, make sure they're right."


"Nan," another voice says. "It'll take too much time. People will be bored. Why don't we just add the option of a two-point conversion after a touchdown?"

PHOTOAPQuarterbacks like John Elway (7) give today's game Its glow, though Sammy Baugh (in 1942) could sling It with the best off them. PHOTOPETER READ MILLER[See caption above.] PHOTOACMEOne measure of the game's constancy is the punishment endured by the likes of Bronko Nagurski (left, in '34) and Hill. PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.[See caption above.] PHOTOAPThe pain remains the same, but the sheer numbers of injured, and their means of transport from the field, have changed. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER[See caption above.] PHOTOAL MESSERSCHMIDTScouting is far more scientific now than it was in '62, when Charger assistant Al Davis signed Walt Sweeney at his college finale. PHOTOAP[See caption above.]