A Brief History of the NFL

In the early days of American football, the best-known teams were college teams, mainly from the Northeast. But in the working-class manufacturing towns of the Midwest, teams from city athletic clubs played hard-fought games against one another. In order to gain an edge against other cities, clubs began paying money to recruit the best players.

In 1920, 14 teams made up the American Professional Football Association, which was renamed the National Football League two years later. “National” was a funny name for the league, since the teams were only from a small part of the nation.

The American Professional Football Association

These were the 14 teams that started the association that became the NFL. Only one of the teams was located outside the Midwest, and only two of these franchises are still playing today:

Akron Pros Dayton Triangles
Buffalo All-Americans Decatur Staleys (still playing as the Chicago Bears)
Canton Bulldogs Detroit Heralds
Chicago Cardinals (still playing as the Arizona Cardinals) Hammond Pros
Chicago Tigers Muncie Flyers
Cleveland Tigers Rochester Jeffersons
Columbus Panhandles Rock Island Independents

The All-America Football Conference

The NFL had a very hard time surviving in the 1930s and 1940s. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, many families didn't have enough money to feed themselves, let alone to pay to watch football games. The economy improved in the early 1940s, but the best football players had to fight in World War II. When the war ended in 1945, huge numbers of athletic young men were returning from military service. People had extra money to spend. The NFL's owners were looking forward to big profits.


The First Professional Football Player

In 1892, the Allegheny Athletic Association paid Pudge Heffelfinger $500 to play in a game against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club. That amount of money is equivalent to about $10,000 today. That sounds like a lot, but even a rookie in today's NFL makes nearly $20,000 per game, and most players make a lot more.

The Legendary Paul Brown

Paul Brown was perhaps the best football coach ever. He won state championships at Massillon High School in Ohio. Later, he won national championships with the Ohio State Buckeyes. So when he was appointed as the first head coach of the AAFC's Cleveland Browns, he was already famous—so famous that the NFL's Cleveland Rams left to become the Los Angeles Rams before they would have to compete with the Browns.

But in 1946, a competing league began to play: the All-America Football Conference. The AAFC put teams in many NFL cities, like Chicago and New York.

The NFL refused even to acknowledge the existence of this new league. In fact, when a major sports magazine included the AAFC in a football preview issue, the NFL banned that magazine's writers from its games! But there was no denying that the AAFC was popular. More people were going to AAFC games than to NFL games.

Paul Brown and his scouting staff for the Cleveland Browns did better than any other team in recruiting the most talented young players, and so they ended up dominating the AAFC during its four years of play. The fact that the Browns were so much better than any other team led to the league's downfall, which played its last game in 1949.

Three teams from the AAFC—the 49ers, the Browns, and the Baltimore Colts—joined the NFL the next year, while the other teams ceased to exist. It was another decade before the NFL faced another serious challenge from a new football league.

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