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Buffalo’s Forgotten Champions:

The Story of Buffalo’s First Professional Football Team

By Jeff Miller

Excerpted from his upcoming above titled book

Chapter One

Life Before the N.F.L.

Autumn Sundays have become ritual to the modern American. Not as days of worship, or as days of rest, or time set aside for family. Nor are they spent visiting relatives, performing household chores, shopping, or in any other active pursuit. The Sabbath in this country has been transformed from what our 18th and 19th century ancestors knew into a new tradition, rooted not in religious dogma but in the pseudo-religious fervor created by the game of professional football.

Over the past 40 years, beginning with the Baltimore Colts’ dramatic victory over the New York Giants in the 1958 National Football League championship game, football has supplanted baseball as America’s favorite sport. Historians cite the marriage of television with football as the beginning of the grid sport’s ascent, and the Colts-Giants game as the nuptials. The suspense and excitement produced by that game, considered by many to be the greatest ever played, froze fans in front of their little illuminated boxes. The audience grew throughout the contest as viewers called friends and urged them to tune in. By the time the Colts claimed victory on Alan Ameche’s overtime touchdown, an unprecedented 30,000,000 people were watching. Professional football had become mainstream, competing with baseball in the race for professional sports supremacy.

Identifying the root causes for pro football’s rise could occupy a team of sociologists and warrant a book. Social commentators have tried for years to define football’s appeal. One of comedian George Carlin’s best known monologues contrasts the two sports--giving the reasons why football is superior to baseball in almost every aspect.

Baseball is played in a park . . . football is played is a STADIUM! In baseball you wear a cap . . . In football you wear a HELMET! In baseball you make an error . . . in football you pay a PENALTY! In football we have the BLOCK! The KICK! The BLITZ! The BOMB! The OFFENSE! The DEFENSE! . . . in baseball we have the sacrifice . . .

Dan Daly and Bob O’Connell, authors of The Pro Football Chronicle, included a section called "100 Reasons Why Football is Better than Baseball" in their terrific book (Reason #100: "Because the Gallup Poll has said so since 1972.").

Football is a fast-paced sport in which either of the combatants can score at any time. Compared to baseball with its interminable season of 162 games stretching from April to October, football teams play on the average only one time every seven days over a 16-week period, thus making each game an event. Ticket holders gather at stadium parking lots hours before game time for a 20th-century phenomenon called the tailgate party, where the barbeque and touch football are as much a part of the experience as the actual game itself. Though some have tried, the tailgate simply does not translate well to the baseball park.

The electricity generated by the game of football is not a contemporary phenomenon. Gridiron fervor can be traced back to the time when it was strictly an intercollegiate pursuit. University and regional loyalty resulted in heated rivalries. Students, families, and, more important, fans packed parks (later stadiums) and rooted for their favorite teams. Cheering sections became bigger and louder; pep rallies and booster clubs became requisite for the big teams at Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Notre Dame. Fans and alumni displayed their allegiances by carrying pennants or donning team colors at games. The college game became big business as ticket sales went from the thousands to the tens of thousands to the hundreds of thousands and eventually to the millions. The money being made by the big colleges drove their need to stay competitive. In order to compete, a school had to have good players. And to get the good players, the colleges often had to provide incentives.

The question of universities providing compensation to players is a topic of heated debate. Revisionist history, however, has demonstrated that the first "professionals" were actually collegians, paid in one form or another for their athletic performance. Although there is no evidence that cash money ever changed hands among the college ranks, some early Ivy League ball players were provided with room, board, and other indirect compensation as early as the 1880s.

Despite this, it is generally accepted that "pro" football, in which players received actual cash payment for services, began in the mining towns of western Pennsylvania. The first player known to have accepted cash for playing football was William "Pudge" Heffelfinger, an all-American guard from Yale, who was paid $500 in 1892 to play a single game for the Allegheny (Pennsylvania) Athletic Association against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club. Though $500 was a large sum for the day, the Allegheny club no doubt felt justified in paying it, as Heffelfinger scored the only touchdown of the game, giving his team a 4 to 0 victory (four points being the value of a touchdown at the time). The success of the Heffelfinger experiment signaled a new direction for the game, as other athletic and social clubs sought the best players in the nation to play for them. Such clubs were springing up in nearly every municipality in the late 1800s, and rivalries inevitably followed. Teams signed the best players available in an unending effort to stay competitive. Eventually, teams were made up in whole or large part of such mercenaries. In August 1895, the inevitable happened as the first generally-recognized professional football game, in which both teams were fully compensated, was played at Latrobe, Pennsylvania between the hometown YMCA club and a team from Jeannette, Pennsylvania. The Latrobe team won, 12 to 0.

The first pro teams were in actuality semi-pro, meaning the players had real jobs during the week to supplement the stipend they received for playing football on the weekends. Sundays were chosen as the usual day for the pro games, as college ball was the established king on Saturdays. Besides, many of the players on the pro squads were still active on their school teams.

Many of the early pros sprang from the laboring classes, such as miners and railroad workers, whose rough and rugged nature was well-suited for the violence and struggle of the grid game. Football was then, as it is today, a violent sport in which all participants were prone to serious injury. Protective equipment, what there was of it, covered very little of a player’s frame. The uniform generally consisted of shin guards and a canvas smock with sewn-in knee pads. Helmets were not yet commonplace; players desiring head protection more often opted for a small knit cap featuring team colors. Football shoes were high-topped with hard leather spikes screwed into a metal plate in the sole. The ball itself was nearly spherical, being derived from the type used in rugby. It was constructed of leather panels stitched together to form its basic shape, with an internal rubber bladder which, when inflated, gave it rigidity. The shape closely resembled that of a basketball, which made it difficult to throw, but at that early stage forward passing was still a thing of the future.

American football is a hybrid of the European sports of rugby and soccer. In fact, the earliest form more closely resembles rugby than the game we know today. The first eleven-man football, with rules remotely related to those in use today, appeared in the early 1880s. The "T" formation was the typical offensive configuration of the day, with seven linemen (two ends, two tackles, two guards, and a center) and four backs (right and left halfback, fullback and quarterback). The linemen took their position across the line of scrimmage, with the center snapping the ball to one of the backs to start each play. The quarterback stood directly behind the line, with the fullback and halfbacks about a yard behind the quarterback. Opposing teams moved the ball down the field in a unified, compact formation, resembling the so-called scrum of the game’s ancestor. Mass-momentum plays, such as the "flying wedge," in which a team rammed into its opponent at full force in an effort to advance the ball, came into vogue in the early 1890s. The concept of the mass-momentum play was conceived by the legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg, coach at Springfield College. He devised a play, called "ends back," in which both offensive ends were set in the backfield. Just before the ball was snapped, the ends would rush toward the line to gain the advantage of momentum over the inert opposition. Stagg also used "guards back" and "tackles back" plays, based on the same principle.

Mass momentum did not remain in use for very long. In fact, it was virtually nonexistent by the end of the decade. Such plays were dangerous, and many severe injuries resulted. Reforms came along to make the game a little safer. Deception plays, in which an offense attempted to trick its opponent rather than pulverize it, gradually replaced momentum as an offensive tactic. Quarterbacks became ball handlers, faking a pitch or handoff to one player, then handing off to another. Backs crisscrossed in the backfield to throw off would-be tacklers.

Despite new approaches and attempts at reform, the game remained a hazardous affair. Minor injuries such as bloody noses, gashes, even broken teeth and fingers, were an accepted part of it all. By the turn of the century, helmets began to show up with more regularity. Made of hard leather, these so-called "head-harnesses" contained padded lining and ear-flaps to protect against overzealous tacklers. Shoulder pads first appeared at about the same time.

Despite its best effort, the early pro game was still considered the poor stepchild to its college counterpart. The public perceived the amateur game as pure, in contrast with the prostituted type played by those being paid for their services. Promoters were more likely to lose money than make it as purists initially scoffed at pro ball. For this reason, pre-20th century pro games lacked the spectacle and electricity generated by the large crowds at college contests.

Professional football in its infancy followed the rules of the college game. Kicking was the primary tactic of the game, as a field goal counted for more points (five) than a touchdown (four). Punting was considered more of an offensive than a defensive weapon as well, being used strategically to improve a team’s field position for its next possession. This explains why all of the great players of the era were adept at kicking along with the other aspects of the game.

Many of the rules in use today were adopted in the early 1900s. The forward pass was legalized, but was not initially permitted in front of an imaginary line that was drawn from sideline to sideline five yards behind the line of scrimmage. However, the shape of the ball and the five-yard restriction impeded the growth of the aerial game. And there were other hazards. An incomplete pass, like a kick, could be recovered by either team once touched by an offensive player. If an errant pass went out of bounds, it was awarded to the opponent.

Plays were called at the line of scrimmage, as the huddle had not yet been conceived. The quarterback barked out a numbered or lettered signal which informed his team of his intentions. There were no hashmarks on the field. The ball was snapped from the spot where the previous play had ended, no matter how close to the sidelines it might have been. If a runner was forced out of bounds, the ensuing play was begun just inside the out-of-bounds line, necessitating a shift of all the offensive linemen to the field side of the ball, and thus tipping the opposition of the general direction of the play. A ball carrier was not ruled down until he surrendered, indicating his capitulation by shouting "down" when he had had enough.





In the face of political pressure, the major schools took steps to minimize football-related injuries, which continued to soar in spite of earlier attempts at reform. Shocked by the sight of bloodied ball players and the report of 18 football-related deaths in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to ban football altogether. This led to the formation of a rules committee, which outlawed hurdling fallen players and the use of linemen in the backfield. Many historians, however, point to the creation of the "neutral zone" as the committee’s most important early innovation. Hitherto, opposing linemen lined up head-to-head prior to the beginning of each play. Scuffling, even fisticuffs, would result, leading to full-blown melees which delayed play for several minutes while the officials attempted to restore order. The neutral zone laid an imaginary line as wide as the length of the ball between the opposing teams, thus eliminating contact before the snap of the ball. A third official, the linesman, was added to the officiating team, which previously consisted of just the referee and the umpire.

The rules committee extended the "yards-to-go" distance for a first down from five to ten, and later increased an offense’s number of "downs" (total number of plays allowed before an offense must either score or make another first down) from three to four. In 1912, the modern scoring system was adopted, with the value of a touchdown placed at six points, a field goal at three points, a safety two points, and the point-after-touchdown one (there was no two-point conversion).

The early 1910s saw the advent of the single wing (invented by legendary coach and Springville, New York, native Glenn "Pop" Warner), a sort-of precursor to the modern shotgun offense, as the preferred offensive formation. The hub of the pro football world began to shift from western Pennsylvania to Ohio. Many pro teams began springing up across the Buckeye State, luring players away from the Quaker State with offers of better money. The Massillon Tigers (1905) were the first Ohio-based pro team, with the Canton Bulldogs formed soon thereafter in response to a challenge from Massillon (this rivalry existed only a couple of seasons, as Canton folded prior to 1910). Other Ohio cities, such as Akron, Youngstown, and Shelby, followed suit with strong teams of their own.

The Canton team was reformed in 1915 by 21-year-old Jack Cusack, who found just the man who could draw the big crowds and lend the credibility the pro game had been coveting. That man was Jim Thorpe, considered the greatest athlete alive after winning gold medals in both the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics. Thorpe was named player/captain of the Bulldogs, and received for his services a salary of $250 per game. This was an astronomical sum in a day when the average player was earning anywhere from $25 to $100 per game.

There was no compact or charter banding the pro teams together into a cooperative league. Games were played against traditional rivals or teams from neighboring cities. It was evident early on, however, that the Ohio experiment had validity. The strength of the Ohio teams and the presence of Jim Thorpe eventually led to recognition of the so-called "Ohio League" as the major pro alliance. Championship titles were awarded to the team with the best record, which led to much confusion because each team made its own schedules and played different teams and numbers of games. With Thorpe as its focal point, Canton dominated the Ohio League, losing the title only once between 1916 and 1919. The championship of 1918 was won by the Dayton Triangles, in a season marked by mass defection as players enlisted for military service.

Another top Ohio team was the Columbus Panhandles, managed by Joseph F. Carr. The Panhandles were named for a division of the Pennsylvania Railroad, on which many of the team’s players toiled. Most prominent among the Panhandles were the rough and rugged Nesser brothers, seven of whom played for the club at one time or another. Ted Nesser, who played nearly every position on the field, also coached the team. The Nesser faction also included John, Phil, Fred, Frank, Al, and Raymond (an eighth Nesser, Ted’s son Charlie, joined the Panhandles in 1921). Because the railroad company allowed its employees to travel for free, the team played the majority of its games on the road.

Other teams in the Ohio loop included the Toledo Maroons, Cincinnati Celts, Dayton Triangles (champions in 1918), and the Akron Indians. The Indians became the first fully professional team to employ an African American player when they signed Fritz Pollard of Brown University in 1919.

Quality pro ball was not exclusive to the Buckeye State. The Rock Island (Illinois) Independents, Hammond (Indiana) All-Stars, Racine (a street in Chicago) Cardinals, Detroit Heralds, and Providence Steam Roller all had good teams that regularly played the Ohio league teams. In 1919, the Green Bay (Wisconsin) Packers were formed.

Upstate New York enjoyed a surge in the popularity of semi-pro football in the late 1910s, with two viable teams playing in the post-World War I era: the Rochester Jeffersons and the Buffalo Prospects. The Queen City had had semi-pro teams since the early 1900s, one of the first being an athletic association team representing the Oakdale Club. Adam, Meldrum, & Anderson, a local department store, also had a team. The Buffalo All-Stars, led by captain Eugene Dooley and featuring tackle Barney Lepper and the Bleich brothers, were the city’s most prominent semi-pro team in the mid-1910s. By 1918, Buffalo had a four-team circuit, called the Buffalo Semi-Pro Football League, featuring the Pierce-Arrows (sponsored by the automobile maker), the Hydraulics (backed by a war manufactory), the Niagaras (representing shoe manufacturer Warren D. Patterson), and the Pittsburgh Stars. The best of these teams was the Niagaras, featuring former Michigan quarterback Ernest "Tommy" Hughitt and Lepper, formerly a star lineman at Lafayette High School in Buffalo. Named for a street on the city’s west side, the Niagaras won the league title with a record of five wins and no losses.

The Buffalo semi-pro league experiment lasted for just one season. In 1919, team manager Lepper attempted to put together a squad that could compete on a higher level, even with the titans of the Ohio league. Calling his team the Prospects, Lepper brought in several former local high school stars to fill out the roster, including his former Lafayette teammate Bill Gehring, as well as Torchy Sullivan and Austin Lake of Masten Park High fame, and lineman John Rupp, a veteran of local semi-pro ball. Though still a rung or two down the ladder from the elite clubs of Ohio, Lepper’s gridders gave Buffalo its first proper team. The Prospects started out playing against traditional local squads, such as Gene Dooley’s West Buffalos and teams from Tonawanda, LeRoy, Syracuse, and the Prospects’ progenitor, the Niagaras. Their first and only meeting with an Ohio team was played against the Cleveland Panthers, resulting in a convincing 25 to 0 victory.

After accumulating an impressive 9 and 1 record, the inevitable challenge came from the other New York State powerhouse, the Rochester Jeffersons. Both clubs laid claim to the dubious state title, so a game was scheduled for Thanksgiving Day at Rochester, with the winner to be named champion. The game, however, ended in a scoreless tie. Neither team was satisfied, so a second meeting was scheduled for the following Sunday at Buffalo. The hometown boys were ready this time, laying a 20 to 0 shellacking on the Rochester eleven and claiming the 1919 state title.

Playing at one of the half positions for Rochester was a speedy Haitian named Henry McDonald. One of the first blacks to play pro ball, McDonald starred on several Western New York teams between 1911 to 1920, including the All-Lancasters and the All-Buffalos, as well as teams from Oxford and Syracuse. Not unlike the other handful of African Americans playing in the pre-N.F.L. era, McDonald was subjected to rough treatment from teams in nearly every city which he played. One such incident occured in a 1917 game between Syracuse and the Canton Bulldogs. While carrying the ball toward the sidelines on a running play, McDonald was shoved out of bounds with excessive force by Canton end Earle "Greasy" Neale. As McDonald recalled years later, Neale cocked his fists at the end of the play and spat, "Black is black and white is white, and where I come from, the two don’t mix!" McDonald, a former boxer, prepared to defend himself, but Jim Thorpe intervened. "We’re here to play football," Thorpe announced.

"Thorpe’s word was law on the field," McDonald remembered. He had no more problems with Neale after that.

The proliferation of quality football clubs across the Great Lakes states inevitably led to team jumping, as each city sought the best players in the country to play for them. Because there was no compact or agreement among the teams, players were free to move from team to team, sometimes donning two or more different uniforms in the space of a week. Most of the pro teams were also using undergraduates, which created a furor among college coaches and purists who felt that playing football for money besmirched the integrity of the game. The pro game’s poor image was in no small part responsible for keeping the sport at the bottom of the athletic pecking order, and thus teams were finding it difficult to attract enough spectators to cover player salaries. It was at this critical juncture that interested parties began entertaining the idea of forming a national professional league.

History was made on Friday, August 20, 1920, as representatives from four prominent professional football clubs convened in the Canton, Ohio, office of Hupmobile dealer Ralph E. Hay for the purpose of forming a cooperative league. Hay had taken over management of the hometown Bulldogs from Jack Cusack in 1918, and, along with Jim Thorpe, was there to represent the Canton team in the league’s first meeting. Also present were Carl Storck of the Dayton Triangles, Frank Neid and Art Ranney of the Akron Pros, and Jimmy O’Donnell and Stan Cofall of the Cleveland Tigers. According to Bulldogs on Sunday, published by the Professional Football Researchers Association, teams from Rochester, New York, and Hammond, Indiana, applied for membership by letter. Despite many accounts to the contrary, there is no proof that such a missive came from parties representing the city of Buffalo in western New York. "It’s not so clear that a letter . . . came from Frank McNeil of the Buffalo All-Americans," assert the authors. "The All-Americans were a new team that hadn’t operated in 1919. . . . On the other hand, historians have always included the All-Americans as charter members of the 1920 league." However, due to the fact that the Buffalo team played mostly semi-pro outfits in the first part of the 1920 season, these same historians are left with some reservation as to whether the team was in fact a member of the association at its inception. Regardless, at least two important things came out of this otherwise anticlimactic meeting. First, it was decided that the league would be called the American Professional Football Conference, and second (and, perhaps more significantly), the group scheduled a second meeting for the following September 17.

Hay again donated the use of his office for the second meeting of the A.P.F.C., but the turnout proved greater than anticipated and had to be moved into the showroom. Joining the reps from the August 20 meeting were Walter H. Lanigan of the Rock Island (Illinois) Independents, Dr. Alva A. Young of the Hammond Pros, Earl Ball of the Muncie Flyers, Chris O’Brien of the Racine Cardinals, Leo Lyons of the Rochester Jeffersons, and Morgan O’Brien and George Halas of the Decatur Staleys. There weren’t enough seats to go around, so some leaned against Hay’s cars or sat on the running boards. Bootleg beer was served in buckets.

Despite the seemingly informal atmosphere, the team representatives were able to accomplish a great deal. Among the more significant decisions was the renaming of the new league to the American Professional Football Association (as opposed to Conference). Jim Thorpe was named league president (forerunner to the office of commissioner). Thorpe’s name would bring instant credibility and recognition to the association, and the founding fathers did not hesitate to exploit their most valuable resource. The fee for membership in the A.P.F.A. was set at $100. In order to ensure franchise stability and curtail team jumping, the representatives agreed to honor existing player contracts, and each team was ordered to submit rosters. They also agreed not to use undergraduate players. A three-man committee was appointed to frame a constitution.

The charter members of the A.P.F.A. were for the most part well-established teams. The Canton Bulldogs had been around since 1915, when Jack Cusack reformed the franchise which had folded a few years earlier. The Bulldogs were the universally-recognized powerhouse of the pro game, having won the so-called Ohio League title three of the previous four seasons. They were led by Thorpe, the great Native American Olympian, whose celebrity provided the greatest gate attraction of the fledgling association. The Bulldogs boasted two other future Hall-of-Famers in lineman Wilbur "Pete" Henry and halfback Joe Guyon, as well as star end Pete Calac.

Perhaps the oldest team was the Chicago Racine Cardinals (known today as the Arizona Cardinals). Named for a street in the Windy City, the Cards were actually formed in the late 1890s as the Morgan Athletic Club. Another "old" team was the Columbus Panhandles, formed in 1904 by Joseph F. Carr. Though they never took home a championship, the Panhandles were always contenders, led by the tough-as-nails Nesser brothers. Other teams included the Akron Pros, which featured star halfback Fritz Pollard (the first African American to play full time for a major professional football team), Dayton Triangles, Rochester Jeffersons, Rock Island Independents, Hammond Pros, and Detroit Heralds. Prominent among the newly-formed teams joining the association were the Decatur Staleys. The Staleys were intended as a semi-pro outfit representing the A. E. Staley Starch Manufacturing Company in Decatur, Illinois. In March 1920, Mr. Staley offered former Hammond end and New York Yankee outfielder George Halas a job, with the understanding that Halas would form a football team which would act as an advertising vehicle for the company. When the new national pro league was organized, Halas the visionary was on hand to get the Staleys in on the ground floor. The Staleys, who would become the Chicago Bears in 1922, finished at or near the top of the league standings in each of its first six seasons, and 80 seasons later is one of only two original teams still in existence (the other being the Cardinals).

The Buffalo All-Americans, despite the unresolved question as to point of origin, would be a major player in the association by mid-October of that first season. Several top semi-pro teams either declined or were not invited to join the A.P.F.A., including the Staten Island Stapletons (formed in 1915), Providence Steam Roller (1916), and the Frankford Yellow Jackets and Green Bay Packers (both 1919).

Introduction | Chapter II




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