One hundred years ago today, what would become the National Football League was formed in a car dealership in Canton, Ohio.
Nov. 12, 1892
Pudge Heffelfinger is paid $500 to play to a football game for the Allegheny Athletic Association, making him the first professional football player. In that first game, Heffelfinger picks up a Pittsburgh Athletic Club fumble and runs 35 yards for a game-winning touchdown. Although people knew about the payment, it wouldn't become officially known for years.
Sept. 3, 1895
The first football game played between two fully professional teams – Latrobe Athletic Association and the Jeannette Athletic Club – is played in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Latrobe wins 12–0.
Several baseball clubs – including the Philadelphia Athletics, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies – form football teams and to play a championship tournament called the World Series of Football. The league lasts only two seasons.
Ohio – the hotbed of professional football at the time – is rocked with accusations that the Canton Bulldogs intentionally threw a game at the behest of gambling interests.
A reformed Canton Bulldog club signs former Olympian and Carlisle Indian School standout Jim Thorpe to a contract. Thorpe will become the face of professional football for the next several years.
Aug. 20, 1920
Eleven franchises – most from Ohio – send representatives to meet at a Hupmobile car dealership in Canton, Ohio. Unable to fit into the office, the representatives sit on the running boards and fenders of the $3,000 showroom cars and drink cold beer from bottles in ice buckets during their meeting. They agree to form the American Professional Football Conference and to meet again a month later to finalize arrangements for that season.
Sept. 17, 1920
The league renames itself the American Professional Football Association, adds two teams from New York and two from the Detroit area and loses a few others. Thorpe – who, at age 32, still plays for the Canton Bulldogs – is elected president.
Sept. 26, 1920
The Rock Island Independents shut out the St. Paul Ideals 48-0 in Rock Island, Illinois, in the first APFA game. Out of the 14 teams that start play that month, only four – Akron, Buffalo, Canton, and Decatur – will finish the season. Akron will finish undefeated and will be crowned league champions.
The APFA begins its second season with 22 teams – among them is the Green Bay Packers, founded in 1919, but only now joining the league. The league championship that year will be decided by a tiebreaker.
June 24, 1922
The APFA changes its name to the National Football League.
Several college stars join the NFL – most notably Red Grange of the University of Illinois. The Chicago Bears take Grange on a national barnstorming tour, playing local club teams. This wins big notice for the NFL.
Seeking to place a franchise in New York City, the NFL talks bookmaker Tim Mara into starting a club for a $500 investment. The team is called the New York Football Giants, to distinguish it from the baseball club.
Dec. 12, 1925
The league champion Pottsville Maroons schedule a game against an all-star team of former Notre Dame stars in Philadelphia. NFL President Joe Carr had warned the Maroons not to play that day – the game coincided with a league-sanctioned game by the Frankford Yellow Jackets. The Maroons play anyway and win 9-7, but Carr strips the Maroons of their title and their franchise.
The NFL has grown to 25 teams. A rival league, the American Football League, is formed but lasts only one season.
The Portsmouth Spartans, who have played since 1928, join the NFL. In 1934, the Spartans will relocate to Detroit and become the Lions.
The Boston Braves with owner George Preston Marshall join the NFL. Over time other NFL owners will emulate Marshall's whites-only policy for players.
Dec. 18, 1932
With the Chicago Bears and the Portsmouth Spartans tied with the best regular-season records, the league votes to hold its first official playoff game in Chicago. Because of bitter cold weather, the game is held indoors at Chicago Stadium, on a field that is shortened to just 60 yards goal line to goal line. Officials change a number of rules, including not allowing field goals and drop kicks. The Bears win 9–0.
The playoff game is so well-received that the league reorganizes into two divisions for the next season, with leaders facing off in a league championship game. In addition, rules are changed so that every play starts between the hash marks, and forward passes can originate from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage, rather than 5 yards behind it.
Feb. 8, 1936
The first annual NFL draft of college players is held.
Oct. 22, 1939
The Brooklyn Dodgers defeat the Philadelphia Eagles 23-14 in New York’s Ebbets Field in the first televised NFL game.
A wartime shortage of players causes the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia franchises to temporarily combine as the “Steagles.” The next year Pittsburgh would team up with the Chicago Cardinals as the “Card-Pitts” and in 1945, the Brooklyn Dodgers would merge with the Boston Yanks.
The Cleveland Rams move to Los Angeles, becoming the first of several major sports franchises to relocate to the West Coast.
The Rams, hoping to play in the Los Angeles Coliseum, are told by local officials that the coliseum was built with public funds, therefore it cannot be rented by a segregated team. The Rams sign two Black players, leading the league to reintegrate.
A rival pro league, the All-America Football Conference, shuts down. Three teams are absorbed into the NFL: The Cleveland Browns – who had won the AAFC title all three seasons – the San Francisco 49ers, and the Baltimore Colts. The remaining players of the AAFC are allowed to enter a dispersal draft by the 13 teams of the NFL.
The Dallas Texans franchise shuts down. It and the Colts from the AAFC become the last two NFL franchises to become defunct. The next season, a new Baltimore Colts franchise is formed to take over the assets of the Texans.
A players' union is formed.
Dec. 28, 1958
The nationally televised 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium ends in a 17-point tie. This becomes the first NFL game to go into sudden death overtime, in which the Colts defeat the Giants 23-17. What becomes known as "the Greatest Game Ever Played" plays a huge role in promoting the popularity of the NFL over other professional sports.
A group of frustrated would-be NFL team owners forms a new rival league – the fourth to bear the name American Football League. With the exception of Los Angeles and New York, the AFL avoids placing teams in markets where they would compete with NFL franchises. With media-savvy leadership, the AFL signs a TV contract and institutes revenue-sharing protocols that promote financial health of the new clubs.
Highly prized quarterback Joe Namath of the University of Alabama turns down an offer from the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals and signs with the New York Jets of the AFL for an astronomical – at the time – $427,000.
June 8, 1966
Dallas Cowboys General Manager Tex Schramm and AFL founder Lamar Hunt negotiate a deal to merge the two leagues. While the merger will phase in over the next four years, the two league champions will begin playing in an annual year-end game that will become known as the Super Bowl.
The leagues become fully merged, dividing into two conferences – a National Conference with former NFL teams and an American Conference with former AFL teams. The exception: Three NFL teams – the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Cleveland Browns and the Baltimore Colts – move to the AFC to help even out the divisions.
Sept. 21, 1970
The Cleveland Browns defeat the New York Jets 31-12 in the first Monday Night Football game, nationally televised by ABC-TV.
July 10, 1974
Another rival operation, the World Football League, begins playing. It will siphon away a number of NFL stars but will last only two seasons.
March 7, 1983
Yet another rival league, the USFL, begins playing – starting out by luring away big-name players. It’ll have success at first, playing a spring schedule, but will then move to a fall schedule to compete directly with the NFL. The league will collapse in 1986.
Feb. 3, 2001
The XFL – a league backed NBC-TV and the World Wrestling Federation – begins play with an array of rule changes to make the game more splashy and viewer-friendly. The experiment lasts only one season.
Oct. 2, 2005
The NFL holds its first regular-season game outside the U.S, when the Arizona Cardinals defeat the San Francisco 49ers in Mexico City. In 2017, the league will begin playing regular games there and in London.
Why no New York Jets? The Jets won an AFL title in 1968 and then went on to win the Super Bowl... which was not yet the NFL championship game. The first Super Bowl to serve as the championship game of the NFL was Super Bowl V on Jan. 17, 1971, in which the Baltimore Colts – which had moved from the old NFL to the new American Football Conference – defeated the Dallas Cowboys 16-13.
Sources: “America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation” by Michael MacCambridge, “NFL Century: The One-Hundred-Year Rise of America’s Greatest Sports League” by Joe Horrigan, Canton Repository, Pro Football Hall of Fame, NFL.com, History.com