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Forward Progress
Leigh Montville
September 05, 1994
A modest collection of teams in the heartland has grown in 75 years into a colossus—and America's favorite game
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September 05, 1994

Forward Progress

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

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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."

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