SI Vault
Myron Cope
October 13, 1969
In the decades that preceded the unblinking camera's eye, professional football was a very different life. Its famous figures can still be found—on a farm here, in a parlor there—and as they talk they evoke memories of an American sport—and an America—that is gone forever
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October 13, 1969

The Game That Was

In the decades that preceded the unblinking camera's eye, professional football was a very different life. Its famous figures can still be found—on a farm here, in a parlor there—and as they talk they evoke memories of an American sport—and an America—that is gone forever

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Originally the Duluth club was a fine semipro outfit called the Kelley-Duluths, having been named for the Kelley- Duluth Hardware Store. The Kelley-Duluths' opposition came largely from teams in nearby towns in the iron-ore range. But in 1923, in order to obtain a professional schedule, Dan Williams and three others—the trainer and two players—put up $250 apiece and bought a National Football League franchise for $1,000. Even then, the renamed Duluth Eskimos were able to arrange no more than seven, and sometimes as few as five, league games a season. Due bills piled up. Finally the four owners offered to make a gift of the franchise to Ole Haugsrud, by avocation the club's secretary-treasurer. To make the transaction legal, Haugsrud handed them a dollar, which the four men immediately squandered drinking nickel beer. The dollar they paid for those 20 beers would be one Dan Williams and his colleagues would never forget.

The year was 1926, and the struggling NFL was fighting for its life. C. C. Pyle had Red Grange under contract and with Grange as his box-office attraction was formulating his new nine-team league, to be known as the American Football League. Pyle spread the word that he also had signed the celebrated All-America back, Ernie Nevers, a handsome blond who, though just emerging from Stanford, had captured the nation's fancy. Nevers bore the imprimatur of Pop Warner, who before moving on to Stanford had coached Jim Thorpe at Carlisle and now rated Nevers superior to Thorpe. The NFL knew Nevers to be the only big name with whom the league could salvage its slim prestige, but NFL club owners took Pyle at his word, and they made no effort to sign Nevers .

Alone, Ole Haugsrud, a mild-looking little Swede, was skeptical. He had been a high-school classmate of Ernie Nevers in Superior, Wis. When he paid a dollar for the Duluth franchise he had it in the back of his mind to travel to St. Louis, where Nevers was pitching baseball for the St. Louis Browns, to see for himself if Pyle actually had Nevers under contract.

Ernie was very glad to see me, and I was glad to see him. I met with him and his wife at their apartment, and Ernie showed me a letter he had from C. C. Pyle. Ernie told me, "Ole, if you can meet the terms Pyle is offering in this letter, it's O.K. with me. I'll play for Duluth." And, really, that's all there was to it. I would have to pay Ernie $15,000, plus a percentage of the larger gates. I had the money to do it. I believe I was only 22 or 23 years old, but I had various holdings—buildings and things like that. I had inherited a little money.

Of course, I couldn't be certain that the league would give me the kind of schedule I needed to pay Ernie that kind of money, so what I did was sign Ernie to a document that gave me an option on his services. I didn't pay him 5� to sign. Oh, maybe I gave him a dollar to make it legal, but really a handshake was all Ernie wanted. A handshake with an old friend was good enough for Ernie.

The next thing I came home and got our ballplayers together. There were about 10 or 11 of them in town. I called a meeting in the office of Doc Kelly, a dentist across the bay in Superior. Doc played halfback for us—he played behind Johnny Blood—and was known as the Superior Tooth Carpenter. We met up at Doc's office in the evening, and I told the boys how much I would have to pay Ernie Nevers. I said, "Here's what it is. Now how much do you guys want?" They settled on $50 lose, $60 tie and $75 win. I said, "That's O.K. Now I'll go down to the league meeting in Chicago and see what I can do about a schedule."

The league meeting was at the Morrison Hotel, and it was getting on close to August, I believe. See, they didn't hold meetings way ahead of the season, because a lot of teams didn't know if they could operate for another year, and they had to get some funds behind them before they could go to a meeting. Anyway, in Chicago the first fellows I got hold of were Tim Mara of the New York Giants and George Halas of the Bears. I had called Tim Mara prior to that, and he was really the only one who knew about the contract I had with Ernie Nevers. He was like a father to me from the beginning. He said, "I'll tell you, kid. We got to do something here to make this a league." He said, "Now we'll go through with the regular meeting, and when it gets halfway through and you got two, three ball games, I will give you the high sign." There were 22 clubs in the league, you see, and none of the others knew we had Nevers on option. And, of course, none of them cared about playing us.

This was kind of a historic point for the National League, because here everybody was, sitting with the threat that Pyle had hanging over them, and the league really didn't know if it was going to operate again. So Mara said to me, "Wait till I highball you, and then you go up to the league president with your option on Nevers." Well, I waited and watched Mara, and when he signaled I took the option up to Joe Carr, who was being paid $500 to be league president. He read that little document and then looked up and said: "Gentlemen, I got a surprise for you!" He read the option paper aloud, and some of them out front got up and yelled like a bunch of kids. Carr said to me, "You've saved the league!" Everyone figured that Pyle not only had Grange and Wildcat Wilson and the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, but Ernie Nevers, too. So there was almost a celebration right there. But Tim Mara said, "Gentlemen, we got to make a league out of this, so we'll start all over by first rehiring the president and paying him a salary that means something." Mr. Mara made a motion, and we voted Joe Carr a salary of $2,500.

Then Mara said, "Now let's start over and get a new schedule." Well, we started putting down that 1926 schedule, and now everybody wanted to play me. I had 19 league games as fast as I could write them down. Before I got back to Duluth I had 10 exhibition games, too, which made a total of 29. And all because I had Nevers.

Now here's something I skipped. Mr. Mara had got up and said, "What we've got to do is to fill the ball parks in the big cities. So we've got to make road teams out of the Duluth Eskimos and the Kansas City Cowboys." He knew we would draw the big-city crowds with Ernie, and the Kansas City Cowboys were good at drawing crowds because they had a gimmick. When they arrived in a town they'd borrow a lot of horses and ride horseback down the main street. They rode horseback down Broadway and drew 39,000 people in New York.

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