As America, and now the World, gets ready for the 58th Superbowl we thought it might be fun to look back on some interesting facts about the history of the game, some interpretation of the development of team names and how far we’ve come since football first became an organized team sport in colleges in the 1860s and then recognized at a semiprofessional level in 1898.
And no, we do not plan to address how far we might have regressed in the past week or two with the Taylor Swift/ Travis Kelce conspiracy theory, Leave that to next year’s history lesson.
The first recorded semi-professional football team hailed from Chicago as the Morgan Athletic Club in 1898. As they formalized their team they moved to Racine Avenue in Chicago and
became the Racine Normals. They bought their first uniforms, used and faded, from the University of Chicago, causing players and fans to want to call them the Maroons, Instead, they called the faded color Cardinal Red and they become the Racine Cardinals. They had a group of competitors around the Midwest, one of whom hailed from Racine Wisconsin, creating a bit of confusion, forcing them to change their name once again, this time to Chicago Cardinals. The Normals may have been suffering from an identity crisis.
The Cardinals played teams close by, where perhaps you could get there by horse and buggy, or steam train, one of which was the Decatur (Illinois) Staleys named after a food company in the suburbs. “Papa Bear” George Halas, as sales rep for the company, played for the team and ultimately became GM and owner the team, sold by the Staley group for $100 when they ran into financial difficulties after the 1920 season, This team later was moved to Chicago and became the Chicago Bears, with uniforms matching the colors of Halas’s alma mater, U of Illinois,. The new owners used the home of the already established Chicago Cubs baseball team and were named the Bears as a stronger, larger, and more fierce animal than a cub.
The semi-pro league had setbacks early on ,with a number of teams coming in and out of the “league” in the first several years. Then came World War I in 1914 and the Spanish Flu in 1918 , the one-two punch that nearly decimated the game.
The NFL was established in 1920 under the name of American Professional Football Association and consisted of 12 Midwest teams and 2 from New York. This is the same year that football
broke the color barrier, long before baseball, with 9 players on the Akron Pros who won the first APFA championship in 1920. The first trophy awarded was inexplicably a set of Antlers, which was promptly lost and since never recovered.
Jim Thorpe, the famous Native American Olympian in the 1912 summer Olympics (decathlon and pentathlon) became the first “Commissioner”. He played football at Carlyle College in Pennsylvania with such notable players as Pop Warner. He played for 9 professional football teams from 1915-1928 where he was also served as coach. He also played baseball professionally from 1913-1919. (So Prime Time was not even close to the first man playing both sports in the same year!). Thorpe's Olympic medals were eventually stripped from him, 30 years after his death, because he was a professional athlete. He played professional sports until the Great Depression, until he was 41 years old. (41 in those days is like 71 in Tom Brady years).
Team names sometimes had to do with the sponsors. Curly Lambeau, the Packers founder, player and coach, worked for a packing plant that he convinced to fund the team. Paul Brown named his team, the Cleveland Browns, well...., after himself. He sold the team to Baltimore, who took on the name Ravens ,referring to Baltimore native Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “The Raven”. Today the Ravens' 3 mascots are named Edgar, Allen, and Poe.
The New York Giants were called the “Football Giants” as there was already the baseball Giants, rumored to be named after Skyscrapers, not Shrek. There were Football Indians, Football Braves, Football Dodgers, Football Tigers and Football Pirates; football added to their name to distinguish them from their baseball counterparts. The NY Jets were first named the Titans and upon sale in 1963 renamed the Jets due of their proximity to LaGuardia Airport, not their lifestyle. Their first planned name was the Boroughs, after the NY neighborhoods, but the owners feared they would be called the jackasses. Little did they know what time would tell.
The Los Angeles Buccaneers were the first team from the West, but they never played a game out West. Instead they played in Chicago. The Lions wanted a name as fierce as the Detroit Tigers, its baseball team, a far cry from their original name, the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans. They named themselves after the king of the jungle (except Lions don’t live in the jungle. Tigers do, nut not lions). The Brooklyn “Football Dodgers” became the first team to consider recording their games for future broadcast, buying two cameras in 1938, the beginning of "Real Money" in the NFL.
The only team to move the year after it won a championship was the Cleveland Rams who moved to LA in 1946. (Sorry Chargers fans, this seems a little worse than moving up the road to LA)
The Oakland Raiders first name was the Senors, but public revolt made them switch their name to the Raiders, chosen rather sensibly over the name Oakland Lakers. Imagine the fans coming to the game with life vests versus spiked arm bands!
The Chiefs are not named after the leader of a Native American tribe, but instead after the Mayor of Kansas City, who rescued the struggling Dallas Texans. His nickname was Chief – he did not wear an Indian headdress nor do the tomahawk chop. "America’s Team" was to show up later as the Cowboys. The Falcons were named in a contest won by a schoolteacher who described the bird as one that never dropped its prey. Let’s remind them to pick up some prey. The Jaguars were named for the oldest living jaguar in America, housed at the local zoo. They were later sued by the car company for mimicking its logo. Perhaps a little shortsighted for the best-looking car broken down on the side of the road.
As the NFL begins to play before international crowds- most recently in the last few years-in London, Germany and Mexico, the appeal of football is now a reality throughout the World. Sao Paulo, Brazil will be the first host city in South America in 2024 as the NFL expands its influence and magic in Latin America where ‘football’ aka "futball" is a different sport altogether. Super Bowl LVIII is expected to have an audience of 200 million+, with 65,000 patrons in person at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, in one of the smaller NFL stadiums, with some spectators paying as much as $9-10,000 per ticket, the most expensive Super Bowl in history. And the prices for NFL merch? .... fuhgeddaboudit.
Usher will headline the half time entertainment with Reba McEntire set to sing the Star Spangled Banner. Vegas books are taking bets on who may be the surprise guests. “No surprise” guest Taylor Swift is expected to get some publicity in the Kelce family suite, of course. No worries that she will make it on time from Tokyo!
It is also a notable American pastime to stick close to the TV during commercials to see the latest entertaining messages from sponsors who pay an average cost of $7 million for a 30 second ad. Bud Light, UberEats, Paramount+, Pluto TV, Hellmann's, Oreos and even the Kardashians and Lionel Messi will be featured in 2024. The real question , however, will be WWDD? “Who is the Dorito’s spokesperson going to be?”
Let’s get ready to rumble! Enjoy the party and the game this Sunday, or roam the quiet streets of America as the World gets ready to crown the Chiefs or the 49ers as champs. It is sure to be a rollicking good time. No surprise when people want to book a trip in February that I always ask if they are willing to miss the show. If you are a Cowboys, Eagles, Panthers or Pats fan the answer may be a resounding “yes”.