The First NFL Football Game Wasn’t an NFL Game

Before the NFL, there was the APFA, but we’re getting way ahead of ourselves in the first sentence of this blog. There were other professional football games played before 1920, but the December 4th game was the first one hosted by the new American Professional Football Association (APFA).

What hung on that first game was the entire future of professional football as fans know it today. Americans had been playing something like football since shortly after the civil war, but most of the teams were college or farm teams.

Then some players and investors decided to get serious. They picked the right teams to play and the right place to play, landing the game in the famous-but-long-gone New York Polo Field.

With all those elements firing perfectly, the APFA took their shot, and they did it. The game played on December 4, 1920, convinced everyone that New York that Football was worthy of their attention.

It was the first die in a series of dominoes set to fall across the nation, turning the whole nation into ravenous football fans… well, close to it.

First Pro Leagues

William “Pudge” Heffelfinger |

The first paid games, where players like William “Pudge” Heffelfinger made a dime to play, were battles between athletic clubs, mostly in Pennsylvania.

For a $500 contract, Pudge played for the Allegheny Athletic Association. In 1892, they played the Pittsburgh Athletic Club. By 1896, the Allegheny team was all paid players, making it the first professional team.

There was one problem. They had no national league organization. Few records exist of those early games, a few pictures, and some stories.

Nobody could have imagined what the game would one day become.


Thorpe at the Olympics |

Leading up to the first game in 1920, in August of that year, internationally recognized athlete Jim Thorpe, met with planners in Canton, Ohio to create the APFA. His name is integral to the story of the NFL.

Thorpe was not only an Olympic champion—he came home with a gold medal in Stockholm in 2012—he also played professional baseball and he could play some mean football.

His inclusion in the formation of the league and the subsequent first game was critical to the success of the sport.

Present at that first meeting were the owners of four teams, the Akron Pros, the Canton Bulldogs (Thorpe’s team), the Cleveland Indians, and the Dayton Triangles.

They agreed that a league might have some value if Thorpe was president, so they nominated him for the role. In September they met again, named the new league, and elected Thorpe as the president.

The Polo Grounds

Number 20 is Thorpe |

Officially, the APFA organized several games in September, like rehearsals before the big show. The game at the Polo Grounds was to be the first polished showcase of the sport.

Organizers made sure the media knew about it and would be there to see Thorpe battle on the Gridiron. It was a match between the Buffalo All-Americans and the Canton Bulldogs.

Thorpe played for the Bulldogs, of course, but he wasn’t good enough to carry the team. The All-Americans had enough good players to beat them 7 to 3 in the end.

The New York press went nuts after the game, remarking on the professionalism and discipline of the clubs. It was a more lively game then they knew from watching college games.

Reports made their way into the rest of the country, and pretty soon everyone wanted in.

Two years after that first game, the APFA changed its name to the NFL. The first thing they did was develop teams in big cities, a departure from previous efforts.

To this day, the NFL remains a large city sport, as do most professional sports. We can all thank New York City for this.