The story of the National Football League is the greatest success story in the history of American sports. Baseball may always be called "the national pastime," but in recent decades pro football has become a national obsession. Pro football is now by far the most popular sport in America, its tens of millions of impassioned fans turning the NFL into a rapidly growing multibillion-dollar business. This fall, more than 17 million people will attend an NFL game in person; hundreds of millions more—an estimated three out of every four American men, women, and children—will watch at least one game on television. The league's championship game, the Super Bowl, will be celebrated next February as a virtual national holiday, the best day of the year not only for sports, but also for the television, advertising, and snack food industries.
Today, it's hard to believe that the National Football League, this behemoth of American sporting culture, was founded as a humble association of four teams you've never heard of—the Akron Pros, Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Indians, and Dayton Triangles—meeting in a Canton, Ohio automobile showroom after the close of business one night in 1920. None of the NFL's charter teams could even afford to pay the nominal franchise fee of $100 (worth about $1000 today). For years, the NFL struggled merely to survive. Its franchises collapsed with disturbing frequency—at least 43 short-lived NFL teams went defunct in the league's first dozen years of existence—as the pro game struggled to gain fans and establish its legitimacy in a sports world dominated by Major League Baseball, heavyweight boxing, and college football.
How did the NFL grow from a struggling federation of small-town Ohio football clubs into an unstoppable cultural and economic juggernaut? The story of the NFL is, in part, a story of savvy business decisions, as league executives figured out how to use the twentieth century's most powerful communications medium—television—to build pro football into the twenty-first century's most popular game. The story of the NFL is, in part, a story of racial conflict and progress, as the league moved from tolerance to segregation and, finally, back to tolerance. And the story of the NFL is, in part, a story of cultural resonance, as the Super Bowl grew from a mere football game, appealing mainly to male football fans, into a hoopla-laden midwinter fiesta that today attracts rapt viewers from every conceivable demographic.
But, to its fans, the story of the NFL is, most importantly, the story of the game itself.
For diehard pro football fans, the NFL history that matters most is the history of its great teams, unforgettable games, once-in-a-lifetime plays, and legendary players.
Since professional football emerged as a major American sport in the 1950s, a handful of great teams have dominated their respective eras. The Green Bay Packers, led by coaching legend Vince Lombardi, became the modern NFL's first true dynasty by winning five league championships—including the first two Super Bowls—in the 1960s. Lombardi's men transformed little Green Bay, Wisconsin, into "Titletown." The greatest team of the 1970s, the Pittsburgh Steelers, picked up where the Packers had left off, winning four titles behind an explosive offense and the intimidating "Steel Curtain" defense. In the 1980s, Joe Montana's San Francisco 49ers used their innovative new West Coast Offense—an attack based on precise, short passes—to become the league's elite franchise, winning five Super Bowls in a 13-year span. In the early 1990s, as the 49ers went into decline, the Dallas Cowboys of quarterback Troy Aikman and running back Emmitt Smith rebuilt themselves into the league's dominant force, winning three championships in four years. More recently, the New England Patriots became the first dynasty of the twenty-first century by winning three out of four Super Bowls from 2002 to 2005, then becoming the first NFL team since 1972 to make it through an entire regular season undefeated in 2007 (though that team suffered a shocking defeat in the Super Bowl). Which was the greatest team of all time? That's a question that a million barstool debates may never settle.
NFL dynasties were founded on legendary plays. There was "The Immaculate Reception," a crazy last-second carom that fell into the lucky hands of Pittsburgh running back Franco Harris for a game-winning touchdown against the Oakland Raiders in the 1972 playoffs. The play gave the Steelers their first-ever playoff win, opening the path to four Super Bowls. There was "The Catch," tight end Dwight Clark's leaping last-minute reception of a lofted Joe Montana pass, which edged the 49ers past the Dallas Cowboys in the 1982 NFC Championship Game and into their first of five Super Bowls.
As suggested by "The Immaculate Reception" and "The Catch," NFL fans have bestowed many of the sport's greatest games, plays, and players with unforgettable nicknames. Which was the greatest game in NFL history? Was it the "Ice Bowl," the Packers' hard-fought victory over the Cowboys in the 1967 NFL Championship Game, played in subzero temperatures on the "frozen tundra" of Green Bay's Lambeau Field? Or was it 1968's "Heidi Game," which featured an exciting last-minute comeback by the Oakland Raiders over the New York Jets—a comeback that TV viewers from coast to coast never saw because NBC cut away from the last minute of the game to begin airing the made-for-TV children's movie Heidi? Or perhaps the greatest game ever played was, in fact, "The Greatest Game Ever Played"—the name given to the 1958 NFL Championship matchup between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts.
Football's greatest individual players earned their own timeless monikers. Longtime NFL fans will never forget the gridiron exploits of old-time stars like Red "The Galloping Ghost" Grange, "Automatic" Otto Graham, Dick "Night Train" Lane, Lou "The Toe" Groza, and Chuck "Concrete Charlie" Bednarik, nor of modern-era stars like "First Down" Jim Brown, "Broadway Joe" Namath, O.J. "The Juice" Simpson, "Mean Joe" Greene, Walter "Sweetness" Payton, William "The Refrigerator" Perry, and Joe "Joe Cool" Montana. Current stars like Shawne "Lights Out" Merriman will hope to be remembered among the pantheon of nicknamed NFL legends long into the future.