Study Guide

NFL History

NFL History Introduction

The NFL is mighty today, but believe it or not, has a humble past. 

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 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 $1,000 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.

So, 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 20th century's most powerful communications medium—television—to build pro football into the 21st century's most popular game. The story of the NFL is also 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 lastly, 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.

What is NFL History About and Why Should I Care?

If you're like most Americans, you probably have a favorite NFL team. You probably watch games on TV and if you're lucky enough to live in a city with an NFL team, you may well shell out for spendy game tickets to cheer them on live. 

No matter where you live, you almost certainly watch the Super Bowl—even if it's just to check out the new commercials. If you're not wearing an NFL team logo-bearing hat, t-shirt or jacket today, you'll almost certainly run into somebody who is. 

The NFL, it seems, has become an unavoidable presence in American popular culture. 

  • But how did this happen?
  • When did the NFL become America's most popular sport?
  • When did Sunday become "game day?"
  • When did the Super Bowl become a kind of unofficial national holiday?
  • How in the world did the National Football League—an outfit founded in a Canton, Ohio automobile showroom—become the most powerful cultural, social, and economic force in American sports?

We've got the answers here. Game on.

NFL History Resources

Books

Rob Fleder, ed., Sports Illustrated: The Football Book (2005)
Since it began publication in 1954, Sports Illustrated magazine has been America's premier organ of high-quality sports journalism. The magazine's Football Book collects half a century's worth of the magazine's best football writing and photographs, compiling it into one beautiful package. This coffee-table book brings the rich history of the NFL to life.

Charles Kenyatta Ross, Outside the Lines: African-Americans and the Integration of the National Football League (1999)
Charles K. Ross' Outside the Lines is the best book-length history of the African-American experience in pro football. Particularly interesting are the early sections of the book, in which Ross explores the all-but-forgotten histories of early Black gridiron pioneers like 1920s star Fritz Pollard.

George Plimpton, Paper Lion (1966)
George Plimpton was one of the greatest American journalists of the 20th century. In 1963, hoping to gain material to write a piece on how an ordinary person might fare if he attempted to play professional sports, Plimpton went undercover in the Detroit Lions training camp, trying to pass as a backup quarterback prospect. The book provides a truly one-of-a-kind look into the pro game in the early years of its phenomenal growth.

Don Weiss with Chuck Day, The Making of the Super Bowl: The Inside Story of the World's Greatest Sporting Event (2003)
Since its introduction in 1967, the Super Bowl has become, well, the Super Bowl of sporting events. The behind-the-scenes story of the game's creation and growth is more interesting than most of the actual Super Bowl games have been, and author Don Weiss—a longtime executive in the NFL office who oversaw Super Bowl operations for decades—offers the definitive insider account in The Making of the Super Bowl. The writing here won't win any awards, but the content is interesting enough to carry the day.

Mark Yost, Tailgating, Sacks, and Salary Caps: How the NFL Became the Most Successful Sports League in History (2006)
The NFL isn't merely a sports league—it's a hugely successful business. Yost's Tailgating, Sacks, and Salary Caps offers a solid analysis of the factors that led to the NFL's extraordinary economic success, and warns that a handful of contemporary owners who desire to change the NFL's "socialistic" revenue-sharing plan risk destroying a near-perfect system.

Music

Justin Timberlake, FutureSex / LoveSounds (2006)
Justin Timberlake. Accomplice, innocent bystander, or dupe in Janet Jackson's Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction" halftime scheme? Whatever the case may be, the controversial event may have helped Timberlake complete his transformation from a sweet ex-boy band member into a salacious singing sensation.

Diana Ross, The Definitive Collection (2006)
Diana Ross, one of the founding members of the Supremes, wasn't simply one of the most beautiful Super Bowl performers of the 1980s, but also one of the most talented. Check out this collection of her top hits as a solo artist.

Various Artists, Stadium Anthems: Music for the Fans (2003)
Need to get fired up for the big game, or the big presentation, or the big date? Then fire up the jock jams. This disc features some of the colossal radio hits that have electrified sports fans and players in stadiums all across the country.

John Facenda and Sam Spence, The Power and the Glory: The Original Music & Voices of NFL Films (1998)
Are you familiar with those special pre-game television segments featuring lots of slow-motion footage of a receiver leaping gracefully to grab a far-flung football? Then you're probably also familiar with the booming voice of John Facenda, whose dramatic narrations over stirring orchestration transforms old football games into high theater.

Janet Jackson, Design of a Decade (1995)
Did you know much about Janet Jackson before the scandalous halftime show at 2004's Super Bowl XXXVII? If you were born in after 1990, chances are you knew little about her rise as a pop superstar in the 1980s. Check out this "Best Of" collection featuring the most memorable and enduring studio performances by the legendary Janet.

Images

Green Bay Legend
Legendary coach Vince Lombardi led the Green Bay Packers to five NFL championships in the 1960s.

The Commissioner
NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who led the league from 1960 to 1989, oversaw the NFL's rise into a sports-business juggernaut.

Fritz Pollard
A Black man, Fritz Pollard, was the star player for the 1920 Akron Pros, leading the team to win the NFL's very first championship.

Backfield Racial Pioneers
Kenny Washington (#13) and Woody Strode (#34) starred together in the UCLA backfield before becoming the first Black players to play in the modern NFL when they joined the LA Rams in 1946.

Jackie Robinson on the Gridiron
Jackie Robinson (#28) became an American hero as a baseball player, but those who saw him play said he was even more talented on the gridiron. In 1939, while playing for UCLA, Robinson led the nation in yards per carry.

Fog Bowl
In 1988, the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles played each other in a game remembered as the "Fog Bowl." Fans watching the Monday Night Football game on television could see virtually nothing through the impenetrable gray fog that had descended upon Chicago's Soldier Field.

Broadway Joe
Quarterback Joe Namath led the New York Jets to a shocking victory in 1969's Super Bowl III.

Steel Curtain
The Pittsburgh Steelers rode their fearsome "Steel Curtain" defense to four Super Bowl titles in the late 1970s.

Joe Cool
San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana led the best offensive team of the 1980s to a perfect 4–0 record in Super Bowls.

Brett Favre
In 1997, quarterback Brett Favre led the Green Bay Packers to their first Super Bowl since legendary coach Vince Lombardi retired nearly three decades earlier.

Pats Dynasty
The New England Patriots, led by fiery coach Bill Belichick, became the first NFL dynasty of the 21st century by winning three out of four Super Bowls starting in 2002.

Movies & TV

Jerry Maguire (1996)
Tom Cruise plays a sports agent in this oft-quoted film, and as we've learned, sports have become big business. If you've ever wondered where "Show me the money!" came from, check this movie out.

Black Sunday (1977)
For most of us, Super Bowl Sunday's a day for football, hilarious commercials, and lots of grub. But this '70s film throws some horror in the mix as a terrorist group tries to explode the blimp hovering over a packed Super Bowl stadium.

Brian's Song (1971)
Grab your tissues for this one. It's based on the true story of Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo who found out he had testicular cancer. Teammate Gale Sayers wrote an autobiography highlighting their friendship leading up to Piccolo's death.

Websites

NFL's History
The best place on the internet to start researching the NFL's history is the league's own website, which includes an extensive collection of historical material, including a chronological overview of key events in the league's past, profiles of legendary players, histories of each of the 32 teams, and comprehensive statistics, standings, and records dating all the way back to 1920.

Super Bowl Ads
The TV commercials that air during the Super Bowl's timeouts are now almost as popular as the game itself. The name of the website says it all—this is the place to go for all things big-game-ad-related.

History of Black QBs
The website design may be rudimentary, but Lloyd Vance's BQB site—the "BQB" stands for "black quarterback"—offers the most comprehensive and best sourced history of African Americans' experience playing the most important and scrutinized position in sports: NFL quarterback.

The Undefeated
Owned by ESPN, the Undefeated aims to discuss "the intersections of race, sports and culture." This awesome page on race in the NFL does just that.

Video & Audio

"The Immaculate Reception"
Franco Harris' miraculous touchdown catch of a deflected ball gave the Pittsburgh Steelers a seemingly impossible last-second victory over the Oakland Raiders in the 1972 AFC Playoffs.

"The Catch"
Joe Montana's last-minute touchdown throw to tight end Dwight Clark lifted the San Francisco 49ers past the Dallas Cowboys in the 1982 NFC Championship Game, putting the 49ers in their first Super Bowl.

"The Helmet Catch"
David Tyree's incredible catch of a last-minute Eli Manning pass in the 2008 Super Bowl won the game for the New York Giants and may eventually be seen as the greatest play in Super Bowl history.

Apple's "1984" Commercial
Widely considered the greatest Super Bowl commercial of all time, Apple Computer's cinematic "1984" spot, filmed by famous Hollywood director Ridley Scott, introduced the Macintosh computer to the world and also inaugurated a new era of sophisticated Super Bowl advertising.

"Have a Coke and a Smile"
One of the most fondly remembered Super Bowl commercials ever was a 1979 Coca-Cola spot featuring a telegenic kid and fearsome Pittsburgh Steelers lineman "Mean Joe" Greene. Have a Coke and a smile.

"Oh, Say, Can You See?"
Whitney Houston's rendition of the national anthem before 1991's Super Bowl XXV—performed at the height of America's involvement in the First Gulf War—was released as a single and reached as high as #20 on the Billboard Top 100.

Historical Documents

NFL CBA
The NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement shapes the league's financial structure and governs all player contracts.

League Standings
Final standings from every NFL season, from 1920 to the present.

Record Book
The NFL's all-time record book.

Forbes' Franchise Rankings
Rankings of the economic value of NFL teams.