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Roots Of National Football League Found In Central Ohio

With the Super Bowl in just a few days, the 10TV sports team looks at how the powerful sports league got a humble start in central Ohio.

The largest single day sporting event in the world, Super Bowl XLVII will be played this Sunday in New Orleans.

The NFL's popularity is still growing some 90 years after it was founded, right here in Ohio.  

The NFL is big business that’s played under bright lights and on the biggest of stages.

However, the league's beginning was far simpler.

Professional football in the United States can be traced back to the late 19th century, yet it failed to gain traction early on.

“College football then was really much bigger attraction than pro football,” said Bob Hunter, Columbus Dispatch.

At the time, teams dotted the Midwestern landscape. Outfits in places like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Canton, Akron, Massillon, Columbus and others existed without much organization.

“Originally, pro football began in Pennsylvania, specifically in Pittsburgh, but it migrated over to Ohio and lot of reasons for that,largely because of the industrial movement into these Midwest, Northeast areas,” said Joe Horrigan, Pro Football Hall of Fame VP-Communications/Exhibits

That changed in 1920 when 11 franchises met in downtown Canton, and ended up forming the American Professional Football Association. Legendary player Jim Thorpe was installed as president.

The APFA name lasted just two seasons, becoming the National Football League in 1922.

In what's considered the first ever game in NFL history, the Columbus Panhandles traveled west to Dayton, losing 14-0, on October 3, 1920.

The Panhandles dated back to 1901 as a semi-pro team in the Ohio League. The squad was made up of workers from the Pennsylvania Railroad's repair station in East Columbus known as a Panhandle shop.

"They used to live, work, eat and sleep in that neighborhood, and that's where they recreated,” said Greg Carr, grandson of Joe F. Carr.

Home games were played at Indianola Park in this field which is still there today.

There were also games played at Recreation Park in present-day German Village, the site of the first ever Ohio State home football game, and finally, Neil Park, located at Cleveland Avenue just north of downtown.

The Panhandles were a more popular draw on the road, however. Partly because of Ohio State football, but also because a rugged family of six brothers gained notoriety for their physical play.

"The team was really, in the early years of pro football, was really good. And they became famous because of the Nesser brothers,” said Hunter.

"They were great athletes with absolutely no reason to have gotten that way. They weren't college athletes, they were strictly pros, they came out working class families from the Ukraine. They were just literally guys who were rough, tough tumblers,” said Horrigan.

"I don't know if you've ever met the Nesser brothers, but they are big men, I mean big men. The sons, and I can imagine what their fathers were like," added Greg Carr.

The Panhandles went 71-77-14 from 1901 through 1922. However, in three years of play in the AFCA/NFL, Columbus was just 8-23-2, but just 1-21 in league play.

The team folded after the 1922 season, replaced by the Columbus Tigers. In 1923, they had their best success, turning in a 5-4-1 record, good for eighth in the NFL. However, that franchise disappeared after the 1926 season, leaving a 10-23-1 record behind.

There was a decided Ohio flavor to the early NFL days, with as many as nine different cities hosting teams between 1920 and 1933.

"This was the breeding ground for everything that came out of not just the National Football League, but pro football. This was the center, the center of the universe,” said Horrigan.

The biggest surprise in that group was LaRue, a tiny village in western Marion County, that was home to the Oorang Indians in 1922 and 23. Star Jim Thorpe was in charge of a roster of players made up completely of Native Americans. Oorang played just one home game in two years, and that was in nearby Marion.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, LaRue is less than a half-mile in size, and has just 747 residents.

"It's really only known sometime by the locals, but it's nice to know that big stuff happens in small towns, too," said Mark Poling, Shear Skill Barber Styling.

The corner of Broad and High Streets has been the center of Columbus for two centuries. Just a few steps from that intersection sat the headquarters for the NFL in the league's early days.

The offices were located on the 11th floor of the now vacant Hayden Building, at 16 East Broad Street, which President Joe F. Carr, a Columbus native, moved into in 1927. The league's headquarters remained in Columbus until Carr's death in 1939.

"Columbus was such a pivotal part of the early years of the NFL," added Horrigan.

Prior to 1927, Carr ran the NFL from home. He had worked as a sports reporter for the Ohio State Journal, and worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad. That's where his introduction to football came, as he served as manager of the Panhandles from 1907 through 1922.

"I think he had a dream, and saw what pro football could be," said James Carr, grandson of Joe Carr.

"He could see the time when they would have dome stadium and be playing indoors, and for that period of time, that far back, the foresight was amazing,” said Michael Carr, grandson of Joe Carr.

Carr was also well aware that Ohio State football had already established supremacy in the Capital City.

"He was good friends with Lynn St. John, my grandfather agreed that he would not push the NFL into Columbus, if Columbus didn’t welcome the NFL to him," said Greg Carr.

"There was no doubt in his mind that he was not competing with Ohio State. He thought that this was a college town," said Hunter.

In 1921, he was elected President of the APFA. Carr's legacy still remains with the NFL today.

•    He was responsible for creating the first constitution and bylaws of the NFL.

•    He developed the standard player contract.

•    He established the rule that a college player could not participate until his class had graduated. He worked to separate and differentiate the NFL from the college game.

•    He started the practice of keeping player statistics.

•    He split the league into divisions and created the NFL Championship game, the fore-runner to the Super Bowl, in 1933.

•    And he wrote the Official NFL Record & Fact book, and created the NFL Draft.

"Joe Carr in my opinion may be one of the most overlooked stories in all of sports, not just pro football,” said Horrigan

"He brought the league into the existence that we know,” said Hunter.

"I think it would be the sport it is today without him, I really don't. I don't think it would have the structure it's got,” said Michael Carr.

The NFL named its MVP trophy after Carr from 1939 through 1946. He was elected to Pro Football Hall of Fame in the inaugural class of 1963.

"I generally go with some friends who have never been there. Sometimes, I'll tell them and sometimes I won't, that he has a bust there. So there is no greater source of pride than knowing you have an heir that's in that building,” added Greg Carr.

Carr's legacy isn't the only one still alive in today's NFL. The Portsmouth Spartans played from 1929 through 1933, with the last three seasons coming in the NFL. Only Green Bay was a smaller market at the time. The Spartans left a big mark on the league in that short time, however.

In 1931, Portsmouth finished the year with an 11-3 record, second only to the Packers 12-2 mark. Because a game between those two was only tentatively scheduled to be played, Green Bay decided not to play it and was awarded the league championship.

The following year, the Spartans got some revenge in front of an estimated 14,000 fans at Universal Stadium, which still stands today, and is known as Spartans Stadium.

Without substituting a single player, Portsmouth beat the defending champs 19-0. That game is still immortalized on the Ohio River flood wall in downtown Portsmouth.

"If you sit back and really think about it, the Spartans, of all those little teams along this area, this river bed, they held out the longest," said Billy McClurg, Portsmouth Spartans Historical Society.

The 1932 season finished with Portsmouth and Chicago tied for first place, and the two agreed to play in the NFL's first ever playoff game on December 18 at Wrigley Field in Chicago.

That game became even more historical with poor weather. The teams agreed to play on a modified field inside Chicago Stadium, the first indoor game in league history, as well. The Bears wound up winning 9-0, and with it, the NFL title.

"The idea of having this game played to settle the title was so well received, not just by the fans in Chicago, but in general, that they instituted the following season, 1933, divisions so that they would have a divisional playoff for the title," said Horrigan.

That led to divisions in 1933 with the two winners set to meet at the end of the year to determine the champion.

Portsmouth also likes to take credit for the first ever night game in NFL history, and the Spartans did host the Brooklyn Dodgers under the lights on September 24, 1930. However, Providence played the Chicago Cardinals at night in November of 1929.

In 1934, the Spartans were sold to George Richards, who moved the team to Detroit, where they still play today, as the Detroit Lions.

"This is still a storied franchise. I mean the Detroit Lions still exist. And do the Lions remember where they came from?" added McClurg.

The history lives on, as Spartans Stadium in Portsmouth still stands.  

"That is as far as I'm concerned, hallowed ground,” said McClurg.

Ohio still plays a pretty big role each year in the Super Bowl.  

The whistles come from the American Whistle Corporation, right here in Columbus. And the footballs are manufactured at the Wilson plant in Ada.

Thursday night at 6 p.m., 10TV will take you inside the plant where the footballs are made for the Super Bowl right here in Ohio.