Image courtesy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Before the League

On February 7, people all over the world will gather around televisions to see the Carolina Panthers take on the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50. They will watch to see who prevails, the aging Peyton Manning or the up-and-coming Cam Newton. Or they’ll watch for the multimillion-dollar commercials, or for the pop stars dancing with costumed sharks. Whatever the reason, they will watch by the millions.

The Super Bowl is an entertainment bonanza unlike any other, but back when the NFL was a struggling amalgamation of ragtag amateur, semipro, and college teams, Columbus played a pivotal role in setting the sport on its path to riches and cultural prominence.

Before the League, a documentary airing on Time Warner Cable SportsChannel, explores the development of the NFL and its deep Ohio roots. One of the seminal figures in the history of the league was Joe Carr, a sports writer turned team manager for the Columbus Panhandles. According to the documentary, the Panhandles were initially known as a “sandlot team,” but during Carr’s time as manager just after the turn of the 20th century, he was one of the primary forces pushing toward establishing a professional league.

The American Professional Football Association was founded in Canton in 1920, with Jim Thorpe named as the president. At the time, Thorpe was the face of football and possibly the greatest athlete in the world. In the fall of that year, the league’s first game between the Dayton Triangles and the Columbus Panhandles was held in Dayton, with the home team winning 14-0. According to Jack Park, one of the film’s historians and a frequent contributor on 97.1 FM The Fan, Carr was named league president in 1921 after Thorpe proved to be more capable on the field than off.

When Carr took over, the league’s offices moved to Columbus, and under his 18-year tenure he instituted many of the foundational policies of the league that later became the NFL. He wrote the league’s first constitution and by-laws, and he developed a standard player contract. He even kicked the Green Bay Packers out of the league in their inaugural season for using three Notre Dame players in the wake of scandals involving college athletes moonlighting for pro teams under fake names.

Carr was also adept at promoting his Panhandle team, which was built around pro football’s first family, the Nesser brothers of Columbus (pictured, top). According to Keith McClellan, another of the documentary’s historians, the six brothers and their sisters’ husbands once comprised most of the team, both before and after the Panhandles became a part of the APFA, and later the NFL.

“They pretty much learned how to play the game on the railroad yards in the Panhandle Division,” Chris Willis, a Columbus native and head of the research library at NFL Films, said about the brothers in the documentary. They were railroad workers and were known for their size, athleticism, and rough style of play. Their physical, violent nature drew people to the Panhandles’ games, and it helped establish the coffin-nail-tough mentality of Midwestern football.

As the NFL looked to grow, Carr and George Halas—the owner, business manager, coach, wide receiver, and defensive end for the Chicago Bears—settled on a strategy of establishing pro teams in bigger markets to draw larger fan bases. That tactic, which helped propel the NFL to the next level of popularity and success, also effectively doomed most of the smaller Ohio teams that once formed the foundation of the league.

Signs of the influence that Ohio and Columbus had on the NFL still dot the landscape—a historical marker in Triangle Park in Dayton, the Hall of Fame in Canton—but the professional sport moved on as it moved up. Even Carr would probably be impressed and surprised that the sport he nurtured could go global, and that almost a century later, we still gather together and watch.

Time Warner Cable SportsChannel plans to air the six-part Before the League documentary on channel 311 on Super Bowl Sunday, and the film is also available on-demand.