The 2023 NFL Draft gets underway April 27-29 in Kansas City. It wasn't always this big, but has evolved into a major fan-focused event that visits a new city each year and underscores the NFL's status as top dog in American pro sports. The league dominates headlines and grabs the attention of fans nearly year-round. But the league's humble beginnings started right here in Columbus, Ohio in the 1920s.
First, a little background.
The first official football game, a far different version than the game played today, took place on November 6, 1869, as Rutgers beat Princeton 6-4.
The first somewhat professional football game was played November 12, 1892. Yale All-American guard Pudge Heffelfinger was paid $500 by the Allegheny Athletic Association to play against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club. Allegheny won 4-0 as Heffelfinger earned his money by scooping up a fumble and returning it for a touchdown. His team won 4-0 and, yes, touchdowns were worth four points back then.
A few years later, Allegheny fielded the first completely professional team. Professional teams soon took the field in Ohio, with squads in Canton, Massillon, Akron, Shelby, Columbus and Dayton by the early 1900s. The Ohio League was formed and, in 1902, the Akron East Ends won the first championship.
The Columbus Panhandles were founded in 1900 and were comprised of “big hardy railroad men” who worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad. The name comes from the railroad’s Panhandle route from Pittsburgh to Columbus. The Panhandles played two games in 1901, both against the Columbus Barracks, a squad made up of local soldiers. Each team won a game.
The Panhandles folded after the 1904 season, reemerged in 1907 and played in the Ohio league, never winning a championship.
Professional football was at a crossroads in 1920. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame (in Canton) there were three issues: rising salaries; players jumping from one team to another; the use of players still enrolled in college. A meeting was held in Canton on August 20 and the American Professional Football Association (APFA) was formed. Five of the 13 teams were based in Ohio: the Panhandles, Akron Pros, Canton, Cleveland Tigers and Dayton Triangles.
Panhandles owner Joseph Carr was voted in as league president and he moved the headquarters to Columbus, eventually settling in on the 11th floor of the building at 16 E. Broad Street on the perimeter of Capital Square (the building is still there). The APFA was renamed the National Football League (NFL) in 1922.
Carr was one of the first and most influential national sports executives, a visionary who foresaw teams as money-making enterprises for their owners and football, baseball and basketball leagues that stretched from coast to coast. He was born October 23, 1879, the son of an Irish immigrant who was a shoemaker. Carr went to work as a machinist for the Panhandle Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad and he also worked as a sportswriter and editor for the Ohio State Journal newspaper. Carr founded the Famous Panhandle White Sox baseball team, a semi-professional team comprised of railroad workers.
Leading one team, and holding down two jobs, wasn’t enough for Carr. He reformed the Panhandles football team in 1907, building the club around the six Nesser brothers, all of whom worked for the railroad and were excellent athletes, noted for their toughness. You didn’t mess with a Nesser brother. Unless you were the great Jim Thorpe.
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“Nessers Are Given Jolt” was the headline of a 1916 story in the Akron Beacon Journal. Thorpe led Canton, “the best professional team ever collected,” to a 13-0 victory over the Panhandles to win the “professional football championship,” according to the story. “The Panhandles with six of the Nesser brothers in the lineup, put up a bruising game, but Thorpe & Co showed too much speed.”
Carr remained as president of the NFL until his death in 1939. He introduced a standard player’s contract, banned college players, and helped the fledgling league gain traction in the country’s largest cities. George Halas was granted a Chicago franchise in 1922; Carr recruited Tim Mara to form the New York Giants in 1925; in 1932 he oversaw the founding of Boston Redskins by George Preston Marshall; in 1933 the Philadelphia Eagles and Bert Bell joined the league.
After the 1922 season, Carr disbanded his Panhandles for financial reasons. They were reformed as the Columbus Tigers and would continue to play in the NFL until 1926, finishing with a 1-6 record that final season.
In addition to his role as president of the NFL, Carr also helped form the American Basketball League (ABL) in 1925 and served as president for several years. He was also president of the Columbus Senators baseball team that played in the American Association, and he served as the promotional director of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the governing body of Minor League Baseball. Carr is perhaps the only person to own or lead professional teams and serve as a top executive in football, baseball and basketball.
“Death Takes Grid Leader” was a headline in the May 21, 1939 edition of the Chillicothe Gazette. “Under Carr’s stimulus, the Ohio cities of Columbus, Canton and Massillon became the cradle of big league professional football,” the article stated.
The headquarters of the NFL moved to Dayton after Carr’s death, ending the NFL era in Columbus.