The First Pro Football Player Wasn't Just First; He Was Also Great

120 years ago today, "Pudge" Heffelfinger helped start the sport as we know it now.

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The first pro football game, played 120 years ago today between the Allegheny Athletic Association and the Pittsburgh Athletic Club, was a little different than the game we know. A modern fan traveling back in time would see normal-sized men wearing ripped pullovers, with some sporting rags stuffed around their shoulders for padding. A few of the players would have leather skull caps; most, though, would be bare headed. The game itself, as old-time football historian John D. McCallum has put it, would have looked like "a primitive mixture of soccer and rugby."

Perhaps the oddest thing about that game was that there was only one professional player, William Walter "Pudge" Heffelfinger. Pudge was by then the most famous football player in the country. In 1888, as a freshman at Yale, he had been a stalwart blocker and tackler for an amazing team that scored 698 points in 13 games, holding their opponents to zero. How good was Old Eli that year? Put it this way: Harvard refused to play them. (One of Heffelfinger's teammates was the illustrious Amos Alonzo Stagg, whose career record for coaching victories stood until Bear Bryant broke it in 1981.)

Pudge's fame as a college player—just three years before, while a junior playing for Yale, he had been Walter Camp's first All-American selection on the first-ever All America team—earned him an offer of $250 to play for Allegheny. He wanted more and held out until the offer doubled (to roughly the equivalent of $12,500 today). Thus, before he played a down of pro football, Pudge Heffelfinger became the game's first holdout. The other players on both teams were compensated with pass-the-hat money; the Pittsburgh crowd, whose size was not recorded, must have been pleased with what they saw because they stuffed the hats. After paying Hef, as his friends called him, Allegheny's profit was around $600.

It's hard to judge whether or not the game was exciting. The Alleghenies won 4-0 when Heffelfinger, a guard on offense and a middle guard—what we now call a defensive tackle on defense—recovered a fumble and returned it for the game's only touchdown. (TDs were worth four points, and conversion points had not been invented.)

Today his name is known only to a handful of football enthusiasts, but Pudge Heffelfinger was one of the most celebrated and important men in the history of football for nearly 65 years, until his death in 1954. He was consulted when rules for the game were changed, and was sought out for his opinion on virtually every subject connected to football by the greatest sportswriters of his time, most notably Grantland Rice.

Pudge is thought to have talked Teddy Roosevelt into giving football a second chance, suggesting several rule changes that improved the players' safety.

In fact, though there is no way of knowing for certain, he may have saved the game. In 1905, Teddy Roosevelt was being pressured to ban football after several much-publicized player deaths all over the country. Pudge is thought to have talked Roosevelt into giving the game a second chance, suggesting several rule changes that improved the players' safety, such as requiring padding and helmets and outlawing some brutal "pig pile" tactics such as the flying wedge.

The men had become fast friends when Roosevelt, just out of Harvard, watched Pudge play in a Yale defeat of the Crimson and saw him as what one historian called "the model of physical perfection." The president and the football player would become partners in a ranching venture in Montana.

Roosevelt wasn't the only president taken with Pudge. Dwight Eisenhower met Pudge during his first presidential campaign and confessed to sportswriters, "While at West Point, my idol was Pudge Heffelfinger, and my ambition was to be partly as good as he was." (But it wasn't to be, Ike said: "My knee injury put a stop to that.")

Presented by

Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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