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

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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.")

Heffelfinger was born in Minneapolis December 20, 1867, nearly two years after Princeton played Rutgers in the first intercollegiate football game. From the time he was a boy he kept himself to a Spartan regimen, walking several miles a day; he liked to brag that when in New York he never took a cab and regularly walked from the Yale Club in the East 80s to Times Square.

Though he started playing sandlot football in his early teens, he yearned to play professional baseball, but hand-to-eye coordination was about the only athletic gift he lacked. At Yale he began boxing and won the school's championship. He even sparred with the great Gentleman Jim Corbett, who sometimes used the school's faculties for training.

At 190 to 200 pounds in his prime, Pudge was big for a football player of his era, and his strength, combined with startling agility and quickness, made him a terror on both sides of the ball. Those who saw him claimed that he revolutionized line play: On offense he "pulled" out of the line to lead a play around the end in a style that evolved into Vince Lombardi's "Green Bay sweep" in the 1960s. And on defense he perfected the art of stutter-stepping around would-be blockers to nail a ball carrier in the backfield.

Though there are no films of Pudge on the field, he competed in enough exhibition games over the years to leave plenty of eye-witnesses to his prowess. In 1912, at age 45, he returned to New Haven to play a few downs in an exhibition against the Yale varsity team. According to Grantland Rice, he "almost wrecked a big Yale line. He was then the fastest running guard on the field." After the game, he gave a demonstration of the fine points of blocking and tackling to eager Yalies. Twenty years later, he played the first half of a charity game in Minneapolis against former college players and received a standing ovation. Chet LaRoche, chairman of the National Football Hall of Fame, said that "no one would ever have dreamed of referring to him as 'ex- football player.' He never retired."

Hef lived just long enough to write his memoir, This Was Football. Though out of print for more than half a century, it's a terrific read and lives up to the billing that Rice, who wrote the forward, gave it: "It takes you back to the misty canvas-jacketed era, brings roaring across the gridiron in all their glory the delightful likes of Pa Corbin, Snake Ames, Lonny [Amos Alonzo] Stagg, Gil Dobie, Hurry-Up Yost, Knute Rockne, George Gipp, Red Grange, Jim Thorpe, Bronko Nagurksi, the Four Horsemen, Ernie Nevers ... Well, all of the immortals."

This Was Football is more than just Pudge's recollections. It recalls a time in American sports culture still vividly felt but only dimly remembered. His kind of football, he said, was "red-meat football," and he was convinced that "There ain't much to being a football player, if you're a football player."

In many respects Pudge's view of football is eye-opening. A man who gave his life to the game passionately believed that college football players didn't need and shouldn't get special favors—they should be treated the same as all other students. He was absolutely against lowering scholastic standards for athletes. Football, he once told Rice, "is nothing more than a great game and not deserving of the hysteria and wildness it often creates."

He died in April, 1954, and did not live to see the publication of his book. Rice, in eulogizing him, used a line written by an unknown poet more than 63 years earlier: Linger, oh, linger, Heffelfinger." No one knows who chose the inscription of his headstone, but it was probably Pudge himself: "Here lies a football player."

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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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