Modern American football came into existence in 1869 when Rutgers and Princeton played a college soccer football game using modified English rugby rules. Over the next several years football would become a vital part of colleges and universities athletic programs around the nation. In 1902 a few football clubs began forming in cities within New York, Ohio and New Jersey. These football clubs used professional players, that is players that the clubs paid to play the game, and "professional" football was born. Within a decade other professional football clubs would be formed, including "The Pine Village Pros" in Indiana, a club that would later entice 1912 double gold Olympic champion Jim Thorpe, pictured to the right, to play for them. But professional football between 1910 and 1920 was in a state of confusion due to three major problems. First, players were demanding - and receiving - rising salaries, which placed club owners in financial jeopardy. Second, professional players continually jumped from one club team to another, usually following the highest per game offer. Finally, clubs were in the habit of using college players who were still enrolled in school which caused conflict on several fronts. It was decided in 1920 that the creation of a professional football league in which all club teams would follow the same rules would solve the problems mentioned above. Two organizational meetings were held in August and September of 1920 in Canton, Ohio, and ten club teams from four states formed what would later be known as the National Football League.
The Game That Turned the Fortunes of the NFL Around
My maternal grandfather, Fred Cherry, began playing football for the University of Oklahoma in 1929. Fred scored a touchdown in the first ever Oklahoma/Texas game to be played in the Cotton Bowl during the state fair of Texas. He would later earn All-Conference honors as a four year letterman, playing at the tight end position for the Sooners. Most people don't realize that college football in the 1920's, the kind played by my grandfather, was considered far superior to the professional football of the day.
Until 1930 most Americans questioned the quality of the professional game, claiming the college "amateurs" played with more intensity than the teams in the ten year old National Football League. It was widely believed that college players could defeat the best professional football team in America. However in 1930 a game was played to change America's perception of the National Football League. In December of 1930 the New York Giants played a team of Notre Dame All Stars at the Polo Grounds in New York to raise money for the unemployed of New York City. The stock market crash of 1928 had plunged the country into depression, and the National Football League felt a charity game with some "amatuer" all-stars from Notre Dame would help raise money for those who lost their jobs in the Big Apple, but it would also raise the profile of the NFL. Nobody expected the Giants to win. Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne reassembled his Four Horsemen along with the stars of his 1930 Notre Dame College Championship squad and told them to score early, then defend the goal against the pofessionals. Rockne himself, like much of the public, thought little of pro football and expected an easy win. But from the beginning it was a one way contest. The Giants would win 22 - 0 with Giants running back Benny Friedman scoring two touchdowns and Giant quarterback Hap Moran passing for another. Notre Dame failed to score because of the bruising, brutal line play of New York, anchored by tackle Steve Owen of Enid, Oklahoma. When it was all over, Coach Rockne told his team, "That was the greatest football machine I ever saw. I am glad none of you got hurt." The game raised over $100,000 for the homeless of New York, and it is the game that is often credited with establishing the legitimacy of the National Football League and professional football in general.
Steve Owen Becomes Head Coach of the New York Giants
After the roaring success of the Giants win over the powerful Notre Dame all-stars, Giants owner Tim Mara hired Steve Owen, his now famous lineman, as coach of the Giants. Steve would coach the New York Giants for the next twenty-three seasons, coaching some of the greatest New York Giant players to ever play the game, including Frank Gifford, Emlen Tunnell (the first African-American NFL player to be voted into the Hall of Fame) and Gene "Choo Choo" Roberts. Coach Steve Owen's 150 career victories for the New York Giants will probably never be broken. His New York Giants went to the NFL title game eight times during his tenure, and Coach Owen was voted into the Canton NFL Hall of Fame by his peers. Steven Owen died in May 17, 1964 at the age of sixty-six. He is probably the most successful professional football player, in terms of reputation and wins, to ever come from Oklahoma - not to mention Enid.
Yet, when Steve Owen is mentioned to people - even people from Oklahoma - most football fans think you are referring to Steve Owens, former Oklahoma Sooner and Heisman Trophy winner of the 1969. Unfortunately, not too many people understand the signficant role Steve Owen played in the tender early years of the NFL and the rise of the NFL's popularity among the American people.
The Funny Story Steve Owen Tells On Himself
There is a little known story about Steve Owen that made me laugh out loud when I read it. Steve grew up on a farm about fifteen miles outside of town. The summer of 1914, the year Steve was to enter high school, Steve saw for the first time in his life kids playing "football." In those early years, player equipment was a little different than today. Leather "helmets" only with no face masks, a very light shirt with sewn in shoulder supports (not pads), and breeches were all the players wore. I will close this post by letting you read the words of Steve Owen himself as reported in the December 31, 1945 edition of the Washington Post:
"I'm a-galloping along a country road one day, all dressed up in my cowboy boots and Stetson when all of a sudden I'm seeing a lot of kids all mixed up in the darndedst fight I ever did see. I whoa'd up, and got off my horse and moved into the pasture and asked a man what all the fighting was about. He says it waren't no fight. He says they were playing football.
"He shows me a football and asks me if I ever seen one before and I told him no, cause I handn't. I seen him looking at me close. I'm 15 years old but I'm weighing 200 pounds even then, and he asks me where I live. I tell him I live 15 miles up in the counry and then he's real interested and he says I look like I could play football for his high school. Then he shoved the ball in my hand.
"'WHAT DO YOU WANT ME to do with this thing?' I asked him, and he says 'You take this ball and start running for those goal posts and then I'll tell you some more.'
"So he has all those other kids lined up and I start running, and it ain't no trouble for me to take that ball 60 yards and put it underneath the goal posts. Those other kids are falling all over themselves trying to get out of my way. Don't forget I'm a 200-pounder, even then.
"It's just a breeze for me to carry that football and I bring it back to the coach and say 'Did I do all right?'
"He says yes, I did pretty good, but he wasn't quite satisfied. He says, 'I want to see you do that all over again, and this time take your spurs off.'"
Only in Oklahoma.
In His Grace,