Football Under Lights
If you’re like me, when the NFL’s 2016 schedule was released last week, the first thing I did was check which teams were tapped to play in the nationally televised Thursday, Sunday and Monday Night Games. I’m not quite sure why each year I check to see which teams are going prime time. I mean, I do have The NFL Sunday Ticket and can pretty much watch any game I want, but somehow those nationally televised night games still seem “special.”
No doubt, when Monday Night Football first came on the scene in 1970, it was a really big deal. Sports bars, big screens and football under lights. What could be better?
Well, as fondly as those early Monday Night Games may be recalled, they were hardly the first foray into football after hours. Actually, the NFL’s first venture into darkness occurred on November 6, 1929. On that moonlit night, the Providence Steam Roller made history when they hosted the Chicago Cardinals in the league’s first game played under lights.
The Steam Roller, a team that is unfamiliar to most fans today, was a pretty darn good team in the day. Members of the NFL from 1925 to 1931, the Steam Roller actually won the NFL title in 1928. Their opponent that night, the Chicago Cardinals are of course better known today as the Arizona Cardinals.
Now here’s a piece of football trivia for you. Providence was the actually the last NFL franchise not now in the NFL to win the league title.
Now, back to my story of pro football from the dark side. That now nearly-forgotten first NFL night game was played in Providence’s Kinsley Park which luckily had recently installed floodlights. The game was originally scheduled for Sunday, November 3 and was slated to be played in a bicycle-racing stadium called the Cyclodrome, which also served as the Steam Roller’s home field.
Heavy rains that day, however, made the football field unplayable. So, since neither team wanted to lose a payday the Steam Roller management quickly rescheduled the game to be played three days later on Wednesday night at Kinsley Park.
Wow, what a novel idea. Wednesday Night Football! Too bad television hadn’t yet been invented.
Surprisingly, the game, which Providence lost 16-0, was considered a success as it drew 6,000 fans and the interest of the local media. One newspaper sarcastically reported that the ball, which was painted white for the game, “had the appearance of a large egg,” and when passed there was a panicky feeling that the intended receiver “would be splattered with yellow yolk.”
While stadium floodlights and night games may not have had an immediate impact on the pro game, it did apparently affect the Steam Roller players as evidenced by a provision in the 1930 contract of Steam Roller fullback Tony Latone. The well-weathered document on file in the Hall of Fame archives stipulates that Latone was to be payed $125 “for all league daylight games and sixty percent of that sum for all league floodlight games.”
What? Players taking a pay cut to play at night. Hard to imagine; but true. According the team management, the pay cut was necessary to “help pay for the installation costs of the floodlights.”
Well, that may have been true, but I have a hunch that the cost of floodlights wasn’t the only red ink in the team’s accounting ledger. As one writer retrospectively put it, “the Steam Roller was flattened by the Depression.” It was hard times. The team had dropped to mediocre and attendance was low. For the Steam Roller the lights were about to go out anyway.
After the conclusion of the 1931 season, the team announced it was suspending operations for a year. The desperate move was taken so the Providence team might have time to find an investor to save the franchise. But alas, the Steam Roller never played in the NFL again and in 1933 the franchise was forfeited to the league.
Hey, who knows, if only that Wednesday Night Football thing had caught on, things might have been different.
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