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Jon Kendle is Director of Archives and Football Information at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His biweekly columns tell unique and interesting stories starting from the league’s founding in downtown Canton in 1920 to the present day.
The National Football League announced last week it will not play the 2021 Pro Bowl. Instead, the NFL will create a variety of engaging activities to replace the game this season. The league will continue to recognize players' outstanding seasons and welcome fans to demonstrate their passion for their favorite players when voting for the 2021 Pro Bowl roster begins Nov. 17.
This announcement probably made little to no impact on most fans, as the Pro Bowl’s popularity has waned in recent years. The history of this game, however, is quite intriguing.
The Pro Bowl, structured how we know it today, was authorized in 1950 by Pro Football Hall of Famer Bert Bell, who was the NFL’s commissioner at the time. It was a great way to publicize the NFL and its players at a time when the pro game was beginning to grow in popularity.
The first 22 games of the Pro Bowl (1951-1972) were played in Los Angeles, then were hosted annually in different cities until 1980. The game was hosted in Honolulu, Hawaii, from 1981 until 2009. In 2010, the Pro Bowl was played in Miami, which was where the Super Bowl was being held. This also marked the first time the Pro Bowl was played before the NFL’s championship game. Due to the scheduling, no players from either conference champion could participate in the game.
Holding out the best players from the league’s two best teams was in stark contrast to the initial concept that led to the creation of the Pro Bowl. The predecessor to the Pro Bowl was simply known as the NFL All-Star Game. This game was established in 1938 by Hall of Fame owner George Preston Marshall, Los Angeles Times sports editor Bill Henry and promoter Tom Gallery and showcased the NFL champion against a team of professional football all-stars. This postseason exhibition game was branded as a charity football match with proceeds going to the Salvation Army. It was featured on the NFL schedule from 1938 to 1942 and was sponsored by the Los Angeles Times.
Scheduled to take place Jan. 15, 1939 in Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field, the first “Pro Bowl” game featured the 1938 NFL Champion New York Giants playing an all-star roster of professionals determined by fan vote. The Giants were the class of the NFL’s East Division, going 8-2-1, and they defeated the Green Bay Packers 27-13 in the title game.
The All-Stars roster was not made up exclusively of NFL players. A few players from Los Angeles' two local independent professional teams, the Los Angeles Bulldogs and Hollywood Stars, also were invited to play. At quarterback for the All-Stars were Washington's Sammy Baugh and Green Bay's Cecil Isbell.
The All-Stars were led by co-head coaches Ray Flaherty of Washington and Gus Henderson of the Bulldogs. There was optimism about the duo's roster despite the short time they were together.
“When you have such a great group …,” Flaherty told the L.A. Times, “it's really a pleasure to coach them. Naturally, they're all smart football players, and their experience and reflexes are so keen that they've started running plays as if they'd been out a month instead of just a week. We want to polish up a bit more on the teamwork and add a few more plays, and the All-American Stars will be ready to give those Giants all the battle they want next Sunday.”
When the game kicked off, the teams struggled between the 30-yard lines for most of the first quarter. Early in the second quarter, the Giants’ John “Bull” Karcis intercepted an Isbell pass and returned it to the All-Stars’ 13. The Giants settled for a 19-yard field goal.
Late in the second quarter, the All-Stars started to drive. They worked the ball to the Giants’ 19-yard line, and with 29 seconds left in the half kicked a 25-yard field goal to tie the game.
The All-Stars took the lead late in the third quarter when Baugh connected with the Detroit Lions' Lloyd Cardwell on a 45-yard touchdown. Trailing 10-3, New York retaliated with a 73-yard drive, capped by a 32-yard touchdown catch by Chuck Gelatka.
Then, late in the game, with the Giants punting, Ed Goddard of the Cleveland Rams muffed the ball on his own 19. The fumble was recovered by New York superstar and future Hall of Famer Tuffy Leemans. Ward Cuff then kicked the go-ahead, 17-yard field goal, and the Giants went on to win 13-10.
And thus, the concept of a Pro Bowl was born.