Spirit, Pride abound as NFL's birthplace celebrates Centennial
As patrons enter through the side of Bender’s Tavern, reportedly the oldest restaurant in Canton, Ohio, it is impossible to miss the eroded stone step that leads to the establishment’s bar. For more than a century, thousands have navigated that path into the popular gathering place.
It also serves as a symbol of a historic moment that forever will tie this Northeast Ohio city to the fabric of American culture.
On a hot September Friday night in 1920, representatives of 10 football teams from four states – Akron, Canton, Cleveland and Dayton (Ohio); Hammond and Muncie (Indiana); Rochester (New York); and Rock Island, Decatur and Racine (Illinois) – congregated in the Hupmobile showroom of Ralph Hay, the manager of the Canton Bulldogs. The result of the meeting was the formation of the National Football League, first known as the American Professional Football Association.
Lore, and likely fact, is that George Halas, Jim Thorpe and the others at the founding meeting enjoyed dinner together that evening by stepping through the then-less worn entrance to the dining spot across the street. The men celebrated the formation of the first professional football league that brought order to the sport.
Little could they have known the impact of what they created. In fact, the news of the NFL’s founding was relegated to Page 3 of The Canton Repository the following day with an article that carried the headline: “Thorpe Named President Of Professional Grid Circuit; Won’t Go After Collegians.”
Excerpts of the brief account included:
Indian Jim Thorpe, leader of the Canton Bulldogs and considered the greatest pigskin chaser of all time, was last night chosen to head the American Professional Football Association, the only professional football organization in existence.
A decision was reached to refrain from luring players out of college for the professional games, thus removing them from amateur standing. This snatching of college stars has always been the big objection to the professional game and has prejudiced many fans against it, especially those in college cities.
Membership in the A.P.F.A. was placed at $100 a year and binds all clubs holding franchises to abide by the rules, which are to be drawn up under the supervision of Thorpe and submitted to members for approval.
Slightly longer were the official meeting minutes, a two-page typed document on letterhead of the Akron (Ohio) Professional Football Team. Two of the teams represented at the meeting are still in existence today: The Chicago Bears began as the Decatur Staleys, and the Arizona Cardinals’ roots were in the “Windy City.”
Despite the error in the meeting minutes, the team was from Racine Street in Chicago and not the town in Wisconsin as noted. The formation meeting minutes are among the rarest documents in the Hall of Fame’s vast collection and currently are exhibited in the Hall’s The NFL’s First Century Gallery.
While Benders remains much the same as it was when the league was born in Canton, there is little resemblance today to what the NFL was in its first year. The league has flourished to become America’s premier sports league. For the past six decades, pro football has ranked as the country’s most popular sport, and interest in the NFL continues to grow every year.
The city of Canton and the surrounding region take great pride in being the birthplace of the NFL. Thirty-nine years after Canton was the site of the league’s formation, a strong newspaper editorial — Dec. 6, 1959 — declared in a bold headline, “Pro Football Needs a Hall of Fame and logical site is here.” The community rallied by raising nearly $400,000 that resulted in Canton being awarded the site for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1961.
Groundbreaking ceremonies took place Aug. 11, 1962, and the Hall first opened its doors Sept. 7, 1963.
Today, the connection Canton has with the game is stronger than ever. Each year, hundreds of thousands of fans travel from across the United States and the world to visit the Museum. Recently, the Hall of Fame became the first major sports museum to earn accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums, a distinction bestowed upon a mere 3 percent of all museums in the United States.
The Hall of Fame has become more than just a great museum preserving the Game’s past. Guided by the important mission to “Honor the Heroes of the Game, Preserve its History, Promote its Values and Celebrate Excellence EVERYWHERE,” the Hall’s vast programming and events are geared to inspire individuals of all walks of life to live a “Hall of Fame life.”
That message is delivered in both actions and metaphors, such as a huddle in which players — regardless of skin color, political affiliation, religion or background — bond as one to face adversity on the other side of the line. These types of lessons are the root of Hall of Fame programing such as #HuddleUpAmerica, an initiative focused on the values of the game and how they apply to life and bring people together, and “Heart of a Hall of Famer,” an educational series that provides students the opportunity to learn first-hand what it took beyond athletic ability for legendary Heroes of the Game to achieve success on and off the field.
Canton has become synonymous with a standard of excellence. Leveraging the lessons learned from the Game, those who visit the city are immersed in such values as commitment, integrity, courage, respect and excellence. At every opportunity, the community celebrates all that is great about the game of football.
Several years ago, leaders of Canton’s thriving art community launched an ambitious multi-year project, “The ELEVEN.” The goal, led by ArtsinStark, is to create a walkable series of 11 pieces of world-class art that showcases the greatest moments in pro football. This week, the eighth and ninth pieces – the “Formation of The AFL” and “The Ice Bowl” – will be dedicated.
In 2018, Fred Gaudelli, executive producer of NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” who also produced “Monday Night Football” for five seasons, was on hand for the dedication of the massive mural, “Monday Night Football,” in downtown Canton.
The piece pays tribute to the program that introduced pro football to prime-time television and helped the game’s popularity skyrocket in the 1970s. He shared with the audience that afternoon that, “No city in America has done more for the NFL than Canton, Ohio.”
Canton takes center stage in the football world each summer with a grand celebration unlike any other, focused on the enshrinement of the newest class of greats. The Enshrinement Celebration spans nearly two weeks, features 18 diverse events and attracts 700,000 fans from across the country and the world. Approximately 5,000 area residents dedicate countless hours of volunteerism to help host the annual kickoff to the NFL season in the city where it all began.
Over the past few years, civic leaders have rallied to memorialize the Centennial with a permanent landmark to symbolize the importance of America’s most popular sport. An entire city block of downtown Canton, not far from where Ralph Hay’s Hupmobile showroom once stood, has been converted into Centennial Plaza.
The transformational project for residents and tourists alike will revitalize an urban area with vibrancy and programming year-round. The project will generate economic development in downtown and trigger the city’s renaissance. A variety of programming will be led by the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The meeting held in downtown Canton a century ago is duly noted by a historical marker on the side of the Frank T. Bow building, which is located at the site of the former Hupmobile showroom. However, the impact of that historic moment lives on in a community with a strong spirit and pride that has blossomed into being the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a world-renowned destination and the site of the burgeoning Johnson Controls Hall of Fame Village that is taking shape around the Hall’s campus.
One can only wonder what the Game, and the city of Canton, will look like 100 years from now.
Pete Fierle, a former member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame staff, originally wrote this article for the 2019-2020 Hall of Fame Yearbook. It has been adapted for the Centennial Celebration and the 100th birthday of the NFL.