50 Great Moments from pro football’s past

50 Great Moments from pro football’s past

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The Pro Football Hall of Fame has spent 50 years preserving the game’s great moments. Here is a sampling of 50 such significant and interesting milestones from the game’s past as chronicled by the Hall of Fame. This list is not a ranking but a cross-section of noteworthy stories frozen in time by the Pro Football Hall of Fame through artifacts and documents preserved in its collection.


The rarest document in the Hall’s collection is the accounting ledger from a game played in Pittsburgh, Pa. on Nov. 12, 1892. Referred to as the “birth certificate” of pro football it is evidence of the first player to receive money to play football. William “Pudge” Heffelfinger” received $500 to play for the Allegheny Athletic Club in their matchup against the Pittsburgh Athlethic Club. It was a good investment as Heffelfinger returned a fumble for the game’s only touchdown (worth four points at the time) to lead AAA to a 4-0 victory.


Pro football legalized the forward pass in 1906 but it wasn’t a popular weapon for another 10 years. For a brief period, the field was striped in a grid to assist officials with the limitations of the first rules related to the pass.


Jim Thorpe was a legend of the game. Noted as the world’s greatest athlete he started his pro football days as a member of the Canton Bulldogs in the pre-NFL era. The NFL capitalized on his fame by naming him the league’s first president. Thorpe continue his pro football career through 1928 and aside from playing with the Bulldogs starred for the Cleveland Indians, Oorang Indians, Rock Island Independents, New York Giants, and Chicago Cardinals. 


Several men with a vision, including the legendary George Halas, sat on the running boards of vehicles in the Hupmobile showroom of Canton Bulldogs owner Ralph Hay in downtown Canton, Ohio on Sept. 17, 1920 to form the first professional football league. First known as the American Professional Football Association, the league changed its name to National Football League in 1922.


While one would think the founding of the NFL was big news, the local paper in Canton, Ohio focused on the signing of football star Wilbur “Pete” Henry the same day that the league was formed. At 245 pounds, Henry was huge for the era. A tackle, he also was noted for his ability to dropkick and punt. He, at one time, held the NFL marks for longest punt (94 yards) and longest drop kick for a field goal (50 yards).


 View  images of the 50 artifacts and documents that spurred this list. View gallery>>> 



Harold “Red” Grange made his pro debut with the Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving Day 1925. The nationally renowned college star helped change the pro game as his star power attracted tens of thousands of fans to his games. A rare photo from the game was obtained through a significant donation to the Hall of Fame in 2011.


The NFL’s first playoff game, which took place in 1932, was moved indoors to Chicago Stadium due to a snowstorm. At the time the league title was determined by the best win-loss record in the regular season. But a tie in the standings between the Chicago Bears and Portsmouth Spartans (now the Detroit Lions) forced the one-game showdown. The following season the league divided into two divisions with the winners playing in a championship playoff game.


Slingin’ Sammy Baugh helped revolutionize the NFL’s passing game during his career with the Washington Redskins from 1937-1952. He set the record for most league passing titles (6) that has never been broken but tied by fellow Hall of Famer Steve Young. 


Chicago Bears Hall of Fame quarterback Sid Luckman perfected the T-formation in the NFL. He stunned the Redskins in the 1940 NFL Championship Game with the offensive attack. The Bears blew out the Redskins, 73-0.


The Redskins lost the 1945 title game to the Cleveland Rams by one point. One particular play came into focus when the Redskins Sammy Baugh’s pass hit the crossbar (right) and resulted in a safety due to rules in place at the time. 


Don Hutson set nearly every NFL receiving record during his career with the Green Bay Packers from 1935-1945. When he retired, he held 18 different records including one record for “most records held.”


Hall of Famer “Bullet” Bill Dudley spent his Hall of Fame career with the Lions, Redskins, and Bears. In 1946, he won four separate statistical crowns and was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player. Dudley also holds the distinction of scoring nine different ways during his NFL career.

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Steve Van Buren led the Philadelphia Eagles to back-to-back titles in 1948 and 1949. He found the end zone for the game’s lone touchdown to give Philly a 7-0 victory during a snowstorm in the 1948 NFL Championship Game.


Otto Graham led the Cleveland Browns to four straight titles in the All-America Football Conference (1946-49) and three NFL championships. He retired after the 1955 season by which time he had led the Browns to a division or league title in each of his 10 seasons.


Tom Fears of the Los Angeles Rams set a single-game record with a staggering 18 catches against the Green Bay Packers on Dec. 3, 1950. The mark remained for 50 years until Terrell Owens caught 20 passes in a game in 2000.


Joe Perry was the first running back to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing in consecutive seasons. A member of the San Francisco 49ers’ famed “Million Dollar Backfield,” Perry gained 1,018 yards in 1953 followed by a career-high 1,049 in ’54.


The Baltimore Colts defeated the New York Giants on Dec. 28, 1958 in the NFL’s first-ever overtime playoff game. The championship bout is referred to as the “Greatest Game Ever Played” and featured a total of 17 future Hall of Famers.


On Jan. 26, 1960, the NFL elected 33-year-old Pete Rozelle as Commissioner. Today, the Class of 1985 inductee is still widely regarded as the preeminent sports league commissioner.


Y.A. Tittle closed out his Hall of Fame career by winning MVP honors three times in his final four seasons while leading the New York Giants to three straight division titles. He set the then-record with 36 TD passes in 1963, his second to last season.


In 1964, the Buffalo Bills of the AFL signed kicker Pete Gogolak out of Cornell. He became the game’s first soccer-style kicker. Two seasons later the New York Giants of the rival NFL signed Gogolak away from the Bills. That event escalated into a “war” in which both leagues attempted to sign star players from the other league. Eventually, the two leagues worked a truce that resulted in a merger.


Vince Lombardi returned the nickname “Titletown U.S.A” to Green Bay. The man whose name now adorns the Super Bowl trophy led the Packers to five NFL titles and two Super Bowl victories during his nine years as the team’s head coach.


The American Football League made its debut on July 30, 1960 when the Buffalo Bills hosted a preseason game against the Boston Patriots at War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo. The AFL existed for 10 seasons before merging with the NFL in 1970. As part of the merger, the records from the AFL were incorporated into the NFL Record Book.


In 1967, New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath became the first player ever to throw for 4,000 yards in a season. The following year he led the Jets to an upset victory over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.


Tom Dempsey of the New Orleans Saints kicked a record 63-yard field goal to give the New Orleans Saints a thrilling win over the Detroit Lions on Nov. 8, 1970. The record has been tied but never broken.


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Hall of Fame safety Ken Houston of the Houston Oilers returned two interceptions for scores on Dec. 19, 1971. In doing so he established a record for most “pick-sixes” in a season (4) and a career (9). The picks against the San Diego Chargers came just 34 seconds apart.


The Miami Dolphins tandem of Larry Csonka and Eugene “Mercury” Morris became the first running back duo from the same team to rush for 1,000 yards in the same season. The milestone wasn’t revealed until days after the Dolphins undefeated regular season. A review of the stats revealed an error and Morris was credited nine yards which allowed him to reach the 1,000-yard mark.


O.J. Simpson shattered the single-season rushing record and became the game’s first 2,000-yard rusher when he gained 200 yards against the New York Jets in the season finale on Dec. 16, 1973. 


The legendary George Blanda became the first player to score 2,000 career points. The 48-year old reached the milestone in his 26th and final season during the Raiders’ 28-20 win over the Kansas City Chiefs on Dec. 21, 1975.


By the time he retired in 1978, Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton established the four major career passing records – attempts, completions, yards and touchdowns. His records fell to Dan Marino in 1995 and are now held by Brett Favre.


Paul Krause of the Minnesota Vikings became the NFL’s all-time leading interceptor when he picked off a pair of passes against the Los Angeles Rams on Dec. 2, 1979. Krause’s total of 81 interceptions broke the mark he shared with fellow Hall of Famer and University of Iowa alum Emlen Tunnell. The mark still stands today.


Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett is the only player to have a 99-yard run. His record scamper came before a national television audience on Monday Night Football as the Cowboys faced the Minnesota Vikings in the 1982 regular season finale. The history-making run came on a broken play in which the Cowboys only had 10 players on the field and Dorsett wasn’t the designated ball carrier.


Jack Lambert epitomized toughness during his career as a key member of the Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty teams of the 1970s and early ‘80s. The middle linebacker of the Pittsburgh’s “Steel Curtain” defense best summed up his career best during his 1990 Hall of Fame Enshrinement speech. “If I could start my life all over again, I would be a professional football player. And, you damn well better believe I’d be a Pittsburgh Steeler!”


Walter Payton surpassed the great Jim Brown as the game’s all-time leading rusher on Oct. 7, 1984. The Chicago Bears Hall of Fame running back achieved the feat during his team’s 20-7 victory over the New Orleans Saints at Soldier Field in Chicago. At first he donated the ball from the carry to the Hall of Fame but after the season he received the record ball back and sent his entire uniform – helmet to shoes – from the game to the Hall.


After setting a rookie rushing record in 1983, the Los Angeles Rams Eric Dickerson ran for a record 2,105 yards in his second season. That single-season mark has yet to be broken. Dickerson broke the previous record held by O.J. Simpson during a 215-yard effort against the Houston Oilers in the second to last week of the season. He finished the year with a total of 2,105 yards.


Bud Grant led the Minnesota Vikings to great success during his 18-season reign as the team’s head coach. Under his tutelage the Vikings won 11 division titles and made four Super Bowl appearances.


Doug Williams became the first African American quarterback to start a Super Bowl. His 340-yard, 4 TD performance earned him MVP honors as he led the Washington Redskins to a dominating 42-10 victory in Super Bowl XXII. His jersey and helmet from the game were added to the Hall of Fame’s collection in 2009 and the helmet arrived and was placed on exhibit on the morning that the Hall’s new Lamar Hunt Super Bowl Gallery opened for the first time.


Hall of Fame QB Jim Kelly led the Buffalo Bills to a 51-3 win in the 1990 AFC Championship Game to give the Bills’ their first Super Bowl berth in franchise history. It was the first of an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowl appearances. Kelly, upon being elected to the Hall of Fame in 2002, donated a significant collection of playbooks, jerseys, helmets, and more to the museum.


Art Monk of the Washington Redskins became the league’s all-time leading receiver during a Monday Night Football matchup on Oct. 12, 1992 when he caught his 820th career reception to surpass the mark held at the time by Steve Largent. Monk held the record briefly as Jerry Rice broke the record three seasons later.


In 1994, Minnesota Vikings receiver Cris Carter shattered the single-season mark when he hauled in 122 catches. His entire uniform and the ball he caught to break the record held by Sterling Sharpe of the Green Bay Packers was sent to the Hall of Fame.


Glyn Milburn of the Denver Broncos racked up a single-game record of 404 all-purpose yards against the Seattle Seahawks on Dec. 10, 1995. His total came via 131 yards rushing, 45 receiving, 95 on punt returns, and 133 on kickoff returns.


Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was the leader on defense for the team during their championship season in 2000. The team set a record for fewest points allowed (165) and fewest rushing yards allowed (970) in a 16-game season. The year was capped by Lewis’ MVP performance in Super Bowl XXXV. 


Emmitt Smith of the Dallas Cowboys became the NFL’s all-time leading rusher on Oct. 27, 2002. The Hall of Famer broke the record held by Walter Payton since 1984 on an 11-yard run in the fourth quarter of the game against the Seattle Seahawks. Smith finished his career with a total of 18,355 rushing yards.


Michael Strahan set the NFL’s single-season record for sacks with a sack of Green Bay Packers QB Brett Favre on Jan. 6, 2002. His total reached 22.5 sacks to snap the record set by the New York Jets Mark Gastineau in 1984.


LaDainian Tomlinson’s exploits on the football field are well represented in the Hall of Fame. Among the many noteworthy milestones preserved in Canton is the accomplishment he made in 2003. The San Diego Chargers running back became the first player ever to rush for 1,000 yards and record 100 receptions in the same season.


Tony Gonzalez has established virtually every career receiving mark for a tight end during his career with the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons. Many mementos from these milestones are in the Hall of Fame’s collection. Such examples include the jersey, shoes, and gloves he wore on Oct. 14, 2007 when caught his 63rd TD, the most ever by a tight end.


Brett Favre, who set nearly every major career passing record as a member of the Green Bay Packers, became the first QB to throw for 70,000 yards in a career. He achieved the feat as a member of the Minnesota Vikings in a game against the New York Jets on Oct. 11, 2010.


The Chicago Bears shutout the Miami Dolphins on Nov. 18, 2010. The victory made the Bears the first team in NFL history to chalk up 700 regular season wins. The Bears are one of two franchises remaining from the NFL’s inaugural 1920 season. The franchise began as the Decatur Staleys.


Drew Brees broke the single-season passing yardage record in Week 16 of the 2011 season. The Saints QB broke the mark held by Dan Marino since 1984 and finished the year with 5,476 yards. He also became the first player in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards in a season twice.


Ed Reed returned an interception 34 yards for a touchdown during Kickoff Weekend 2012. In doing so, he set the league’s all-time record for interception return yardage. He broke the mark held by Hall of Famer Rod Woodson.


Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans became the first player in league history to have four or more TD runs of 80-plus yards in his career. He reached the milestone with an 83-yard TD run against the Buffalo Bills in Week 7 of the 2012 season. Two weeks later, he added to the mark with an 80-yard touchdown run against the Chicago Bears.
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