Historical Markers
First Professional Football Game Historical Marker
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First Professional Football Game

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburgh

Dedication Date:
November 3, 1992

Behind the Marker

Team Photo of 1st team of all paid football players in uniform.
The Latrobe Athletic Association football team, 1897.
Baseball had become so popular and spread so quickly, that by the outbreak of the Civil War even the smallest towns fielded a team. Though the game was strictly amateur, savvy captains realized they could lure players away from the competition with promises of employment, expenses, gifts, and under-the-table payments. In 1865, the Philadelphia Athletics shattered the amateur myth by importing a New Yorker named markerAl Reach and openly paying him $25 a week. Within a few years, baseball had its first professional league.

Football was a different enterprise with a different ethos. Although its roots, like baseball's, lay in older English exports, this new hybrid evolving from soccer and rugby produced a much more chaotic game. On the field, football approached sanctioned mayhem. Off the field, it was not much better. Into the 1890s, football's rules, strategies, formations, and scoring system were all very much in flux. There were no professional teams and no professional players yet. Indeed, the most proficient and influential squads were the collegiate elevens, especially those from the elite eastern universities, such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Penn, that would later coalesce into the Ivy League.

By the 1880s, the sporting associations and amateur athletic clubs that had formed earlier in the century around baseball were beginning to sponsor football teams. Particularly popular in and around industrial centers with populations between 10,000 and 50,000, football had a strong appeal to blue-collar workers and recent immigrants. The game was gritty, and so were they. On the field, competition among these clubs was fierce. Pride was at stake. So was money. Even then, betting on football was as passionate as it was pervasive, which meant that off-the-field competition for the best players was also ferocious. It was no secret that bigger clubs regularly tip-toed around amateur regulations with the same kinds of incentives pre-professional baseball had employed.

On November 12, 1892, Pittsburgh's two best elevens were scheduled to collide at Recreation Field, not far from where the Steelers play today. Although the Allegheny Athletic Association, nicknamed the 3As, was only two years old, and the Pittsburgh Athletic Club, dubbed the East Enders, was a year younger, their rivalry was already heated. On Columbus Day, they had clawed out a 6-6 tie. Both sides were desperate to win the rematch. Badly enough, in fact, to circumvent the rules and to alter the game's complexion.

Photograph of Heffelfinger in uniform, sitting on a fence, posing for photograph.
William (Pudge) Heffelfinger, the first professional football player, circa...
The day's events between the goal posts–two victories for the Allegheny side–hardly matter. What happened before the game ever started is what cements the date in football history. That is when the 3As paid William "Pudge" Heffelfinger $500 to become an Allegheny for the afternoon, ten times the cost of renting the field!

The most celebrated footballer of the nineteenth century, Heffelfinger revolutionized line play during his four years at Yale. Instead of playing against whoever lined up against him, Heffelfinger used his speed and strength to pull out from his guard position to run interference for the ball carrier behind. Named to the first three All-America teams, he moved to Nebraska after graduating in 1891 for an office job with the Great Northern Railroad. In the fall of 1892, he left to join the Chicago Athletic Association on an East Coast tour for six weeks. Chicago had agreed to pay double expense money for his services. And the pot would sweeten.

With its showdown against the 3As fast approaching, Pittsburgh sent a scout to watch Heffelfinger against Cleveland. Shortly after the game, the Pittsburgh press reported that the club made Heffelfinger and another Chicagoan an offer of $250 each to suit up against Allegheny. Then it was 3As turn.

Organized by a group of Pittsburgh pillars who also had played football at Yale, the Allegheny wanted Heffelfinger badly. They matched Pittsburgh's offer. When Heffelfinger balked at jeopardizing his amateur standing for $250, they doubled it. On November 12, Heffelfinger and two Chicago teammates stepped onto Recreation Field in Allegheny colors. And then all hell broke loose.

A young man in a uniform posing with a football in his hand.
John Brallier, circa 1895.
Pittsburgh refused to play against the ringers. The great Heffelfinger, charged its coach, would upset the balance and skew the wagering. Allegheny countered that Pittsburgh had approached Heffelfinger first. "Confusion dire reigned," reported one local sportswriter. When Pittsburgh boarded its bus to go home, the referee declared Allegheny victorious by forfeit, but to salvage the afternoon–and the anticipation of the large crowd who had paid to see both a grudge match and the great Heffelfinger–Allegheny agreed to take on a quickly assembled eleven from nearby Western University.

Ten minutes into the game, the East Enders returned with a compromise proposal, agreeing to play if the game were declared an exhibition and all bets determined by the forfeit cancelled. Allegheny consented, and what followed was another tight contest. Heffelfinger scored the only touchdown; he forced a Pittsburgh fumble and then raced twenty-five yards into the end zone yards with the recovery. The final tally,under the old points system, was 4-0.

It took some time for tempers between the clubs to settle. The East Enders protested any payment made to Heffelfinger. The 3As justified it as a pre-emptive strike. Clear proof of any money openly changing hands did not exist until Allegheny's expense accounting for the season, unequivocally displaying the Heffelfinger payment, surfaced eight decades later. Ironically, before that smoking gun appeared, football historians believed that another player from Western Pennsylvania–John Brallier, of Latrobe, in 1895–was the first to play as an open professional. The Allegheny accounting sheet proved Heffelfinger the first. It also showed that the 3As began paying others the following week, and, in 1893, put three players under contract, at $50 a game each, for the entire season.

More than thirty years after that first professional football game, most sports fans considered pro football, even with the likes of a markerJim Thorpe in uniform, little more than a sideshow to the main event of themarker college game. That finally changed in the mid-1920s when the nation's best college player, markerRed Grange, left the University Illinois to sign an astonishing $100,000 contract with the Chicago Bears. His signing immediately gave the unstable National Football League the two qualities it needed most: an enormous star attraction and the credibility that came with it. From then on, professional football was here to stay. Its origin, however, remains written in the dust of what was once Recreation Field.
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