Joe Burrow played football at Athens High, in southeastern Ohio in the foothills of Appalachia, 21 miles from the Ohio River. As a senior, he was named Ohio’s Mr. Football. After a stint at Ohio State, Burrow lit up LSU, in Baton Rouge, on the mighty Mississippi. He led the Tigers to a national championship and won a Heisman. Now he’s steered the NFL Bengals of Cincinnati, one of the Ohio River’s grandest cities, to a Super Bowl appearance this Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams.
California is California but the Midwest has the best rivers. And when it comes to rivers, the Ohio is the Jordan of pro football, and Burrow is Young Man River.
The Ohio begins in Pittsburgh, at the confluence of the Allegheny and the Monongahela. Steel City is where the first professional football teams took root in the 1890s. The river flows by Moundsville, WV, subject of our acclaimed PBS documentary, and possibly the victim of the first forward pass in pro football history.
Before it gets to Cincinnati, the Ohio runs by Portsmouth, OH, which had an early pro team and subject of Peerless City, a new documentary film inspired by Moundsville, and Ironton, OH, another village with an unlikely pro football past that likely started the tradition of playing your archrival on Thanksgiving Day.
In the decades after 1900, steamboats and trains shipped football up and down the Ohio as it evolved from an Ivy League incarnation of rugby to Midwestern factory town muddy gladiatorial combat to America’s favorite Sunday pastime. The history of football is also a tale of culture and class, of the connections between towns and cities, and of the growth of leisure in industrial America.
The first recorded college game was Princeton v. Rutgers in 1869 (Rutgers won, 6-4). After the Industrial Revolution, semi-pro factory, club, and town teams hired working-class toughs, as well as flashy Ivy Leaguers. One of the first pro football squads represented what’s now the Carnegie Library in Homestead, PA. They paid cash, a few hundred bucks a season at the most. The best players hopped trains from town to town, playing for the highest bidder. Teams played in loose affiliations that did not resemble today’s leagues. The National Football League wouldn’t be created until 1920. For many decades, the college game would remain the more popular version.
This version of the game was far more dangerous than today’s. In a classic 2012 Sports Illustrated account, Richard Hoffer described a bloody battle.
In 1905, 18 men died playing football and hundreds more were seriously injured, some of them paralyzed at the point of a flying wedge, a medieval formation that promised a certain kind of gladiatorial excitement. There was a growing outcry, especially in the bigger cities and certain universities, and even calls for the sport’s abolition. President Theodore Roosevelt, supposedly horrified by a picture of a bloodied Tiny Maxwell (no such picture has ever been reproduced), threatened to ban the game by presidential order. The rules were changed in January 1906 to open up the game with the forward pass, but football remained as coarse and violent as ever.
Midwestern industrial America, a smoky land of striving immigrants doing hard, dangerous physical labor, fell in love. By 1906, wrote Hoffer, football “had grown into a fairly important pastime, especially in the hinterlands of Ohio and Pennsylvania. The bigger cities, with grander ideas of themselves, clung to the more refined entertainments, such as opera and baseball, leaving football to the blue-collar towns, where few felt the need to apologize for their tastes in recreation.”
Two Ohio super-teams formed: the Canton Bulldogs and the Massillon Tigers. They spent fortunes to buy up all the best players “for the glory of winning the Ohio state title,” said Gregg Ficery, author of Gridiron Legacy, a new book about pro football’s origins. “There were probably hundreds of teams all over the country, and skill-wise, they couldn’t compete. It would have been like a high school team playing the Chiefs.”
In November 1906, Massillon and Canton played twice in a series Hoffer baptized football’s first Super Bowl. They split the first two games, leading some to suspect a prearranged third game that never happened.
Instead, headlines of an alleged gambling scandal forced the Bulldogs to plead with the Tigers to play an exhibition game, which few fans chose to attend, to raise money for their players’ train fares home. The incident derailed pro football’s development for nearly a decade just as it was taking off.
In the months before, however, Canton and Massillon’s seasons included games against a mix of collegiate, amateur, and pro teams in their vicinity, including even Moundsville.
When the NFL’s ancestor was finally created in 1920, in a Canton car dealership, it featured 14 teams. Five were in Ohio: the Akron Pros, the Canton Bulldogs, the Cleveland Tigers, the Columbus Panhandles, and the Dayton Triangles.
As Vince Guerrieri wrote in a recent story for the marvelous Belt Magazine:
The NFL’s roots run deep in the Buckeye State. The founding of the American Professional Football Association—in a Hupmobile dealership in Canton—absorbed a lot of teams from the Ohio League, a semi-pro circuit of the state’s industrial towns. Two years later, the league formally renamed itself the National Football League in a meeting at Cleveland’s famous Hollenden Hotel. In its first decade, there were teams in Larue, Columbus, Dayton, Canton, Akron, Ironton, and Portsmouth.
Cincinnati wouldn’t get a team until the 1930s. It was called the Bengals over other contenders such as “Elephants”, Guerrieri writes, because the coach’s mother “found inspiration from his mother’s kitchen, which had a Bengal range.”
When the American Football League gave Cincinnati a new franchise in the 1960s, the name Bengals was adopted because the city’s zoo had a famous Bengal tiger.
The team has famously struggled. They blew games in spectacular fashion. They mucked up draft picks. The Bungles won conference championships in 1981 and 1988, but hadn’t won a playoff game in over 30 years before Joe Burrow showed up.
Joe’s dad Jimmy is a former Green Bay Packer who moved his family to Plains, OH, a town of 3,000 near Athens with many similarities to Moundsville, in 2005, to work as Ohio University’s defensive coordinator. Upon receiving his Heisman, Burrow said: “I’m up here for all those kids in Athens.”
Burrow is young but he knows that his roots, like those of pro football itself, will always be right by the river.
John W. Miller