A man named Pudge made football history

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I admit from the outset that the main reason I'm writing this column is for the excuse to say "Pudge Heffelfinger.''

Typing that isn't nearly as much fun as saying it. Try it. Roll it around on your tongue once. Pudge Heffelfinger -- not even Dr. Seuss could improve on that.

He's remembered because 120 years ago, ol' Pudge spent a snowy afternoon playing football on what's now the North Side. He scored the game's only touchdown, but that's not what makes him special. Football historians talk about him because Mr. Heffelfinger (heh, heh, Heffelfinger) got paid $500 to play for the Allegheny Athletic Association in its grudge match with the Pittsburgh Athletic Association from across the river.

Sports 'n 'at: The first professional football player

Bob Dvorchak describes how professional football gots its start -- right here in Pittsburgh. (Video by Steve Mellon; 11/14/11)

Pro football was born that day.

The Allegheny Association's handwritten accounting ledger has a notation for Nov. 12, 1892: "W. Heffelfinger for playing (cash) - $500.00" (Pudge's given name was William.) That ledger is generally acknowledged as "pro football's birth certificate," and it's one of 200 artifacts on display at the Senator John Heinz History Center through Jan. 6, 2013. They're on loan from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Pudge's story is old news to me. I live just a long spiral from the site of old Recreation Park, where that 1892 game was played. The playing field stood about a half-mile north of Heinz Field, around Behan Street hard by the railroad tracks that now belong to Norfolk Southern. That was where Heffelfinger, the ringer who'd been an All-American at Yale University, forced a fumble, grabbed the pigskin, and ran 25 yards to a snow-dusted end zone. The final score was 4-0 because touchdowns only counted for four points then.

During the Victorian Christmas house tours each year in our Allegheny West neighborhood, some of us tour guides find a way to slip "Heffelfinger'' into our spiels as we walk. It sounds so festive that if you slap a couple of tra-la-las at either end it's a snug fit. Were you writing the script for a violent game's birth, though, you'd probably give the first pro a more intimidating moniker.

"It's not 'Bronko Nagurski,' '' acknowledged Joe Horrigan, vice president of communications and exhibits for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Heffelfinger's photo shows he was a pretty imposing dude nonetheless, and he's been acknowledged as the first pro since sometime in the 1970s. That's when officials at the Hall of Fame took a closer look at a ledger sheet they'd had since 1963. Before that, John Brallier, who'd received 10 bucks in 1895 to play for the Latrobe Athletic Association against a team from Jeannette, had been regarded as the first pro.

Given that Mr. Heffelfinger came to Pittsburgh from Chicago to play in this one game, and that his payment wasn't openly confirmed at the time, it's possible he'd been paid under the table in the Windy City, too. Or maybe one of his teammates had been. Until there is other documentation, though, you can't spell professional football without P-U-D-G-E H-E-F-F-E-L-F-I-N-G-E-R.

The pro game can't go back much further than 1892 because it's only around this time that the club football teams were emerging. Western Pennsylvania was the spawning ground, Mr. Horrigan said, due either to the lack of major college competition or that same "something in the water'' that would later produce so many pro quarterbacks.

Contemporary news accounts in the Pittsburgh Post said that 5,000 spectators were expected for that 1892 game, and today a historical marker stands outside Heinz Field noting that pro football traces its origins to this game where Mr. Heffelfinger made $500 -- about $12,325 in today's dollars.

That the pro game began just a 10-minute stroll from where, 80 years later, Franco Harris made the game's most famous play with his "Immaculate Reception'' is akin to if Babe Ruth had set his home run record in Cooperstown, Mr. Horrigan said.

The proof is on that ledger page now in the Heinz History Center. That, too, is a first for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Mr. Horrigan said.

"It's the first time our Magna Carta has been out of the building.''

Steelers - brianoneill

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947. First Published October 28, 2012 4:00 AM


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