Let's Learn From the Past: The birthplace of pro football
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While many Western Pennsylvanians profess that "football is in our blood," few fans know that 120 years ago, our region hosted the first professional football game in American history.
Well-established by the 1890s, amateur football flourished at the region's colleges, universities and athletic clubs. Drawn to the game by the often violent action and athleticism, more than 3,000 fans attended a grudge match on Nov. 12, 1892, between the rival Allegheny Athletic Association and the Pittsburgh Athletic Club.
Snowfall and disagreements delayed the game's start at Recreation Park, the site of today's Heinz Field, but when the Allegheny Athletic Association finally took the field, three ringers joined the club's regulars.
One of those players was William "Pudge" Heffelfinger, a former All-American guard at Yale University. During the first half of play, Heffelfinger forced a fumble, scooped up the ball and raced 25 yards on the snow-covered field for the game's only touchdown. The Allegheny Athletic Association won 4-0 in a contest shortened by darkness.
Although the Allegheny Athletic Association never admitted to paying Heffelfinger, nearly 80 years later, researchers uncovered an accounting ledger testifying to his $500 cash payout. The ledger's faded ink reads "game performance bonus to W. Heffelfinger for playing (cash) $500."
Professional football was born on the North Side that day.
Forty years after Heffelfinger's paid performance, Art Rooney Sr. founded Pittsburgh's first professional franchise, first known as the Pirates. Today, the Steelers franchise continues to rewrite the record books, helping to establish an unmatched legacy of professional football in Pittsburgh.
Visitors can learn more about the first professional football game in Pittsburgh -- and see the 1892 accounting ledger known as "Pro Football's Birth Certificate" -- as part of the Heinz History Center's newest exhibition, "Gridiron Glory: The Best of the Pro Football Hall of Fame." For more information, visit www.heinzhistorycenter.org.
First Published November 8, 2012 12:00 am