March 25, 2017

National Football League Chief Executives

The National Football League (NFL) is an unincorporated nonprofit, trade association composed of and financed by thirty-two member franchises. Its officers include a Commissioner, Secretary, and Treasurer. The Commissioner, who is elected by the affirmative vote of two-thirds or eighteen—whichever is greater—teams of the league, appoints the Secretary and Treasurer and has broad authority in disputes among and between coaches, clubs, employees, and players.[1]

Being the league’s principal executive officer, the Commissioner can hire employees, negotiate television contracts, and discipline individuals who own part or all of a team and anyone employed by teams if they violated the bylaws or committed conduct detrimental to the welfare of the league or professional football. In addition, the Commissioner can, in the event of misconduct by anyone associated with the NFL, suspend individuals and issue a fine up to $500,000, cancel contracts, and award or strip teams of their draft picks.

In extremely egregious cases, a Commissioner may offer recommendations to the NFL’s Executive Committee including the cancellation or forfeiture of a club’s franchise or any other action deemed necessary. He can also issue sanctions such as a lifetime ban from the league if an individual associated with the NFL has bet on games or failed to notify the league of conspiracies or plans to bet on or fix games.

Given their authority, power, and responsibility in leading a popular, prominent, and longstanding professional football organization, this essay discusses the impact, role, and significance of three former NFL presidents and five commissioners including the league’s current commissioner Roger Goodell. Each of them served as the NFL’s chief executive officer during short or long run periods of opportunity, turmoil, and/or success. The first officer became the American Professional Football Conference (APFC)—renamed American Professional Football Association (APFA)—president in 1920 while the most recent leader, Roger Goodell, became NFL commissioner in 2006. In minor and major ways, they and the other six men contributed to the growth of professional football and the prosperity of the league in sports markets across the United States and internationally.

Presidents

Jim Thorpe

Before a season-ending series between the Canton Bulldogs and archrival Massillon Tigers in 1915, Bulldogs general manager Jack Cusack signed the world’s most famous athlete, Jim Thorpe, and paid him $250 a game. Thorpe met Cusack’s expectations of being an exceptional talent and an unparalleled gate attraction. With Thorpe as star and coach, the Bulldogs were Ohio League and unofficial world football champions in 1916–17 and 1919.

While some people exaggerated Thorpe’s exploits, he was a superb athlete. He could run with speed and bruising power, throw and catch passes with the best, punt long distances, and score field goals by dropkick or placekick. In fact, Thorpe demonstrated his ability during halftimes of games by placekicking field goals from the fifty-yard line, turning around, and then dropkicking footballs through the opposite goal post. In addition, he blocked with authority and, on defense, was a bone-jarring tackler.[2]

When the APFA organized in 1920, its charter members elected Thorpe president and Stanley Cofall vice president. During that year, several teams joined the APFA while others finished the season, disbanded, and had their franchises canceled by the league. There were no official standings and clubs played games against nonleague opponents. At a meeting in April 1921, the APFA awarded the 1920 championship to the undefeated Akron Pros.

While his position as president was symbolic and not administrative or managerial, Thorpe played for the Bulldogs in 1920–21 and then the Oorang Indians. In 1922, Walter Lingo purchased the Indians for $100, sponsored it to publicize his Airedale Kennels, and used Thorpe as a player, coach, and to recruit native Indian football players from the U.S. With no home field although based in LaRue, Ohio, the team was entertaining and had colorful halftime shows but disbanded after finishing 1–10 in 1923. After playing for several teams in the 1920s, Thorpe retired at 41-years-old in 1929 while a member of the Chicago Cardinals. In 1963, a committee admitted Thorpe into the Professional Football Hall of Fame located in Canton, Ohio.

Joe Carr

No one better understood the necessity of bringing credibility, discipline, and order to early-day professional football games than Joe Carr, who then was a former Columbus, Ohio newspaperman and manager of the APFA’s struggling Columbus Panhandles. His persistence paid off when the league reorganized in Akron and he replaced Jim Thorpe as president of the organization in the spring of 1921. That year under Carr’s leadership, the league moved its headquarters to Columbus, Ohio, drafted a constitution and bylaws, assigned teams territorial rights, restricted player movements, developed membership criteria for franchises, and established official standings for the first time.  As a result, membership increased from fourteen to twenty-one teams and the Chicago Staleys competed to win the league’s championship.

While president during 1921–39, Carr gave the league stability, integrity, and rigid enforcement. A dedicated, no-nonsense administrator, he strongly felt the public had an inherent right to know the league was operating capably, efficiently, and honestly. After the APFA changed its name to National Football League (NFL) in June 1922, Carr established a standard player contract modeled from one used by teams in MLB. In addition, he cracked down on the hiring of collegians under assumed names. When the Green Bay Packers, a new team in 1921, ignored Carr’s edict, he forfeited the franchise and then renewed it under new ownership a few months later.

In 1925, All-American halfback Harold (Red) Grange stunned the football world by joining the NFL’s Chicago Bears just ten days after his final game with the University of Illinois. Sensing that resentment in college circles would persist if such practices continued, Carr ruled that no NFL team could sign a college player until he completed his eligibility. Any violators would receive a stiff fine and/or loss of their franchise.

Joe Carr recognized that, to survive, the NFL needed teams in large cities. His first target was New York City and, through Joe’s efforts, the New York Giants and Detroit Panthers joined the league in 1925. The 73,000 crowd that turned out at the Polo Grounds later that year to see the Red Grange-led Bears and 75,000 who attended a Bears game against the Los Angeles Tigers in California, proved fans from big cities would support pro football.

For his other achievements, Carr was president of the NFL during the Great Depression of the 1930s when teams barely existed as competitors. To make the league more stable, he worked tirelessly to attract financially capable new owners. In December 1933, Carr arranged for an end-of-year championship game in which the Western Division champion Bears defeated the Eastern Division champion Giants 23–21 at Wrigley Field in Chicago. This event marked the beginning of football’s modern era. However, that year Carr banned African Americans from competing on teams in the league because, in his opinion, whites needed jobs more than did men of color.

Author and researcher Chris Willis, who wrote The Man Who Built the National Football League, believes that Carr was a remarkable leader since he laid a solid foundation of modern professional football during 1922–37. Being “the Henry Ford of the NFL,” Carr was a tireless visionary who rose from his modest Irish upbringing to create one of America’s first traveling football teams, the Columbus Panhandles, in the early part of the 1900s and guided a new professional football league named the APFA during the early 1920s.[3]

With unlimited access to and complete cooperation of Carr’s family and associates—including interviews, personal letters, and photos—as well as NFL minutes at meetings, Willis found Carr to be a diligent and straight-shooting league president who oversaw many achievements sports fans take for granted in the 2000s. These are standard player’s contracts, rules for college recruitment, professional football regulations, players’ statistics, and the creation of two NFL divisions, an NFL draft, and a championship game between winners of two divisions. According to Willis, while professional football has grown to unheard of heights, Carr’s name and accomplishments have been lost and forgotten. Truly, Carr had a fascinating life and total dedication to the game.

Joe Carr was president of the American Basketball League in 1925–28 and served as president of the Columbus Senators’ minor league baseball team during 1926–31. In May 1939, he died at the age of fifty-eight. Because of his important contributions to establishing the NFL, Carr won election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963.

Carl Storck

Chris Willis, in his biography of Joe Carr, made it clear that Carr had help in building the league. Carr’s able assistant throughout his eighteen-year career was Carl Storck, the owner of the NFL’s Dayton Triangles and the league’s secretary, treasurer, vice president, and eventually its president. Storck was a stout, 250-pound former lineman known for his jovial, friendly nature. After graduating from college in 1917, he joined the hometown Triangles as its assistant manager. When the team’s manager Mike Redelle joined the military in 1918, Storck filled his position. Two years later, he and Redelle bought the team, and Storck attended the APFA’s organizational meetings.

Elected secretary and treasurer of the NFL in 1921, Storck became the Triangles coach in 1922. As the league grew, cities like Dayton became less able to compete against teams from such large places as Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New York, and Rochester. In fact, Storck’s team won only four games in 1922 and then just four more in his last four years as coach after stars like Al Mahrt and Herb Sies left the team.

After Storck gave up coaching, the Triangles managed just one win in its final three years of the 1920s. He sold his sinking franchise to Brooklyn investors in 1930 but continued to operate a minor league baseball team named the Dayton Wings for ten years. During that period, Storck continued with his unpaid league duties while working as a foreman in the Inspection and Packing department at National Cash Register and then as Assistant Works Manager of General Motors’ Delco Products.

When Joe Carr died suddenly in 1939, Storck became the NFL’s acting president. While team owners generally liked him, they did not consider Storck as a long-term solution as president. In 1940, they stripped away some of his control of game officials and offered the presidency to Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward who turned them down. The next year, team owners rewrote the league’s constitution to create the new, more powerful position of commissioner and offered it to Ward. Again, he refused it but instead recommended Notre Dame coach Elmer Layden, one of Knute Rockne’s legendary Four Horsemen.

During early April of 1941, Storck announced he was leaving his sick bed after seven weeks of suffering from nervous exhaustion to fight the move at NFL meetings. He told reporters, “For fifteen years I worked for nothing. Two years ago when I became president, I didn’t quit my job with General Motors because I was afraid something like this would happen.” The next day, Storck surprised everyone by resigning in the best interests of the league. He did not go quietly, though, telling the Dayton Herald, “I’ll never take orders from a man I do not respect. I am convinced that [Elmer] Layden is not qualified to handle the job, due mostly to his lack of administrative experience in professional sports.” Nevertheless, Layden was steamrolled into his job when George Halas, Chicago Bears’ president, and Arch Ward, Chicago Tribune sports editor, saw an opportunity to put it across. This, of course, was true.[4]

Within two years, disagreements with the league’s powerful George Preston Marshall (owner of the Washington Redskins) led to Storck’s ouster. He was through in professional football, the thing he loved most, and his life was never the same. Storck returned to Dayton as assistant to the works manager at Delco but eight years later—sick and bitter—he retired. He was forty-nine years old. Although he lived eight more years, they were periods far away from executive suites and the excitement and clamor of football stadiums. His health continued to decline and, in 1945, he entered a rest home and never left it. Financial woes added to his physical ones. Finally, Storck was broke. At that time, the NFL had no regular pension fund, and only a special pension voted hastily by franchise members kept the league’s former president from spending his last days in the Montgomery County home.

Carl Storck had a stroke and ultimately died in a nursing home in 1950 at the age of fifty-seven. His family maintained, however, that he died from a broken heart after betrayed by his colleagues in his life’s work. In retrospect, Carl Storck was a significant person who presided over growing the league. Unfortunately, like Joe Carr, he was not destined to savor the burgeoning success of the NFL due to his sudden death. Yet, he was present and active in the creation and emergence of the league and its potential as one of the leading sports institutions in the nation. According to the literature, Storck’s most notable act was refusing to allow creation of the Pennsylvania Keystoners, which was a proposed merger of the Philadelphia Eagles and what would become the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Commissioners

Elmer Layden

After being one of the four Horsemen at Notre Dame in 1922–24, Elmer Layden played in the backfield of such semiprofessional/professional teams as the Hartford Blues, Brooklyn Horsemen, and Rock Island Independents. In 1925–40, he was an administrator with Columbia College in Iowa, Duquesne University, and then Notre Dame. After Carl Storch resigned as NFL president in early 1941, Elmer Layden left his college alma mater to become the league’s first commissioner.

For five years, he led the NFL through instability and uncertainty of the World War II era in which teams had to use athletes of inferior or limited abilities as replacements while most regular players were engaged in military operations somewhere in Europe. During this period, a few NFL teams temporarily merged due to the scarcity of skilled professional football players in America. Most notably, the Pittsburgh Steelers merged with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1943 and became the Phil-Pitt Steagles. However, unlike the Pennsylvania Keystoners idea, which intended to be permanent, the Steagles performed only one year despite winning five or fifty percent of their games. In addition, the Western Divison’s Cleveland Rams ceased to operate in the 1943 season, and the Eastern Division’s Brooklyn Dodgers folded after winning zero games in 1944.

When the war ended, Brooklyn Dodgers owner Dan Topping withdrew his franchise from the NFL to join the new All-American Football Conference (AAFC). When remaining team owners felt that Commissioner Layden was simply too gentle, lenient, and not forceful enough, they did not renew his contract. Thus, he retired in 1946.  Elmer Layden had a successful career in business before dying at 70-years-old in June 1973.

Bert Bell

Born to a prominent family of significant wealth and influence in 1895, Bert Bell was involved with football most of his life. In academics, he transferred from Episcopal Academy to the Delancey School, and then to Haverford School in Pennsylvania where he captained the football, basketball, and baseball teams as a senior. Fulfilling his somewhat predetermined fate, Bell enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania (aka Penn Quakers) in 1914. After a year of freshman football and another on the scrub team, he became the Quakers’ varsity quarterback. Bell was a firebrand and besides playing quarterback, he punted, returned punts, kicked field goals, and played defense. In 1916, the cocky quarterback led Penn to the Rose Bowl.

After serving in France with the 20th General Field Hospital in 1918, Bell returned home to be captain of the Quakers for his final season and then remained at Penn as an assistant coach under John Heisman and Louis Young for nine years. Later, Temple University hired him as an assistant coach for two seasons.

In 1933, Bell and three former Penn teammates acquired the NFL’s former Frankford Yellow Jackets. Since a large city was more attractive as a site for his team than Frankford, Bell moved the Yellow Jackets to Philadelphia and renamed them the Eagles in honor of the symbol of Franklin Roosevelt’s National Recovery Act. Bell became the team’s coach, business manager, publicist, and ticket seller, and single-handedly kept the Eagles afloat until 1940 when he joined Art Rooney as part owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Six years later, Bell sold his interest in the Steelers and became NFL commissioner.

As commissioner, Bert Bell was a fearless and tireless leader who guided the league to new heights of popularity. Early in his career, he prepared the NFL for a costly struggle with its rival, the AAFC. Steadfastly rejecting any settlement that would leave the AAFC intact, Bell finally presided over a merger after the 1949 football season that brought the AAFC’s Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns, and San Francisco 49ers into the NFL.

During his first year as league commissioner, Bell took a strong anti-gambling stance that marked the start of tough conduct codes. Another far-sighted action was his handling of the emerging television industry. Realizing that televising home games would negatively affect stadium attendances and team revenues, Bell formulated a policy to permit the broadcast of only road games to home cities. As such, this protected gate revenues while making previously unavailable away games accessible to fans.

Bell exhibited a rare fortitude when he first recognized the NFL Players’ Association. Confronted by angry owners, he simply referred to the league’s constitution, which permitted him to act on any matter in the best interests of pro football. During October 1959, while watching his former two teams, the Eagles and Steelers, play at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field, Bert suffered a fatal heart attack. The fact he died at an NFL game seemed appropriate for a man who made pro football his major concern in life.[5]

Pete Rozelle

Born during March 1926 in South Gate, California, Alvin Ray Rozelle, nicknamed Pete by an uncle, grew up in Lynwood and played basketball and tennis at Compton High School. After graduating from there, he served in the Navy and part-time on an auxiliary tanker in the Pacific during 1944–46. When the NFL expanded westward in 1946, the champion Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles. They practiced at Compton Junior College, where Rozelle was a freshman. He helped the team’s publicity department and met Rams’ executive Tex Schramm.

After Junior College, Rozelle attended the University of San Francisco (USF), where he became the school’s sports information director. He graduated in 1950 and took a second job as assistant athletic director. Two years later, Schramm hired Rozelle to be the Rams’ public relations director. In 1955, he left there to become partner in a firm that did publicity work for the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, but in one year, returned to the Rams as its general manager.

In January 1960, 33-year-old Rozelle became NFL commissioner after seven days and twenty-three rounds of balloting. Someone told him about his election in the bathroom. After emerging, he jokingly told owners, “I come to you with clean hands.” In fact, Rozelle’s selection was a compromise after owners could not agree on two other candidates.

During his thirty years heading the NFL, Pete Rozelle was the premier commissioner in professional sports. A charismatic leader, he guided the league to unprecedented growth. His accomplishments are legendary while the league’s challenges were historical. Specifically, such things as blockbuster television contracts, war with the competing AFL and resulting merger, development of the Super Bowl into America’s premier sporting event, difficult player issues including strikes and threatened strikes, plus numerous court and legislative battles were headlines during his stewardship.

Throughout it all, Rozelle was a dominating factor. His leadership created the profound image of stability and integrity still associated with the NFL. He continually encouraged club owners to work together despite numerous challenges, while always demonstrating a calm, reassuring, strong management style. Indeed, Rozelle convinced NFL franchise owners to share their television revenues equally.

Pete Rozelle retired in 1989 after operating the league nearly three decades. Four years after inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame, which he helped establish in 1963, Rozelle died from a brain tumor. He left a legacy making him the Commissioner of all Commissioners. “Moving the NFL from the back page to the front page,” New York Giants owner Wellington Mara said, “from daytime to prime time.” Following Rozelle’s death, the league renamed the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Trophy in his honor.

Paul Tagliabue

Born in November 1940, Paul Tagliabue was a New Jersey high school honor student and highly recruited basketball player. He received an athletic scholarship from Georgetown University, where he majored in government and captained the 1961–62 basketball teams. In addition, he was president of his senior class and a Rhodes Scholar finalist and Dean’s List honor graduate. Then, Tagliabue attended New York University School of Law on a public-service scholarship, served as editor of the law review, and graduated with honors in 1965.

Tagliabue became associated with the NFL after hired by Washington D.C. law firm Covington & Burling, the league’s principal outside counsel. While working there, he represented the NFL as an attorney in important areas including television, expansion, legislative affairs, franchise moves, labor, and antitrust cases. By 1986, Tagliabue was a full partner with the firm and represented the NFL in the $1.6 billion antitrust lawsuit brought by the United States Football League (USFL). Although the NFL lost the case, the USFL received only $3 million. When the NFL needed a replacement for outgoing Commissioner Pete Rozelle, Tagliabue was a logical choice since he was familiar with the league’s business affairs.

As commissioner, Taglibue built developmental leagues for the NFL. He established the World League of American Football (WLAF), which acted as a training ground for players trying to make NFL rosters. Besides the WLAF and expansion, a major issue for Tagliabue occurred in 1992 when a court ruled that the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement with players was invalid because of its anti-free agency rules. As a result, the NFL panicked and that delayed operations of the WLAF and league expansion.

The court’s ruling was only a temporary roadblock, however, because Tagliabue negotiated a new agreement with free agency for players and a salary cap to reach competitive balance. In fact, the WLAF resumed operations and renamed NFL Europe while expansion continued with Charlotte and Jacksonville receiving teams and new stadium deals.

Expansion, however, made other owners jealous and led to franchise relocations that the NFL was powerless to stop. In 1995, for example, the Raiders returned to Oakland while the Los Angeles Rams moved to St. Louis. That left Los Angeles, the second largest U.S. television market, without a team. Nevertheless, television deals broke records as the NFL signed billion dollar contracts.

In 1996, another action threatened to create turmoil when Cleveland, Ohio vowed to fight the NFL to prevent the Browns from moving to Baltimore. Tagliabue stepped in and negotiated a compromise in which Cleveland would get an expansion team and a new stadium funded by the league but keep the Browns history. Subsequently, the Browns organization moved to Baltimore and established a new franchise there. The need for new stadiums caused the Oilers to shift from Houston to Nashville in 1997 and thus make NFL franchises and cities that hosted them to form valuable partnerships.

After the Browns resumed play in August 1999, the league expanded again to be an even thirty-two teams. Originally, plans were to locate a team in Los Angeles. When Tagliabue could not broker a deal between feuding politicians in Los Angeles, the NFL awarded an expansion team to Houston, which presented a flawless bid to begin play in 2002.

Paul Tagliabue’s final year in office was important, in part, because he succeeded to transfer a healthy league in 2006 to his successor, Roger Goodell. Indeed, Tagliabue secured a new multiyear billion-dollar television contract and then he continued the NFL’s long lasting labor peace by negotiating a deal with the NFL Players Association that let the league keep its salary cap and revenue sharing plan.

Roger Goodell

Born in 1959 in Jamestown, New York, Roger Goodell graduated from Pennsylvania’s Washington & Jefferson College in 1981 with an economics degree. During 1982–86, he joined the NFL as an intern in New York, worked for the New York Jets in public relations and administration, returned to the NFL as a public relations assistant, and served as an assistant to American Football Conference president Lamar Hunt. In the 1990s, Goodell was the NFL’s director of international development and club administration, vice president of operations and business development, senior vice president of league and football development, and an executive vice president of business and football development, business properties, and club services.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue appointed Goodell an NFL executive vice president and chief operating officer in December 2001. Among his duties was president of NFL Ventures Inc., which oversees the league’s business units including media properties, marketing and sales, consumer products, international, stadium development, special events, and strategic planning. In addition, he managed the league’s football operations and officiating departments.

Since replacing Paul Tagliabue and becoming commissioner in 2006, Roger Goodell accomplished many projects. According to NFL Media, he has been involved in expansion, realignment, stadium development, and international development. In addition, Goodell played a key role in launching the NFL Network, and negotiating the league’s television agreements and a collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association. While commentators describe him as the most important person in sports, Goodell sees his primary duty as protecting the NFL shield and integrity of the game and making the sport safe.

Summary

Three presidents and five commissioners contributed to the growth and prosperity of the NFL. The least significant of them was Jim Thorpe while the most important include Joe Carr and Pete Rozelle. Although Commissioner Roger Goodell has led the league to even greater success, there will be difficult problems, financial challenges, and important decisions in the future for him and his executive staff.

 

Notes


1. For NFL commissioners and football history, see Tod Maher and Bob Gill, eds., The Pro Football Encyclopedia: The Complete and Definitive Record of Professional Football (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1997), 2008 NFL Record & Fact Book (New York, NY: Time Inc. Home Entertainment, 2008), Frank P. Jozsa Jr., Football Fortunes: The Business, Organization and Strategy of the NFL (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010), and the website www.sportsecyclopedia.com (17 June 2013).

2. Of mixed French, Irish, and Sac and Fox Indian heritage, Thorpe was born in a one-room cabin in Oklahoma. When he was sixteen-years-old, he joined Indian youth in Pennsylvania. Excellent at every sport he tried, Thorpe had his greatest fame by winning the decathlon and pentathlon events at the 1912 Olympics, only to have his medals taken away because of money paid to him to play minor league baseball (the medals became Thorpe’s posthumously in 1982). Although Thorpe played six seasons of major league baseball, football always remained his favorite sport. See “Jim Thorpe: The World’s Greatest Athlete,” www.cmgww.com (17 June 2013), and “Hall of Famers: Jim Thorpe,” www.profootballhof.com (17 June 2013).

3. According to one reviewer, “This is a solidly documented and well-written book about a little known man who played a key role in one of the United States’ main cultural institutions. I was surprised to learn about all the activities and roles that [Joe] Carr played in the development of professional sports in the early decades of the twentieth century.” The book is Chris Willis, The Man Who Built the National Football League (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2010).

4. This commissioner’s life is in John Maxymuk, NFL Head Coaches: A Biographical Dictionary, 1920–2011 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012), and “Carl Storck,” www.profootballhof.com (17 June 2013).

5. A native of Irvington, New Jersey and graduate of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Austin Gunsel joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1939. He served as both J. Edgar Hoover’s administrative assistant and a special agent for the Bureau, and during his crime-fighting career, served in New York, Detroit, and Chicago field offices. In 1952, the NFL hired Gunsel to head the league’s investigative department, a decision made in response to Commissioner Bert Bell’s fear of a scandal damaging the league’s image. Gunsel became league treasurer in 1956, holding the post until his retirement ten years later. When Bell died in late 1959, Gunsel replaced him as interim commissioner. In January 1960 at a meeting of NFL owners, he was the early frontrunner to become the league’s permanent commissioner. After twenty-three ballots, however, Los Angeles Rams General Manager Pete Rozelle won the election. As such, Austin Gunsel served as president in the office of the commissioner and not permanently elected to the position by team owners. For more information, see “Austin Gunsel,” www.sportsecyclopedia.com (17 June 2013), and “History Story: Austin Gunsel,” www.profootballhof.com (17 June 2013).

 

Tony Latone: The Hero of Pottsville

This article was written by Joe Zagorski and was originally published in The Coffin Corner in 1987. The Coffin Corner is the official magazine of the Professional Football Researchers Association. Visit PFRA’s website to learn how to become a member today!

He came out of the coal mines to play pro football – a shy but rugged individual whose actions did his talking for him. He was a true-to-life hero in a town where heroism meant making it through a 12-hour work day in the mines. His name was Tony Latone.

During the 1920’s, Latone played for the Pottsville Maroons of the National Football League, competing against athletes who’d earned glittering reputations on college gridirons. Although he never attended college, Tony was considered one of the league’s top players.

Remembering the balding, Lithuanian-Italian fullback, the late George Halas claimed: “If Latone had gone to college and played college ball, he would certainly have been one of the greatest pro players of all time.”

In the Anthracite Region of Northeastern Pennsylvania, mining provided rugged men in places like Pottsville, Frackville, and Shenandoah with a way to make a living. Pro football provided early century coal miners with a brief respite from their hard lives.

Like most of the men, Latone entered the mines not because he wanted to but because he had to. His father died when Tony was 11-years-old, leaving the Latone family without a breadwinner. Tony went to work in the mines immediately after his father’s death. The cold, the stench, and the pain crushed many; in Tony’s case it turned him into a strong man.

“That’s how Tony got his strength,” said Russ Zacko, the son of the Maroons’ number one fan and the one who supplied the uniforms that gave the team its name. “He was a slaypicker in the mines, and let me tell you, that was one tough job. He developed his legs by pushing locies (shuttle cars) up a slope.”

Latone’s matchless leg-driving power was best exhibited on the football field as a run-blocker. From the old single wing formation, Latone moved defensive linemen and opened holes for Maroon teammates like Carl Beck and Walter French. Pro football games in the rugged coal region were won with brute force.

While the hard-hitting Latone excelled in the physical aspects of the gridiron, he was not known for his cerebral accomplishments.

“Tony wasn’t too bright,” said Zacko. “He only had a fifth-grade education. There was always talk going on about Tony’s not being too smart.”

One story came about because Tony was always paid in cash, a common occurrence for oro players of the day.

“One day,” remembers Zacko, “several players found some money on the bench. They asked Tony, and he said it was his. `What are you doing, Tony?’ one of the players asked. `Why don’t you get yourself a checking account?'”

“Tony didn’t understand how a checking account worked and didn’t want to get one. But because the other players kept bugging him about it, he eventually gave in and got one.”

“A week later, the players found his checkbook lying on the bench, and every check in the book was signed. Tony had signed each and every check. He’d go into a place and ask the clerk, ‘What do I owe you?’ Then he would fill in the amount on the check because his name was already on it.”

On a typical autumn Sunday, more than just Latone’s name was on the minds of his opponents. Few thought the 5-11, 190-pounder lacked any ‘smarts’ on a football field. Forearm shivers, crunching blocks, and those hard-driving legs made him famous in Schuylkill County while the Maroons were still an independent team.

In 1925, the Maroons joined the NFL. Tony contributed eight touchdowns to a memorable season in which the powerful Pottsville attack led the league with 270 points. When the Maroons defeated the Chicago Cardinals in December, they believed they’d won the NFL championship.

On December 12, Latone and his teammates faced the Notre Dame All-Stars, a squad made up of former Fighting Irish luminaries including the Four Horsemen: Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Jim Crowley, and Elmer Layden. A sparse crowd of 8,000 turned out at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park.

“We always felt,” said Stuhldreher later, “that Latone was just about as rugged a football player as anyone would want to see, and on that day, Tony turned out to be a one-man gang.”

Tony was the driving force behind the Maroon attack. Late in the fourth quarter, with the Maroons trailing 7-6, his plunges brought several first downs in Pottsville’s “game drive.” Charlie Berry’s field goal gave the Maroons a 9-7 win.

The “Notre Dame Game” was played against league wishes in the territory of the Frankford Yellow Jackets, resulting in a suspension for the Maroons, one that cost them the championship. But despite the controversy that surfaced, the victory was perhaps the proudest moment in Maroon football history. Latone continued with the Maroons through 1928, then went with the franchise to Boston in 1929. His last NFL season was with Providence in 1930.

Many years later, at a banquet in Williamsport, Pa., Red Grange had these words to say about Latone:

“Tony was one hell broth of a rugged coal miner, and for my money, he was the most football player I have ever seen. I simply cannot imagine anyone who could equal that power-play fullback whose leg drive was so unbelievably potent he simply knocked the linemen kicking.”

Following his playing days, Latone moved to Michigan and went into business with former Maroon teammate Frank Bucher. For many years, he’d sit in the stands at Briggs Stadium in Detroit, watching a modern brand of football and no doubt recalling the glory days when he was the one carrying the pigskin.

Walter Farquhar, the dean of Pottsville sportswriters, summed up Latone’s career: “Because he was a non-collegian and because pro ball was then young and primitively guided, the greater part of the football world will always be ignorant of his true worth.”

Pottsville certainly wasn’t.

                      RUSHING (Unofficial)
                    ----COMPLETE GAMES----   INCOMPLETE GM
                     CG  ATT  YDS  AVG  TD   IG  AT YDS TD
------------------   --  ---  ---  ---  --   --  -- --- --
1925 Pottsville  N   11  138  540  3.9   5    1  12  53  2
1926 Pottsville  N   12  144  578  4.0   4    -   -   -  -
1927 Pottsville  N   12  136  407  3.0   0    -   -   -  -
1928 Pottsville  N    9  164  482  2.9   2    1   2   8  1
1929 Boston      N    2   41  132  3.2   2    6  40 165  7
1930 Providence  N    3   46  223  4.8   2    8  21  60  1
                     --  ---  ---  ---  --   --  -- --- --
6 years              49  669 2362  3.5  15   16  75 286 11