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November 12, 1892, is a date that will live in the history of sports in America. That was the day the Allegheny Athletic Association (AAA) beat the Pittsburgh Athletic Club (PAC)in a game of football. While the game was not particularly notable, there was something historic about it. One of the Allegheny players, William (Pudge) Heffelfinger, was paid $500 to participate. That made him the first professional football player of all time and changed the face of the game.
Nobody could know what that would mean over time. It raised a ruckus among the Pittsburgh players, who raised the issue of whether paying team members was really in the spirit of small-town football. It took 80 years, in fact, for the matter to be authenticated by the Pro Football Hall of Fame discovery of a document that proved Heffelfinger had received cash to play. That document today is referred to as the "birth certificate" of pro football.
In 1892 football was relatively new. It was an amalgam of soccer and rugby, sports that had been popular in Europe and other parts of the world. It took its present shape beginning in the 1880s when Walter Camp, a rugby player for Yale pioneered rules that made football a game of its own. After the Civil War, sports clubs began to embrace the game and from there it grew.
The professional aspects began when teams started offering "awards," cash, enhanced expanse payments, watches and other enticements to play. A player who was awarded a watch for a good game, for instance, could pawn it with every expectation that he would receive another one for the next game. Efforts to squelch such practices failed as the teams came up with a new tactic each time an earlier one was declared illegal by the Amateur Athletic Association.
The result was a head-on clash between the AAA and the PAC. Instead of trying to kill "Pay for Play," however, they engaged in a war of wits to see who could beef up their squad while side-stepping current rules. Today's professional leagues would laugh. Football players who pocket millions of dollars may have little knowledge of the history behind the profession.
The modern era began in earnest in 1932, when the first NFL playoff game was staged.It was the first indoor game since 1902 and the first to feature hash marks, forward passes anywhere behind the line of scrimmage and the replacement of the goal posts back to the goal line. For the first time beginning in this era, a tapered ball was used. The first Heisman trophy was awarded in 1935, the first draft was held in 1936 and the first televised game was delivered to a ravenous fan following in 1936. A demonstration game staged during the 1933 World's Fair led to the first College All Star Game in 1934.
The explosion in popularity for football came with the 1958 NFL Championship Game, dubbed the "Greatest Game Ever Played." The game, played in Yankee Stadium with some 64,185 fans screaming their enthusiasm, pitted the Baltimore Colts against the New York Giants. The Colts won in the first-ever sudden-death overtime in professional football history.
The rise of the NFL and a rival, the American Football League, led to the creation of the Super Bowl, one of the country's most-watched annual television extravaganzas.