Super Bowl history: How the NFL’s first champion was declared


The Super Bowl is the preeminent annual sporting event in the Western Hemisphere. It’s America’s most watched television event every year and a de facto national holiday where the NFL crowns its champion.

College football is notorious for naming so-called national champions all the way up until the BCS was created to settle things on the field in 1998. Dubious claims to mythical titles persist, with a consensus champion often being difficult to find. But the NFL had this same problem at the beginning of its existence.

Nearly five full decades before the first Super Bowl after the 1966 season, and 12 years before an official NFL championship game of any kind was first played in 1932, we find the story of a league’s beginning. It includes a controversial championship claim and a trophy that essentially vanished.

On Sept. 17, 1920, professional football as we know it today was officially formed.

That day in Hay’s Hupmobile showroom in Canton, Ohio, 11 franchises came together to create the American Professional Football Association. It was actually the second organizational meeting, and teams from four states showed up. In 1922 it would be re-dubbed the National Football League, but on this day 10 teams would end up joining the AFPA, with the Massillon Tigers announcing they would not. Only two teams remain from that day, the Decatur Staleys (today’s Chicago Bears) and the Chicago (now Arizona) Cardinals.

Membership dues were $100 (which no team ever paid), and the legendary Jim Thorpe was unanimously elected league president. The league was established ostensibly to elevate professional football which, at the time, sat backseat to college football. It also capped salaries and blocked players from double dipping by playing in college and the pros, as the Akron Beacon Journal reported the day after the announcement.

Games would begin later that month, and a champion was eventually crowned.

The minutes from that original meeting are stored in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, and there’s a small section in them that says that a trophy will be given to the team the association deems worthy of being awarded the championship. What’s missing? Any real criteria for determining that champion.

The Akron Professionals had been around since 1904 and won Ohio championships in 1913 and 1914. Their first game as an AFPA team was a 43-0 drubbing over the Wheeling Stogies (not an AFPA team). They rolled through most of their season.

Despite the AFPA not keeping official standings until the next season, consensus has it that Akron finished its season 8-0-3 after two straight scoreless ties against the Buffalo All-Americans and the Decatur Staleys to close the season. Coincidentally, those opponents were the two teams that would challenge Akron for the title.

And here we find the spot of the controversy.

When the Pros stopped the Triangles again at Dayton three days later, they were recognized as the top team in Ohio. In past years that would have been equivalent to the U.S. championship, but the new APFA had widened the battlefield. Buffalo felt itself of championship caliber, despite a narrow loss in mud to Canton. Out west, Halas’ Decatur Staleys had only a one-point loss to Paddy Driscoll’s Chicago Cardinals to mar their record.

In their haste to get the APFA started, the founders hadn’t decided how to determine their champion. Even Canton still had eyes for that loving cup. Games against non-APFA teams were counted to beef-up records, and none of the team managers were shy in proclaiming their minions’ virtues.

Akron had two wins to its credit against non-AFPA teams. Decatur would finish the season 10-1-2, but with five of its wins coming against non-AFPA teams. Buffalo finished the season 9-1-1, with five of its wins coming against non-AFPA teams. Neither had lost to Akron, but neither had beaten Akron either. And Akron ended up with the most AFPA wins when all was said and done.

Akron had the best claim to the title, but wouldn’t be given the trophy until April, 1921. By that time, the challenges had quelled, and other teams from other leagues were even declaring themselves champions. Reading the papers, nothing about a title was even mentioned in the Akron Beacon Journal because the meeting was really about the future of the league.

Regardless, Akron would be crowned the world’s professional football champions of 1920 by the league, despite claims to the crown during the season by Buffalo and Decatur in a motion that was passed and seconded without incident.

About that trophy…

In the minutes for the AFPA meeting back in 1920, it’s written that a “Mr. Marshall of the Brunswick-Balke Collender Company, Tire division” would present a trophy awarded to the AFPA’s champion. Any team that won the trophy three times would be judged the owner of it. The attendees also motioned to extend a vote of thanks to Marshall.

Akron was honored by the Elks Club of Akron — excluding the team’s two black players, Fritz Pollard and Paul Robeson — with a homecoming celebration later that year. As for the trophy, apparently nobody knows where it is.

Established as a revolving award, the Brunswick cup wasn’t intended to become permanent property until a team won three titles. However, the cup was discontinued after the Pros received it, and long forgotten by the time the team folded in 1926.

The Hall of Fame doesn’t even have a photo of it, and neither of the Akron co-owners awarded the trophy at the meeting kept it, even though one of them owned a sports memorabilia shop which was torn down in 1929.

The 1921 title winners weren’t given the trophy, but that story is complicated in its own right because of the standings precedent evidently set at the April 1921 meeting.

The league did end up keeping standings in its second season, and the All-Americans disputed the title with the Staleys but were overruled due to an unusual tiebreaking procedure the NFL has since thrown out. The All-Americans made mini golden footballs for its players to commemorate that championship, but the league recognizes the Staleys to this day.

The Staleys were supposed to receive the cup, but never did.

The 1920 Akron team ended up largely forgotten.

Even by the NFL, up until the record books were re-written around the AFL-NFL merger that spawned the Super Bowl:

Somehow, in the ensuing years, the league lost track of what it had done and for a long time published in its own record books that the 1920 championship was undecided. It took about fifty years for the NFL to remember the Akron Pros.

Akron would name Pollard its co-head coach for the 1921 season, but would not win another title, or even come closer than that season’s third-place finish.

After a slew of one-, two- and three-win seasons, the team suffered a lack of financial support and the first champions of professional football ceased to exist, just like the trophy it was awarded during that spring league meeting.

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