Remembering the Founding Fathers of pro football in New England

Yes, they are coming off a disappointing season and are in the middle of a major rebuild. Make no mistake, though: the New England Patriots are one of the NFL’s premier franchises.

The organization won six Super Bowls, played a massive role in growing the sport internationally, and is currently valued at around $7 billion. Over the past 30 years, no team has come close to accomplishing what the Patriots managed to do.

When their fortunes started to change in the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, the Patriots were not a young, upstart club. They were coming off their 34th season already when Robert Kraft paid James Busch Orthwein $172 million to acquire what was then a rather moribund franchise.

Under Kraft as well as the head coach/quarterback duo of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, the Patriots reached heights that previously seemed unreachable. It was a complete 180 from the previous three decades, going back all the way to start. To say that the Patriots franchise came from humble beginnings would, frankly, have been an understatement.

So, on this July 4, let’s take a look at those beginnings and how pro football in New England as we know it today came to be.

The origins

Nowadays, the biggest draws in college football are the schools of the SEC or legendary programs such as Michigan or Notre Dame. However, there also is a deep-rooted history of college athletics and football in particular in New England. While the region’s schools are unlikely to compete for a National Championship anytime soon, their importance to the game and its development as a whole cannot be understated.

The legendary Princeton vs. Rutgers game of 1869 was football’s big bang, but it did not take long for the game to be introduced at New England’s colleges and schools as well. Harvard, Tufts and Yale all began their programs in the 1870s, and had an active hand in shaping the game in its pioneer phase.

Over the following decades, football rapidly evolved to a point where it started to become professional. In New England, that professionalization process began six decades after Princeton-Rutgers was played. The 1920s were indeed roaring from that point of view.

The short-lived Bulldogs

The professional football landscape of the 1920s was, by today’s standards, a free-for-all. The NFL was the biggest player, but still in its relative infancy. As a consequence, rival leagues started popping up every now and then.

Among those was the short-lived American Football League, which began operations in 1926 and lasted until… later in 1926. In between, the league descended into chaos with only four of the nine charter teams making it to the end of its first and only season.

One of the teams to fold was based in Boston. Owned by Robert McKirby and coached by Herb Treat, the Bulldogs struggled with lack of success, lack of fan interest, and lack of financial potency. After a 24-0 loss to the New York Yankees (no, not those Yankees, even though they played in the same stadium), they ceded operations in mid-November.

The league as a whole folded shortly thereafter.

The brief interlude

The Pottsville Maroons’ 1925 season had ended in controversy. Despite being the NFL’s best and most successful team that year, they were suspended after participating in an exhibition contest against a University of Notre Dame all-star team. The club was reinstated the following season, but was unable to earn a championship before back-to-back losing seasons.

Owner John Striegel sold the Maroons to a New England-based group of investors in 1929, and they were relocated to Boston. There, the team adopted a new name — they went by Bulldogs, too — but didn’t find any staying power. Led by player/coach and World War I veteran Dick Rauch, the Bulldogs went 4-4 before folding under financial pressure caused, in part, by the Great Depression.

Once again, Boston was left without a pro football team. But while the region’s leading city was unable to hold onto a franchise, another was thriving in Providence. At least, it had been up until that point.

The world champions

In 1916, four years before the National Football League was born, two men founded a football club in Providence. The team, which is referred to by various names somewhere on the Steam Roller/Steamrollers spectrum, was created at the initiative of the Providence Journal’s Charles Coppen and Pearce Johnson. Together with future state legislator James Dooley and sports promoter Peter Laudati, the two would also have an active hand in running the operation as a whole.

The Steam Roller started out as a regional project, playing games independently of league affiliation. They were quite successful, too, and their home games at the Providence Cycledrome drew crowds that far surpassed what the Bulldogs and Bulldogs managed to pull in Boston.

After nine years as an independent team, the Steam Roller moved to the NFL; the club had already crossed paths with league members in the past but officially joined in 1925. The Archie Golembeski-coached team went 6-5-1 in its first season to finish 10th among 20 clubs in terms of winning percentage.

While they dropped to 5-7-1 under coach/running back Jim Laird the following year, they rebounded strongly after future Pro Football Hall of Famer Jimmy Conzelman took over. A man of many talents, who played quarterback and halfback on top of coaching the team, Conzelman’s four-year tenure saw the Steam Roller establish themselves as one of the top teams in the NFL.

Their best season came in 1928. Conzelman and star halfback Wildback Wilson led their team to an 8-1-2 record, which was enough to earn the championship over the 11-3-2 Frankford Yellow Jackets (as you can see, NFL football looked quite a bit different in the 1920s).

Despite sitting on the pro football mountaintop entering 1929, things started to go downhill in Providence. The Steam Roller were unable to keep their roster together, and mounting financial pressure as well as the departures of some cornerstone players started to put the organization in trouble. It still accomplished a respectable 14-14-6 combined record between 1929 and 1931, but the end was near.

Following the 1931 season, ownership suspended operations. The club did not officially fold until two years later, but the pro football chapter in Rhode Island was already closed at that point.

While that was happening, however, a new franchise emerged 50 miles to the north.

The other Braves

Now known as the Washington Commanders, the organization did not start operations in the Nation’s capital but rather up in Bean Town.

In 1932, at the same time as the Steam Roller collapsed in Providence, the National Football League awarded an interest group led by George Preston Marshall a franchise that would be named after the field it held its first games on: the Boston Braves were born. The team played its inaugural season at Braves Field — which the Patriots would later call their home from 1960 to 1962 — and shared the facility with a baseball team also called Boston Braves.

Football’s Braves played their first competitive game against the visiting Brooklyn Dodgers and lost the contest 14-0. It was one of four losses the Braves suffered in 1932. Overall, the team finished the season with four wins, four losses and two ties (against the New York Giants and Chicago Bears).

While the on-field product was adequate, the franchise struggled financially and Marshall’s investment partners soon dropped out, leaving him as the single owner. An unapologetic racist who later became the last NFL owner to allow Black men to play for his club, Marshall made sweeping changes as soon as he took sole possession of the organization.

Under his ownership, the team moved from Braves Field to Fenway Park and — in order to avoid confusion with the other Braves — was renamed “Boston Redskins.”

While name and stadium changed, a lack of success initially remained. Under head coach William Henry Dietz, the Redskins went 5-5-2 in 1933 and 6-6 in 1934. The lone bright spot of those teams was running back Cliff Battles, who was the first professional football player to rush for more than 200 yards in a game, and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968. Still, Dietz was fired in 1934 and his successor, Eddie Casey, didn’t fare much better.

After a 2-8-1 season in 1935, Marshall fired Casey and introduced Ray Flaherty as the new head coach. They would win two NFL titles together, but none of them brought a championship to Boston: after losing the 1936 NFL Championship Game to the Green Bay Packers, Marshall elected to move the franchise to his hometown. The Boston Redskins’ last season saw them win their division for the first time (with a 7-5 record) and draft Hall of Fame quarterback Sammy Baugh.

However, their departure meant that professional football did leave New England as well — at least temporarily.

The unwanted

Ted Collins never intended for his NFL franchise to play in Boston. He was eying the country’s biggest market, and even named the team in honor of New York’s baseball (and previous football) team with whom he intended to share a stadium. With the Giants already an established presence in the city, however, the Yanks would have to play elsewhere.

So, Boston it was.

On September 26, 1944, the Yanks played their first ever game at Fenway Park. Head coach Herb Kopf’s team did draw a crowd of almost 20,000, but it failed to give them much to cheer for against the visiting Philadelphia Eagles: Boston lost 28-7, the first of four straight defeats to open their tenure in the NFL.

After going 2-8 in 1944, World War II forced them to make sweeping changes in Year 2. The team merged with the Brooklyn Tigers, playing home games in both Boston and New York, and going 3-6-1. Even after the end of the war, the Yanks’ fortunes did not change: they finished their next three seasons with a losing record as well to go only 14-38-3 over their first five years of existence.

They never qualified for the playoffs, and Collins pulled the plug after the 1948 season. His team folded, and officially reemerged as an entirely new organization in New York. The issues continued and the franchise later moved to Dallas before ceasing to exist for good in 1953 (the remnants of the club would later be used to found what is nowadays the Indianapolis Colts).

The gamble

Neither the Yanks nor the Braves before them were able to make Boston a permanent NFL host city. Billy Sullivan was intent to change this, despite facing all sorts of backlash.

However, as a former sportswriter and PR director for the baseball’s Braves (who would later move from Boston as well and relocate to Atlanta) he was well connected. He also was not afraid to dream big, even though his ambition oftentimes did not pass the realism test: Sullivan had plans, but not always the means to realize them.

His first plan was to build a new domed stadium in Norwood in the hopes of attracting the Red Sox. Negotiations eventually fell through when leaked to the press, prompting Sullivan to shift his attention to pro football and the NFL.

He did enjoy some support, but the failed Boston experiments of the past plus the deaths of two of his closest allies — New York Giants owner Tim Mara and league commissioner Bert Bell — meant that the door would remain closed. Sullivan instead altered his plans again, with the new American Football League becoming his next target. And while he may have lacked the financial capabilities of some of the other owners, he did not lack conviction and the ability to convince people to invest in his venture.

Eventually, he was able to pay the $25,000 entrance fee and became the owner of the eighth and final AFL franchise in November 1959.

Sullivan started to build his team by hiring the likes of Mike Holovak as assistant coach and head scout and Ed McKeever as the club’s first general manager. Both Holovak and McKeever had previously worked at Boston College, Sullivan’s alma mater.

The new owner’s third hire would also have a connection back to Sullivan: Jack Grinold, who would go on to lead the club’s public relations department for its first two seasons. Sullivan and Grinold knew each other through the Boston Braves, where Grinold’s father worked as team doctor.

With his background in marketing, Sullivan knew that a catchy name for his new team was a must. He trusted Grinold to find one, but not without some publicity to go along with the search for the name. The team set up both a contest for fans to submit names for Boston’s new pro football franchise as well as an essay contest for school kids in which they argued what the new name should be.

The submissions ranged from Beantowners to Colonials, from Puritans to Braves. In the end, though, three finalists emerged: Minuteman, Bulls and — you guessed it — Patriots.

74 people submitted the latter and on February 20, 1960 the AFL’s final franchise officially received its name: Boston Patriots. As for the people suggesting that name, they received free tickets for one of the team’s home games, according to historian Bob Hyldburg.

On the same day the name was made final, the organization also announced that its color scheme would be red, white and blue. Two months after the name and team colors were made public, the future logo was created: “Uniformed Patriot centering football” — colloquially known as Pat Patriot — by Worcester cartoonist Phil Bissell.

The team did not pick it as its official logo just yet, instead wearing a tricornered hat on its helmets in 1960. Pat Patriot was adopted for the 1961 season and would remain in place until 1993.

The players wearing those helmets were coached by Lou Saban, who was hired shortly before the team name was announced. Under Saban’s leadership, the Patriots went on to appear in the first ever AFL game, hosting the Denver Broncos at Boston’s Nickerson Field on September 9, 1960.

21,597 spectators saw the team lose 13-10. But while that contest, and the 5-9 season as a whole, ended in relative disappointment, the first steps were taken: pro football was back in New England.

Sullivan, Saban and McKeever all had a hand in this development, as had the players on the field — a group including names now legendary in franchise history such as Gino Cappelletti, Jim Lee Hunt, Bob Dee, and Ron Burton; Butch Songin was the team’s first starting quarterback.

At the time, none of them knew what the future had in store for them and the Patriots.

Fact is, however, that without Sullivan’s vision and willingness for risky business, the Patriots franchise as we know it today would not have existed. He was just the last in a long line of entrepreneurs trying to bring pro football to Boston and New England as a whole, but his venture was the most successful among them — even the ride was a bumpy one at times, and at its worst as uncomfortable as those medal bleachers at the old Foxboro Stadium.

Whether or not that makes him the George Washington of pro football in New England can be debated. One can say, though, that he did cross his own personal Delaware River when he paid the entrance fee into the AFL to acquire its eighth franchise.

Whichever comparison one might choose to make, it is hard to argue that Sullivan has earned his place among the Football Founding Fathers of New England. He did not live to see his club’s glory days, dying at the age of 82 in 1998, but his legacy lives on.

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