Updated: Feb 6
On September 17, 1920 representatives from 11 different football clubs packed into Ralph Hay’s automobile showroom in Canton, Ohio to discuss the formation of a professional football league. Ralph Hay was the owner of the champion team the Canton Bulldogs and he envisioned a strong football league like baseball had so that the owners could have more control of the sport and the money that it brought in. It was there that the American Professional Football Association or the APFA was proposed. The team representatives unanimously selected Jim Thorpe as the new league’s president to lead the organization as it’s public face. Jim Thorpe was the first Native American to win a gold medal for the United States and he also played football, baseball, and basketball.
The first season of the APFA was pretty messy. There were 14 teams in the league, but the games failed to get much attention from fans or the press. The league required teams to pay a $100 entry fee to be a part of the league, but none of the teams did. There were no playoffs at the end of the season. Instead, four months after the season was over the team representatives all voted on a ballot who they thought should be crowned the champion. The Akron Pros were selected as that season’s champions and they received a silver loving cup donated by the sporting goods company Brunswick-Balke-Collender and they also got golden fobs in the shape of a football that were inscribed with the words “World Champions.”
The league decided that they needed a president with more business experience than Jim Thorpe and replaced him the Columbus Panhandles owner Joe Carr. In 1922, the APFA renamed itself the “National Football League” or the NFL. Even with a new name, the NFL did not garner much attention. College football games were drawing crowds as big as 100,000 fans while most NFL games averaged about 5,000 fans. Slowly, professional football was starting to gain more traction in the 30’s and 40’s and with that came the formation of rival professional leagues including the All-American Football Conference and the Canadian Football League. Nevertheless, the NFL remained the dominant professional football league in the United States.
In the late 1950’s, a group of wealthy businessmen approached officials of the NFL to discuss acquiring expansion franchises. The NFL scoffed at their proposal, so the businessmen decided to launch their own league, the American Football League or the AFL. The AFL started playing games in 1960 and had eight franchises: the Dallas Texans, Houston Oilers, Boston Patriots, Buffalo Bills, New York Titans, Oakland Raiders, Denver Broncos, and the Los Angeles Chargers. The AFL negotiated a tv contract with ABC and held a draft separate from the NFL. The AFL also paid a lot better than the NFL. When former Louisiana State University player Billy Cannon got drafted by both the NFL and the AFL, the NFL’s Los Angeles Ram’s offered Cannon a three-year contract worth $30,000 while the AFL’s Houston Oilers offered him a three-year contract worth $99,000 so Cannon obviously went to the Oilers.
As the AFL grew in size and notoriety, more and more college players and NFL veterans chose to leave the NFL for the AFL and a bidding war for players began. This caused player salaries to increase dramatically. In 1966, Tex Schramm the general manager of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys met with Lamar Hunt, the owner of the Dallas Texans to discuss a merger between the two leagues. On June 8, 1966, the two leagues announced a formal merger that would begin with the champions of the two leagues meeting in a championship game in January 1967 that was eventually named Super Bowl 1. The AFL and NFL held a single draft in 1967 and the merger would be complete in 1970 when a common schedule involving all teams would be released. There would be two conferences in the NFL, the NFC and the AFC, and the two
conferences would send their championship team to the Super Bowl every year to determine the World Champions.
In the first year under the new format, the Baltimore Colts beat the Cincinnati Bengals and the Oakland Raiders to become the AFC champions and earned the right to play in Super Bowl V against the Dallas Cowboys. Both teams saw Super Bowl V as way to redeem themselves. The Colts were still dealing with their embarrassing loss to the New York Jets in Super Bowl III and the Cowboys were trying to lose their nickname “next year’s champions” which I feel is still a valid nickname for the Dallas Cowboys today. The Cowboys had won more games than any other professional football team in the last five seasons but had lost in playoffs every year and had never won a league title. The Cowboys had chances to go to the first two Super Bowls, but they were beat by the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs both years in the NFL Championship games.
Super Bowl V was held in Miami, Florida on January 17, 1971. It was later nicknamed as the “Blunder Bowl.” There were a total of 11 turnovers, with the Baltimore Colts making 7 of them. With less than two minutes left in the game, the Cowboys and Colts were tied 13-13. Dallas Cowboy’s quarterback Craig Morton threw his third interception of the game and Colt’s middle linebacker Mike Curtis returned it to the Cowboys 28 yard line. Two plays later, there were only nine seconds left in the game so the Colts sent their rookie kicker, Jim O’ Brien, out onto the field to attempt a 32 yard field goal. O’Brien made the field goal giving the Colts a 16-13 lead. The Cowboys received the ball again with a few seconds remaining, but Morton threw another interception to the Colts. So the Colts won their first Super Bowl, though Colt’s defensive end Bubba Smith refused to wear his Super Bowl V ring because of the sloppy play.
On July 26, 1972, a year and a half after the blunder bowl, Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom and Rams owner Robert Irsay announced that they would be trading teams. The players, coaches, and staff would all stay, just the owners would be switching. After the switch, the Colts went 5 and 9, which was their first losing record in 16 years. Irsay traded quarterback Unitas to the San Diego Chargers and fired coach Don McCafferty (who was still very popular with Colts fans) and replaced with with John Sandusky. Before the next season, Irsay then replaced Sandusky with Howard Schnellenberger, but he only lasted three games into his second before Irsay fired him. His replacement was Joe Thomas. Joe lasted 11 games and then was replaced by Ted Marchibroda in 1975. So three years, five coaches. Marchibroda leads the Colts to a winning season 10-4 and they make it to the playoffs, though the Steelers knock them out early on.
Marchibroda resigned as head coach when Irsay verbally abused his players after their loss in a preseason game to the Detroit Lions. The Colts players threatened to strike unless Marchibroda returned, so Irsay reinstated Marchibroda two days later. The Colts had two more winning seasons. After that, Colts started to lose and Robert Irsay was going on public rants and making questionable ownership decisions. Colt fans were getting tired of losing and dealing with Irsay and attendance figures started to decrease. Marchibroda was fired in 1979 and was succeeded by Mike McCormack. When the Colt’s drafted John Elway with their number one pick in the 1983 NFL draft, Elway refused to work for Irsay and threatened to play baseball instead since he was also drafted by the New York Yankees. Irsay traded Elway to the Denver Broncos for Mark Herrmann, Chris Hinton, and a draft pick. Colts’ fans were furious over losing Elway to the Broncos and the hate for Irsay grew.
Irsay had also been trying to get Baltimore to either greatly improving the Baltimore Memorial Stadium, where both the Colts and Orioles played, or to get them to build a new stadium all together. Plans were developed for both plans, but then Maryland governor Marvin Mandel put the brakes on talk of a new stadium and Baltimore comptroller placed an amendment to the fall ballot that prohibited the use of public funds to construct a new sports stadium. The amendment passed and it ended any negotiations between Irsay and public officials to build a new stadium.
Since Baltimore won’t build a new stadium, Irsay starts calling around to other cities to start talks of relocating the Colts. It became public knowledge that Irsay had been talking with city officials in Phoenix, Memphis, Los Angeles, and Jacksonville and that made already angry fans even angrier. In order to keep the Colts in Baltimore, Maryland governor Harry Hughes asked what it would take to keep them and Irsay gave him a list of $25 million in improvements for the Memorial Stadium. The Maryland State Legislator slashed the list to $23 million and they also earmarked most of it for improvements for the Orioles. The legislature also required that both the Orioles and Colts sign long-term commitments to Baltimore before construction would begin, but both teams refused, so construction never started.
In 1984, Irsay was approached by Phoenix and Indianapolis to move the Colts to their respective cities. Indianapolis was offering an already built a domed stadium and was hoping that it would attract an NFL team, along with loans and a training complex. Again, it was leaked that Irsay was talking to other cities about moving the Colts and this time, the state of Maryland took action. On March 27, 1984, one chamber of the Maryland state legislature passed a law that would allow the city of Baltimore to seize ownership of the Colts under eminent domain and the other chamber of legislature was scheduled to vote on the matter a few days later. Irsay hosted a press conference where he just started yelling and screaming “This is my *bleep* team!” The next day, either because of Maryland’s new law or Irsay’s press conference, Phoenix called Irsay to say that they were pulling their bid.
As soon as he hung up with Phoenix, Irsay called the mayor of Indianapolis, William Hudnut, and just straight up told him that Indianapolis was the proud new owner of a football team and they should start the moving process immediately. Hudnut called his friend John B. Smith who was owner of Mayflower Transit, and arranged for a fleet of large moving trucks to show up to the Colt’s offices in Baltimore. Trucks scattered from New Jersey to Virginia started showing up at the offices around 10 o’clock that night, and 60 men began to quietly load all 15 trucks with equipment, books, and furniture. The Baltimore Colt’s Marching Band heard about the move and quickly scrambled to get all of their instruments and uniforms before they were also loaded into the trucks and shipped off the Indianapolis. The trucks then all started driving for Indiana, but they each took a different route just in case the Maryland State Police tried to stop them from leaving the state.
When the trucks made it to the Indiana state line, there were Indiana state troopers with lights flashing that escorted them to Colt’s new stadium in downtown Indianapolis and by the next morning, every physical piece of the Colts franchise was in the state of Indiana. The Indianapolis Star featured a photo of Irsay and Hudnut with their hands clasped and arms raised while 20,000 new Indianapolis Colts fans were cheering. The Baltimore Sun had a picture of the Baltimore Mayor, William Schaefer, crying on their front page. Michael Chernoff, an attorney for the Colts, defended Irsay’s decision to move the Colts to Indiana overnight stating “The Maryland legislature not only threw down the gauntlet, but they put a gun to his
head, cocked it, and asked ‘Want to see if it’s loaded? They forced him to make a decision that day.” There was a ton of legal action attempted to force the Colts back to Baltimore, but all efforts failed.
Only two weeks after announcing ticket sales for the 1984 season, there were 143,000 requests for Indianapolis Colts season tickets. However, the team didn’t perform any better and only made it into playoffs once during their first eleven seasons in Indianapolis. They went through the firing and hiring of several coaches again until they hired Ted Marchibroda in 1992. In 1994, the Colts drafted running back Marshall Faulk and signed Jim Harbaugh as quarterback. The Indianapolis Colts won their first postseason game in 1995. Marchibroda retired after the 1995 season and Robert Irsay died in January 1997. His son, Jim Irsay, stepped up as principal owner and almost immediately started making changes by hiring Bill Polian as general manager and drafted Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning with the first overall pick in the 1998 NFL draft. The Colts have appeared in the playoffs 16 times, have won two conference championships, and won Super Bowl 41 against the Chicago Bears.
The November after the Baltimore Colts became the Indianapolis Colts, Maryland voters repealed the amendment that banned public funds for sports stadiums and both Maryland and Baltimore declared the building of a new public stadium a priority.
Art Modell, the owner of the Cleveland Brown, was very vocal about his disappointment in Irsay moving his team to Indianapolis. As soon as Baltimore announced their plans for a new stadium in 1996, Art Modell fired his head coach, Bill Belichick, and the Cleveland Browns announced that they were relocating to Baltimore. Cleveland was allowed to keep the Brown’s name, history, and colors in the event that they acquired another team. Art Modell renamed his team the Baltimore Ravens, inspired by the poem by famous Baltimorean Edgar Allan Poe. The Ravens had a losing record for four consecutive seasons, until they went all the way to winning Super Bowl 25 against the New York Giants. They won their second Super Bowl against the San Francisco 49ers in 2013.
“The Birth of the National Football League” by Christopher Klein
“The NFL-AFL Merger and the Birth of the Super Bowl” by Jim Weathersby
“Kiss ‘em Goodbye: An ESPN Treasury of Failed, Forgotten, and Departed Teams” by Dennis Purdy
“A Mad, Mad, Mad Super Bowl” by Bill McGrane
“Colts win ‘Blunder Bowl’” by Larry Schwartz