In the early days of the NFL, there were no divisions, no playoffs, and no hugely-watched Super Bowl to determine a champion. At the very beginning, it was not even the NFL – when the league first started in 1920, it was the American Professional Football Association (APFA). Teams did not have set schedules and, at the end of that first season of play, there was no champion. At a league meeting on April 30, 1921 the Akron Pros were officially handed the crown.
As was the case with many of the new football league’s franchises, the Pros had already been in existence for several years. The team had first formed in 1908 (although there were earlier semipro clubs in
Akron dating to 1904) and had been known primarily
over the years as the Indians. It had been a member of the Ohio League, a
direct predecessor of the NFL, and won four championships, most recently in
1914. However, the team had suffered both on the field and at the gate since
then and was coming off of a 5-5 record in 1919.
Under new owners, Art Ranney and Frank Neid,
Akron joined the new APFA
and the franchise was renamed the Pros. Star HB Fritz Pollard, an African-American
who had played collegiately at Brown and was an outstanding breakaway threat,
returned from the 1919 team. Other prominent players on the roster included end
Al Nesser, one of several brothers who played pro football during that period,
wingback Frank McCormick, and FB Rip King, an able passer as well as runner.
The Pros were coached by Elgie Tobin, who also played quarterback.
Going into the 1920 season,
Akron was not considered to be on a par with
several other teams that included the Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Tigers, and
Decatur Staleys (future Chicago Bears). They blew out the Wheeling Stogies (a
non-league opponent) and Columbus Panhandles by a combined score of 80-0 and,
after shutting the Cincinnati Celts out by a 13-0 score, faced their first big
test against Cleveland
at home. Taking advantage of a great defensive play by end/tackle Bob “Nasty”
Nash, Akron came away with a 7-0 win (Nash was later sold to Buffalo in what
was the first recorded player transaction in league history).
The Pros followed up the big win over the Tigers with a trip to
produced a 10-0 win over the legendary Jim Thorpe and the highly-touted
Bulldogs. Following a scheduled game against Detroit
that was rained out, Akron had a rematch against
the Tigers in Cleveland.
While the Pros gave up their first points of the season, they managed a 7-7 tie
to remain undefeated, if not unscored-upon.
Next up were the Dayton Triangles, also undefeated coming into the contest. It was a tense battle for three quarters before
Akron scored twice in the
final period, on a King-to-McCormick TD pass and Pollard run, to win 13-0. On
Thanksgiving day, the revenge-minded Bulldogs came to town for a rematch but
again lost, this time by a 7-0 decision. Three days later it was off to Dayton and a second game
against the Triangles, which was a 14-0 win thanks to two Pollard touchdowns to
assure that the Pros were clearly the best Ohio-based team.
While there was no postseason mechanism in place, a tournament among the APFA clubs with the best records was quickly put together with the games all to count in the standings. The Buffalo All-Americans beat the Bulldogs, thus ending any last title hopes for
Canton, and the Staleys of player/coach
George Halas beat the Chicago Cardinals. The Pros then took on Buffalo and played to a scoreless tie.
Following that, they finished up in Chicago against the Staleys and played to
another scoreless draw, although the Pros came closest to putting points on the
board in a hard-fought game before 12,000 fans (the biggest crowd to attend any
of their contests in 1920; Halas had moved the game to Chicago in hopes of
Buffalo and Decatur made noises about having won the championship
didn’t beat them, the fact was that in the end, only the Pros went unbeaten
during the season and ended up with an 8-0-3 record (and gave up just seven
points in compiling it). That was enough for the team managers gathered at the
league meeting, and an award, the Brunswick-Balke Collender Cup, was presented
to owners Ranney and Neid signifying that Akron
was the 1920 league champion. Oddly enough, the cup disappeared shortly
thereafter and its whereabouts remain unknown.
One newspaper, the Rock Island Argus, selected an All-Pro team for 1920 (recognized as the first in APFA/NFL history) and it included Fritz Pollard and Rip King on the first team. Second-team choices from the Pros included Bob Nash and G Alf Cobb and G Brad Tomlin made the third team.