Good Start / This Month in Minnesota History / By Jessica Kohen ⊳⊳ Football players in the 1920s wore leather helmets like this one, including Duluth’s early pro teams. The 2008 comedy, Leatherheads, starring George Clooney and Renee Zellweger, was loosely based on the Duluth Eskimos. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Legends and lore →→A ‘leatherhead’ football team from Duluth helped create the NFL as we know it today
American professional footall got off to a rocky start in the opening decades of the 20th century. Although college football captured the hearts of American sports fans, the pro game was disorganized, with players jumping from team to team, the rules of play changing from field to field, and no governing body providing oversight. In 1920, in an effort to bring organization to the sport, the leaders of 11 pro teams met in Canton, Ohio, to form the American Professional Football Association; two years later they would change the name to the National Football League. In Duluth, a team known as the Kelleys operated as an independent semi-pro club that played against Iron Range teams. In 1923, the manager of the Kelley Hardware Store, M.C. Gebert, along with three players, signed franchise papers and joined the NFL. They held their first game on Aug. 23, 1923, in front of a packed Athletic Park in Duluth, near today’s Wade Stadium. They ended the season 4-3. By 1925, the NFL was struggling financially, and so were the Kelleys. That year, Duluth posted a miserable record of 0-3, and with fan interest waning,
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the team rarely saw profits. It didn’t help that the Kelleys had to pay other teams to come to Duluth to play. By the end of 1925, the owners were fed up. They sold the team to Ole Haugsrud, the team’s volunteer secretary-treasurer, for $1 in exchange for his commitment to assume the team’s growing debt. Other NFL teams were also struggling. In 1925, the Chicago Bears signed Red Grange, an All-American running back they hoped would command public attention. He did just that, with 36,000 fans turning out for his first home game against the Cardinals and 73,000 fans turning out for his next game against the New York Giants.
Starting a second league At the end of the season, Grange asked for more money, and when he didn’t get it, he and his manager, C.C. Pyle, decided to start their own league, the American Football League. Looking for another marquee player, Pyle made an offer to All-American fullback Ernie Nevers. The news of the new league and its potential to score a star player sent the NFL reeling. But all was not lost: Nevers (who had played college ball at Stanford) had grown up in Superior, Wis. And he went to school with Haugsrud. Haugsrud met with Nevers and bettered Pyle’s offer.