from InsideHook

How World War I Led to the Creation of the NFL

We talked to Chicago sportswriter Chris Serb about his book “War Football: World War I and the Birth of the NFL”

How World War I Led to the Creation of the NFL
The New York Giants put on a battle with the Rochester Jeffersons as an Armistice Day attraction. George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty)


Had U.S. soldiers not fought in the trenches on the battlefields of the First World War more than 100 years ago, offensive and defensive linemen may not be doing battle in the trenches of NFL game fields today. 

That’s one of the major takeaways from veteran Chicago sportswriter Chris Serb’s War Football: World War I and the Birth of the NFL, an impeccably researched work which details the time period during the Great War when football was being played at U.S. military bases at home and abroad by members of the Army, Navy and the Marines.

The majority of the players who took the field in those games, which were played against other bases as well as top colleges to raise money for the war effort, had played at the college level before WWI but had little chance at going pro after their service because a respectable professional league did not exist yet. 

There were some semi-pro leagues at the time, but they were looked down upon by the general public, at least partially because they took the Sabbath in vain by playing on Sundays (the only day all factory employees generally had off).

“Before the war, pro football had such a negative connotation that a lot of players played under assumed names because they did not want to be associated did not want their mom to see that they were playing for the Columbus Panhandles, or whatever the team might be, on a Sunday,” Serb tells InsideHook. “They were factory workers, regular guys who might have been good high school football players, but did not have the means to go on to college. They went out and got jobs and still enjoyed playing football and the only time they could play, because they had six-day work weeks, was on Sundays.”

Once the war began, some of these semi-pros enlisted and subsequently joined up with military football teams, mixing on rosters with experienced collegiate players who had also joined up. 

Though some of the pre-war semi-pro teams may have included a few guys who were relatively big names in college, the military teams which were assembled during WWI were football’s “first true All-Star teams,” according to Serb.

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