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Gridiron Glory at Union Station: "Roots"

The exhibition, which traces the history of the game from its roots, is open daily at Union Station and closes September 7

*Included in the summer-long exhibition at Union Station of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's history of the game is a substantial collection of Kansas City Chiefs artifacts dating back to the earliest days of the franchise and the creation of the American Football League by team owner Lamar Hunt  *

Over the next couple of weeks, we'll identify some of what fans and long-time football enthusiasts might call "treasures" – some never seen by the general public before the exhibition's opening this past Memorial Day weekend.  The exhibition, which traces the history of the game from its roots, is open daily at Union Station and closes September 7.


Events pass into oblivion, names fade, memories all but disappear. What do people really remember about Hank Stram except he was a flashy dresser and once let himself be wired for sound for the Super Bowl?  I recall having a conversation not too long ago with some present-day Chiefs players who couldn't believe Len Dawson ever played pro football and was the MVP of a Super Bowl. It happens, people forget, some never knew in the first place. 

Pro football's beginnings now seem as old-world distant and faraway as Stram's 16 mm film projector. But the game has deeper roots than Stram's or Dawson's time and they can be explored in just the right amount of detail if you care to stop by the Gridiron Glory exhibit currently on display at Kansas City's Union Station. 

A pervasive historical myth exists that professional football always operated with the overwhelming support of the American public – crowds filling large metropolitan stadiums, colorful pageantry, beloved stars, images captured down through the years by NFL Films.

But take a closer look at the game's beginnings and you will find a sport that once operated at the margins of American life.

At its birth, pro football was an enterprise a notch above what used to be called "industrial leagues" that could be found in manufacturing cities in what is now known as the country's Rust Belt. Teams formed out of businesses and workers looked to get together to play games after their shift at the plant was over or on weekends. Employees played for their employers and from such roots a team like the "Packers" was born. (A football on display at Gridiron Glory carries the "PRR" logo signifying a connection to the now defunct Pennsylvania Railroad.)


The Green Bay Packers in a 1927 game

Look at the grizzled faces in sepia-tone staring out at you from the display cases as you make your way through the exhibit. These men weren't seeking a "legacy" or "respect," or any of the buzzwords you hear thrown around these days. For them, it was back to work at the mill the day after the game.

It's safe to say they didn't see the day where it would be necessary for their sport to employ a "director of digital forensic investigation" (a new position announced just this year by the NFL office).  

Equipment was primitive and you can see here how the game's founders looked for ways to protect themselves accepting, of course, that getting hit was likely to cause some pain, but so be it. Just look at the shape of the football from that time.  It appears to be a rugby ball which can give current fans an idea of how the game might have been played.

While injuries might be assumed, pay for play was not. In general, many of the public looked upon that as demeaning. Jim Thorpe, who was the pro game's earliest star and whose story is told here, lost all his Olympic medals when he found it necessary to accept money for play in order to earn a living. Amateur sports were considered noble and those who played for money a distasteful sub-class.  Thorpe puttered around as a player, coach and even an administrator of the early pro game and his decline would never be thought of in the same way later fans would think of, say, Len Dawson on the eve of his retirement.


Canton Bulldogs Hall of Fame halfback Jim Thorpe

What you quickly come to understand as you make your way through the early days of professional football is how few options these men had. Red Grange, the greatest college player of his era, brought notoriety to pro football but it was hardly a lucrative career at first.

African-Americans had even fewer options, but the NFL has been overlooked too often in its efforts in integrating the sport.

In any case or race, professional sport was not seen as an occupation for a respectable person. Charles Leershen's new biography of Ty Cobb, entitled *Ty Cobb:  A Terrible Beauty, *writes that playing professional baseball in the early days of the 19th century, for example, "was tantamount to running off with the carnival…when almost no one asked an athlete for his autograph." Drinking (baseball once had a "sobriety clause" written in its contracts), misbehavior on the field and off to include open cheating in professional baseball would shame anyone who thinks that today's athletes act in inappropriate ways. 

Being a professional athlete in its earliest incantation was more often a romantic gesture and never did much for anyone's reputation.

This is the way many of sport's earliest enterprises began, but it wasn't too long before they started to capture the attention of a growing audience willing to pay for it – baseball first and football a bit later. Soon, large stadiums for both baseball and football began to pop up all around the country. A nation was hooked.

Don't miss the full story of professional football now on exhibit at Union Station in downtown Kansas City until September 7.

If you go Images and stories from the earliest days of pro football may be found just inside the entrance to the Gridiron Glory exhibit.

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