The Dayton Triangles join with other teams in 1920 to form the American Professional Football Association, which would eventually rename itself the National Football League. The inaugural APFA season finds the Triangles in the hunt for the first pro football championship, and features epic battles against teams led by future NFL Hall of Fame players like Jim Thorpe and Fritz Pollard.
Future Hall of Famers
Two of the Triangles’ opponents in the 1920 season were Jim Thorpe and Fritz Pollard. Thorpe, a Native American multi-sport star, was considered by many to be the greatest all-around athlete of his day. He won gold medals at the 1912 Olympics, but had to surrender them when it was revealed that he had turned professional before the Games. Pollard, an African-American star, eventually made history as the first African-American head coach in NFL history.
(Note: The actual episode may contain slight deviations from this transcript.)
Nineteen twenty brought changes in both Dayton and professional football. Dayton Triangles Coach Nelson Talbott paid increasing attention to the financial side of his family’s business interests as the year began. However, Talbott’s expanding business duties did nothing to dull his appetite for the gridiron.
Meanwhile, Carl Storck was working with other business managers in the informal Ohio League in an effort to resolve some tough issues. The poaching of players from opposing semi-pro teams had created headaches. Furthermore, when the Canton Bulldogs agreed to pay Jim Thorpe $250 per game for his services, bidding wars for the best players erupted, driving many independent teams to the brink of insolvency.
The semi-pro teams also faced a public backlash against signing college players. The practice of athletes playing for colleges on Saturday and semi-pro teams on Sunday, all but ignored when Al Mahrt and Babe Zimmerman did it in 1914, had become intensely controversial by 1920.
On August 20, 1920, Storck represented the Dayton Triangles in a meeting with owners and business managers from Akron, Canton, and Cleveland to address these issues. They met at Canton Bulldogs owner Ralph Hay’s Hupmobile auto dealership in Canton, Ohio. History records that the representatives agreed to form the American Professional Football Conference, the first precursor organization to what eventually became the National Football League. Storck, however, downplayed the “league” aspect when he spoke to the Daily News on his return the following day. The teams, he acknowledged, had mutually agreed not to tamper with each other’s players and to take a “hands off” policy with respect to college athletes.
The key takeaway from the August 20 meeting, Storck declared, was that he had finally gotten Jim Thorpe to agree to a game in Dayton. After years of pursuing the Canton Bulldogs, negotiations for the game were all but complete. The deal involved a large guarantee for the Bulldogs, though Storck did not disclose how large.
The representatives who assembled in August must have realized that without broader buy-in from other major teams they would be unable to standardize the rules of the road to which they had agreed. The following month, they reconvened with representatives of teams from Indiana, Illinois, upstate New York and other Ohio cities. On September 17, 1920, they agreed to create the American Professional Football Association (APFA). In an effort to boost its credibility, the association elected well-known figures to its highest offices; Jim Thorpe became its first president and Stanley Cofall the first vice president. It was the beginning of the National Football League, but the founders didn’t call it a league.
The format was simple. There were no divisions as in modern times. There was no formal schedule at first; each team negotiated bookings with other teams very much as in pre-league years. Instead of a formal playoff to determine champions, team representatives would meet after the end of the season to crown a champion by consensus.
Preparing for the season opener against familiar foes, the Columbus Panhandles, Coach Talbott introduced a tackling dummy to the team’s practice routine. He picked up this new wrinkle from his days at Yale. Along with last year’s returning players, the 1920 team would include former Notre Dame back Fritz Slackford. The biggest change, though, was the return of Norb Sacksteder to the Triangle fold.
Joe Carr’s Panhandles had a slightly different look coming into the 1920 campaign. They had moved away from the old-style ground game and toward the more contemporary open game that featured more passing and gadget plays. Moreover, the Panhandles relied less on the Nesser brothers than in years past. Ted Nesser, a former standout in the backfield, had lost a step and had to move in to play in the interior line. However, Frank Nesser at fullback remained a force who could run, pass or kick as needed.
The afternoon of October 3, 1920 found the Triangle Park field in playable condition, with unseasonably warm weather. The contest, touted by the Dayton press as the “first professional football game,” drew a crowd estimated by the Daily News to be the largest ever to see a season opener. Other estimates placed attendance at about 4,000.
After a scoreless opening half, the Triangles began to take control in the third period behind the power running of Lou Partlow, whose 40-yard rush set the Triangles up deep in Panhandles territory. Francis Bacon tried unsuccessfully to score, but on the next play Partlow took the ball over for the touchdown, a score now remembered as the first in the history of the National Football League. Hobby Kinderdine’s extra point, also a league first, was good to stake the Triangles to a 7-0 lead. That score held until the fourth quarter, when Bacon returned a Panhandles punt 40 yards for a touchdown. Kinderdine made the extra point again to extend the Triangles lead to 14-0, which was the final score. The team’s performance indicated mid-season form.
The Triangles’ next challenge came from the newly created Cleveland Tigers. Though new, the Tigers were no expansion outfit, having formed through the merger of the former Cleveland Indians and the mighty Massillon Tigers. Former Massillon coach and captain Stan Cofall filled the same roles for Cleveland.
To boost sales for the October 10 contest at Triangle Park, team management announced the opening of four ticket windows to allow for walk-up sales. Fans could also purchase tickets in advance at any of several local establishments, including the Triangle company factories.
That Sunday’s game was even more of a defensive struggle than the one against Columbus. The Tigers were able to achieve only three first downs. Hobby Kinderdine dominated the line of scrimmage despite Cleveland keying on him in the second half. Kinderdine, who had never played college ball, outplayed former Notre Dame All-American Frank Rydzewski. The Triangles had the only real threat of the game. As time ran down, Al Mahrt made a spectacular tackle to force a Cleveland punt. Norb Sacksteder returned the ensuing kick 65 yards to the Cleveland 4-yard line. The Triangles ran two plays but could not score and time expired, ending the game in a scoreless tie.
Coach Talbott now prepared the Triangles for Hammond, another old foe. The Indiana squad had played only one game to date, losing a tough 7-0 decision to highly touted Rock Island. Both players and fans were anxious to see how they would stack up that Sunday, October 17, at Triangle Park.
Like the two contests before it, the Hammond game began as a defensive tilt. It didn’t end that way, though. With the ground game not working against a determined Hammond line, the Triangles opened up the offense with end runs and passes. Al Mahrt opened the scoring with a 1-yard run. A Hammond interception killed another first quarter scoring threat, but the Triangles netted three touchdowns in the second period to take a 27-0 lead to the intermission. Coming out for the second half, Talbott subbed out nearly the entire first team, and Hammond held the second-stringers to a George Roudebusch 15-yard field goal. Talbott put most of the first team back in for the final quarter. The starters responded with two more touchdowns, including a 75-yard fumble return by Pesty Lentz to complete the 44-0 rout. Mahrt threw for three touchdowns on the day, including two to Sacksteder, to complement his rushing score in the winning cause.
The margin of victory over Hammond instilled confidence in both the Triangles and their fans that they could stack up against any professional team in the association. This confidence boost could not have come at a better time, for the challenge they had dreamed of and worked toward for years was at hand.
The near-mythical Canton Bulldogs and their coach-superstar Jim Thorpe were set to invade Triangle Park.
Thorpe’s Bulldogs were widely regarded as the reigning champions of American pro football. Former collegiate stars held down every position. They had performed in dominating fashion at top schools of the day like Georgetown, Notre Dame, Washington and Jefferson, Texas, Michigan and Harvard. They had honed their skills playing together over several seasons, and the results were impressive. The Bulldogs had lost only once going back to the 1916 campaign. Only one opponent had even scored against Canton since the start of the 1919 season, and that had occurred on a fluke play. They had yielded only one first down for the current season to date, to all opponents combined.
As expected, demand for tickets was brisk. Management designated the entire south bleachers as reserved seating for the game, and priced them the same as box seats. They would need all the revenue they could generate, given the size of the guarantee they had to provide for the Bulldogs.
On Sunday, October 24, 1920, an audience of 5000 paid attendees witnessed perhaps the most momentous football game ever played in Dayton, Ohio.
Canton struck first in the opening period, their touchdown scored by the Native-American fullback Pete Calac. Then Al Mahrt, ever the counterpuncher, led second quarter drives culminating in Triangle touchdowns by Bacon and Dave Reese. Jim Guyon, Canton’s talented Native-American halfback and Georgia Tech alumnus, scored on a 20-yard run before the end of the half to tie the game 14-all going to the intermission.
Early in the third quarter, Jim Thorpe made an important decision. He had been content to coach from the sidelines for the first half of play. Now though, his team was in real jeopardy for the first time in years, and the fresh players he had sent in were unable to turn the tide. He concluded he had no choice. Thorpe, arguably the greatest athlete of his generation in the world, inserted himself into the game at fullback.
The Triangles nearly won it anyway.
Even with Thorpe in the action, Lou Partlow was able to score a touchdown that gave the Triangles a 20-14 edge. Hobby Kinderdine, whose toe had been unerring in two previous extra points, lined up for a third. Bulldogs right tackle Wilbury Henry barged in to block the attempt. From that point, the Bulldog defense stiffened. Thorpe kicked two long field goals, one each in the third and fourth quarters, to salvage a 20-20 tie.
Despite failing to win the game outright, the Dayton Triangles had gained validation at last. They stood toe-to-toe with legends of the gridiron and never flinched. The Bulldogs team that had allowed only one first down in the season before the game yielded 14 to the Triangles. The 20 points the Triangles tallied were the most against any Canton team in the Thorpe era. They had measured up against the team that had long been their yardstick, and found themselves worthy.
Two years before, in 1918, influenza had gripped Dayton and the world. In 1920, a new kind of epidemic was building in town – championship fever.
The following week brought a rivalry game against the Cincinnati Celts. The Celts did not initially join the APFA, but their visits to Triangle Park still generated great local interest. Despite going into the game at reduced strength – Sacksteder, “Dutch” Thiele and “Hobby” Kinderdine were all out – the Triangles easily handled the Celts 23-7. One of the highlights was a first quarter touchdown scored when George Roudebusch recovered an errant punt snap in his former team’s end zone. Mahrt threw a touchdown pass to Bacon that went 50 yards on the catch and run.
As November opened, the Triangles’ championship hopes rode on a series of games against the Muncie Flyers at home and road games at Rock Island and Akron. Muncie featured several players from the old Pine Village team, and appeared poised to give the Triangles a tough game. The Rock Island Independents had existed for some time, but information on them was scarce. The Akron Pros had announced themselves, though, with a 10-0 victory over Canton in a game played the same day the Triangles had dispatched the Celts. If the Triangles wanted to claim the APFA championship, their path would have to run through Akron.
After much hype about a “must win” game against Muncie, inclement weather forced the cancellation of the scheduled November 8 matchup. Talbott’s men now faced the only significant road stretch of the season.
They played the game at Rock Island, Illinois in driving snow. The Triangles opened the scoring on a short Francis Bacon run. From there, the defenses stiffened. Other than an unsuccessful Rock Island scoring threat at the very end of the first half, there was no major offensive action until the fourth quarter. Then, Mahrt broke the game open with two touchdown passes to Dave Reese, and the Triangles went on to win 21-0. A writer for the Argus, Rock Island’s newspaper, called Mahrt’s passing “the best ever seen on a local gridiron.”
Among Triangle fans, the championship buzz now built to a din. They entered the game at Akron confident, perhaps too confident. After all, the Pros had beaten the Cleveland Tigers and dominated the Columbus Panhandles, in addition to beating Canton. They featured running back Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard, the first African-American to be named to the All-American team during his college days at Brown University. Akron’s stingy defense had yielded only one touchdown the whole season, which they gave up during the previous week’s 7-7 tie in their rematch with the Cleveland Tigers.
The field in Akron was a muddy mess on Sunday, November 21, as the Triangles faced the Pros. Dayton threatened early, driving to the Pros 20-yard line. Mahrt fired a pass to Bacon near the goal line. Bacon caught the ball in a soft spot in the field, but was unable to get out of the muck and into the end zone before the Akron defense rallied to tackle him. Mahrt attempted another pass, but the ball was slick from being in the mud puddle. “Dutch” Thiele was unable to handle it, and it fell incomplete out of bounds, resulting in a turnover to Akron. The Triangles dominated the first half, keeping the ball in Pros territory most of the way, but could not mount another scoring threat.
In the second half, the Pros’ greater bulk began to tell. Halfback Frank McCormack pounded the Triangles line relentlessly, and eventually scored on a pass from Rip King. The Triangles began to tire and a late Akron drive on the ground culminated in a short Pollard touchdown run. The game ended with the Pros on top 13-0 and the Triangles’ dream on an unbeaten season in ruins.
Despite the loss, Coach Talbott and his players remained defiant. They believed that if better conditions prevailed for the rematch at Triangle Park they would be able to get a better outcome.
The following Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, the Triangles took out their frustrations on the visiting Detroit Heralds at Triangle Park. The home team sprinted to a 14-0 first quarter lead on the strength of a short Bacon run and a long Mahrt-to-Bacon pass. They tacked on two more touchdowns in the second quarter. Dick Abrell scored on the ground and Roudebusch threw a long touchdown to Sacksteder. The Triangles cruised in the second half, winning 28-0.
With three days to prepare, the Triangles pivoted to the anticipated rematch with Akron at Triangle Park. The Triangles still clung to championship hopes; only Akron and the Decatur Staleys remained unbeaten. The Staleys faced a tough game that Sunday on the home field of the rival Chicago Cardinals. A Triangle win, coupled with a Staleys loss, would bolster Dayton claims to the association championship, or at least set up the possibility of more games to decide the issue. Coach Talbott ran the team through light practices Friday and Saturday to preserve their stamina. To bolster the lineup, Storck signed tackle Max Broadhurst, who had just completed his college playing career at the University of Wisconsin. The team was as ready as it was going to be.
With an estimated record crowd of more than 5000 fans looking on, the Triangles hosted the Akron Professionals at Triangle Park on Sunday, November 28. Disaster struck almost immediately; Al Mahrt went down with a broken collarbone in the first quarter. Despite Mahrt’s absence, the Triangles stayed with Akron in the first half. Dick Abrell went in at quarterback and played well.
The Triangles held up better in the second half than they had at Akron, but this time the game turned on a mistake and luck. Fritz Pollard recovered a muffed punt and returned it 48 yards for a score in the third quarter. Then in the fourth quarter Akron fullback Rip King fumbled the ball in his backfield while dropping back to pass. New Triangle Broadhurst broke through the line and bore down on King, but King was able to recover the ball and sidestep Broadhurst’s pursuit. Looking up, he found Pollard streaking open and hit him in stride for the game-sealing touchdown.
The 14-0 loss sent the Triangles’ championship hopes down in flames. The Decatur Staleys indeed fell that day to the Chicago Cardinals, 7-6, leaving Akron as the only unbeaten team in the association. Subsequent ties with the Staleys and the Buffalo All-Americans solidified the Pros claim to championship honors.
Fans, players and the coach himself may have speculated whether the season might have turned out differently had Al Mahrt not been hurt. More than just a great passer, Mahrt was a leader who inspired his teammates to believe that no obstacle was too great to overcome. Nevertheless, the Dayton Triangles finished the 1920 season with a respectable mark of five wins, two losses, and two ties, placing themselves in the top third of the APFA standings. Assuming Mahrt’s return from injury, and Coach Talbott’s continuing tutelage, Triangle boosters had every reason to hope for a championship run next season.
On the morning of January 31, 1921, while golfing near the Talbott family’s winter residence in south Florida, Coach Talbott’s father Harold collapsed and died. His death set in motion events that would pull young Nelson increasingly away from the team he loved and helped to found.