The First NFL Grudge Match: Decatur Staleys vs. Rock Island Independents

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a grudge match as “a contest or fight between players, teams, etc…..who dislike each other.”  There have been many grudge matches over the course of the league’s 100+ year history, but what about the first one?  For the answer, we get to go all the way back to the first season to learn about a game between the Decatur Staleys and the Rock Island Independents.

Read the whole story or listen to the podcast episode below.

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Joe Ziemba is the host of this show, and he is an author of early football history in the city of Chicago.  Here, you can learn more about Joe and When Football Was Football, including all of the episodes of the podcast.

Setting the Stage

At times nowadays, we throw around the term “fake news.” However you describe the term, it could mean something one does not agree with, or perhaps it actually is something that is far from the truth. In the very early days of the NFL in 1920, when it was still called the American Professional Football Association, the league was populated with teams from much smaller towns than today.

Places like Hammond, IN, Canton, OH, Rock Island, IL, and Decatur, IL were among the locations hosting early NFL clubs. The local fans were very loyal and the neighborhood newspapers were delighted to have their own “home” team to lavish praise upon, whether or not it was accurate!

In particular, we owe a bit of gratitude for those publications since they devoted considerable space in each issue to covering all aspects of their teams. Not only were previews of each game addressed, but post-game reports included extensive coverage and opinions about the just-completed contests, including the inclusion of box scores that identified the participating players.

These surviving articles provide insight into the ancient days of the NFL, allowing researchers to peek in a window that was closed many decades ago. In this episode of “When Football Was Football,” we’ll discuss a game in 1920 between the Rock Island Independents and the Decatur Staleys that prompted intense passion from the players and fans on both sides, thus creating what we’ll call the “first grudge match in NFL history.”

More importantly, we’re able to pull information from small-town newspapers in both locations to fully understand one of the wackiest situations in the inaugural year of the National Football League, and one that was escalated by the words of a single local newsman.

Leading Up to a Grudge Match

So how does a grudge match develop between teams that really had no history and had already played a rather harmless encounter to open the season? On October 17, 1920, the two clubs initially met in Rock Island with the Staleys capturing a 7-0 victory on a 44-yard run by Jimmy Conzelman.

Everybody had such a great time after the nice, clean, crisp game, that the two teams began quickly negotiating for a rematch. Back in 1920, schedules were not locked in before the season so in-season game scheduling was quite common. There was some dickering over the share of gate receipts and location, but the two clubs were looking forward to strong attendance which would promise each a profitable share of the revenue.

The Decatur Herald pushed loudly for the game to be staged in Decatur, which seemed logical since the first contest was played in Rock Island. In addition, the Herald claimed that the October 17 battle was the biggest thing since sliced bread: “No athletic contest in years, not excepting the Dempsey-Willard fight or the World Series, has stirred local interest as did the Staley-Rock Island football game. From four o’clock Sunday afternoon until late in the evening two Herald reporters were busy at the telephone answering calls from fans who wanted to know the score.” 

However, the days slipped by and there was still no agreement on the location of the rematch which would be held on November 7. The Decatur Herald, realizing that seating was limited at the Staley field, challenged the city of Peoria, IL to host the game at the Avery-Tractor Field stating: “Peoria’s businessmen should be interested in the staging of a big game of this caliber, as it will bring hundreds, yes thousands, to Peoria for the battle. What do you say, live wires of Peoria?”

Finally, after all-day discussions in Chicago on November 1, 1920, the game was scheduled to be played at Douglas Park in Rock Island. Surprisingly, reporter Bruce Copeland of the Rock Island Argus dropped his happy face and began needling the Staleys in print: “The Staleys are cocksure that they can defeat the Independents by even a greater score than two weeks ago.

They boast they are logical contenders for the world’s championship by virtue of their victories over the Independents and the Chicago Tigers.” But that opening salvo was just a jump start for Copeland. In his column on November 2 in the Argus, he recounted some discussions from the Chicago meeting: “George Trafton, Staley center declared that the Independents were the softest playing proposition that he had ever opposed. Leave it to Trafton for that…He spreads it on thick.” 

The Staleys’ manager George Halas was a target for Copeland: “Halas, suave with noticeable traces of vindictiveness toward any opponent, vowed openly that he was positive his team could defeat the Islanders by at least three touchdowns without his own goal line even so much as threatened.” 

 Clearly, tensions were building before the big game, with Copeland’s fiery comments and opinions fanning the flames in Rock Island. No one from the Decatur side seemed to contradict the quotations, but Halas, perhaps feeling a bit uneasy, decided that his road team would not spend the night in Rock Island. Halas wrote in his autobiography:

“Local feelings were against us there [Rock Island] because of the money Staley backers had made on our last game. Being cautious—off the field—I made our overnight headquarters at Hotel Davenport in Davenport, Iowa across the Mississippi River from Rock Island.”

It was probably a wise decision since Copeland continued his unrelenting attack on the Staleys by writing: “Since defeating Rock Island, the Staleys have done everything in their power to belittle the Independents’ grand playing record.

They have referred openly to the Islanders as ‘softies,’ ‘punks,’ ‘rowdies,’ ‘small-towners,’ and other epithets equally as distasteful.” Still, Copeland encouraged local fans to attend the game and predicted that the two teams would split an enormous purse of $12,000 for their efforts. 

Getting to the Game

The night before the game, Halas recalled that local gamblers showed up at the Hotel Davenport seeking betting action in support of the Independents. Even worse, said Halas, “They boasted that George Trafton, our best defensive man, would be knocked out of the game in the first quarter. Some even mentioned the name of the Rock Island player, a Mr. [Fred] Chicken, who would put Trafton on the bench, or worse!”

The Davenport Quad-City Times later verified that statement by reporting: “Trafton was personally challenged in the Davenport hotel Saturday evening, and a handful of these birds from Rock Island heckled and razzed him into bets that he would be forced to take time before the end of the first quarter. Trafton bet till his money was gone and went into the game hammer and tongs.” 

The game itself was lackluster, as the two clubs battled to a less than exciting scoreless tie. However, the non-scoring activity on the field disintegrated into a holy mess with fights, unpleasant tackling, unnecessary roughness, all inspired by the passion of the participants, and the rowdiness of the local fans.

Fortunately, no injuries were reported when a portion of the bleachers collapsed during the game due to the weight and the movement of the crowd. Trafton was clearly labeled as the villain in this game, and the rumored efforts that the Independents were intent on harming him were not unfounded. The Staley Fellowship Journal later noted that:

“Trafton played a whale of a game, although he was a marked man because of some dizzy sports writer quoting him as saying he would get the Islander players.” Halas recalled: “Early in the game, the Rock Island hitman [that would be Mr. Chicken] was carried from the field, knocked out by Trafton, accidentally, of course.

The Rock Island doctor revived the unfortunate Mr. Chicken, put nineteen stitches in his scalp, and a plaster cast around a broken wrist.” The Quad-City Times added: “Trafton took no time out during the game and is said to have personally accounted for [injuries to] Gunderson, Chicken, Smith, and Nichols.”

 The Quad-City Times stated that: “It was when Swede Gunderson was hurt that the Rock Island fans started the hooting and jeering and the game was delayed fully ten minutes by the howling mob. The play resulted in a 15-yard penalty against the Staleys and play was finally resumed.” All of which prompted the betting public of Rock Island to look upon Mr. Trafton with further dismay. Sensing the growing civil unrest, Halas plotted a quick escape for his star center:

“The Rock Island fans were extremely upset by the disappearance of Mr. Chicken and the continued aggressive tackling by our George. We foresaw trouble for our George. Fortunately, as the end neared, we had the ball. We devised a play that had George running toward the exit. As the gun fired with the score still 0-0, George went out the gate. We threw him a sweatshirt to hide his numerals. He headed for the bridge and Iowa. A car stopped and carried him safely across the river and the state line.”

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    The Aftermath

     In reality, the entire Staleys’ team was in danger after the game. A crowd of Rock Island supporters surrounded the team as it was leaving the field and someone tossed an empty bottle in the direction of the players. The Quad-City Times reported that:

    “Luckily…the mob scene [did not] result in a casualty although a pop bottle was thrown by an irate fan. [It] crashed through a taxi-cab window, narrowly missing a Staley player who was riding in the rear seat of the machine. Neither the bottle nor the flying glass did any damage. The purpose of the attack was ‘to get’ Trafton, the Staley center.”

    While there was no mention of any unusual activity surrounding the game in Chicago papers, the Staley Fellowship Journal decried that “Never in the history of Staley athletics have we ever seen such poor sportsmanship on the part of an organization or its supporters as that of the Rock Island Independents.”

    Of course, the Rock Island Argus was not finished, either, barking back with a bold headline stating “Staleys Win World’s Dirt Title,” and proclaiming: “With a foul player like Trafton, the Staleys’ best gutter champion roaming the field at large against teams whose ideals are cloaked in nothing but clean sport–the Staleys will soon find the best professional elevens in the country turning their backs on them.”

    Years later, Halas documented his version of the Rock Island aftermath by stating that: “Our share of the gate was $3,000 in cash. At the hotel, I gave it to Trafton to bring to the train.” 

     When asked why he gave the money to Trafton, instead of taking the cash himself, Halas did not hesitate to respond: “I knew if we did encounter obstreperous Rock Island fans, I would run for the money…but Trafton would run for his life!” 

    Thank you for listening to this episode of “When Football Was Football.” We’re excited about sharing the next episode with you, which will be a special look at some of the key professional games played on Thanksgiving Day and why a game in 1919 may have been the most important professional football contest ever played on that holiday… 

    Interested in more from host Joe Ziemba?  You can see him on the other side of the mic as a guest on The Football History Dude podcast talking about the history of the Chicago Cardinals and his book When Football Was Football.

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