How Ohio Shaped The NFL: From The Birthplace To Rich Pro Football History

While today the great state of Ohio’s professional football teams are seen as something of a punchline (even as the Bengals and Browns continue to find themselves on the upswing thanks to superstar quarterbacks Joe Burrow and the embattled Deshaun Watson, respectively) one cannot tell the history of the game we love without the impact of the Buckeye State playing a massive role.

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Logo of Pro Football Hall of Fame showing Canton in Ohio
Photo Courtesy: Chris Willis

Current Super Bowl Odds For Ohio Teams

Cincinnati (+1000) and Cleveland (+3500) have the fifth-best and tenth-best chances of winning their first Super Bowl champions this season per the betting lines at Caesars Sportsbook Ohio as the power dynamic in the AFC shifts with legendary quarterbacks like Tom Brady opting to hang up their cleats.

While the future of the league is in good hands on the playing field as they navigate the next era of football, here’s a look at all that has happened so far in the 150 year history of football, as well as how the game has been intertwined with the history of the state of Ohio during that time. 

A Look Back Through Time

The game originated as a spin off of rugby soon after the American Civil War. It was first played on an amateur basis in New England in the 1870s, with teams like Harvard, Yale and Columbia facing off regularly to form what would eventually become the Ivy League.  

Over time, though, the game’s power balance shifted westward (as did most things in the United States during that period of rapid westward expansion).

Jim Thorpe of the Canton Bulldogs
Jim Thorpe (NFL First Superstar and member of Canton Bulldogs)
Ralph Hay the founder and owner of the Canton Bulldogs an NFL original team
Ralph Hay (Canton Bulldogs owner and "founder of the NFL")

The National Football League began roughly half a century later, formed in Canton, Ohio in 1920, although it was known as the American Professional Football Association (APFA) for the first two years of its existence. To this day, the Pro Football Hall of Fame resides in Canton in honor of the league’s founding (and the now defunct Canton Bulldogs, who won back to back championships in 1922 and 1923 in the fledgling league).

Canton Bulldogs team photo from 1922 to 1923
Canton Bulldogs Team Photo (1922)

While the Bulldogs folded soon thereafter (along with teams in Akron, Columbus, Dayton, LaRue and Toledo, as well as three apiece in Cincinnati and Cleveland) Ohio continued to dominate the professional circuit as the sport found its home centered in the upper Midwest: think of the influence of college leagues like the Big Ten today. 

As the game continued to evolve closer to the form it takes today, a savvy businessman from the Buckeye state helped to form one of the league’s premier franchises. Paul Brown co-founded the Cleveland Browns, a nickname given to the team after the coach, based on a fan based contest.

The Browns dominated the NFL in the 1950s and early 1960s with the help of superstar running back Jim Brown, winning four NFL championships (prior to the AFL-NFL Merger, when the championship game began to be called the Super Bowl) as well as another four championships in the All-America Football Conference, an offshoot league, in the 1940s. 

Bringing Football Back To Canton

In the 1960s, the city of Canton pushed hard to found the Pro Football Hall of Fame adding to their involvement in the history of the game, and the league acquiesced.

After fellow Browns’ owner Art Modell (who Cleveland fans already know to hate due to his involvement in moving the original Browns’ franchise away from Cleveland to Baltimore during the 1990s) chased Brown away, Brown decided to do it all over again.

His work in Cleveland done, Brown then moved on to found the Cincinnati Bengals, where he again served as the head coach from 1968 to 1975 in the early days following the league merger. Brown served as team president for the remainder of his life, and the Bengals later named their stadium after him to pay homage to a man who played a pivotal role in creating the NFL as we know it today.

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