The History Of How Football Became America's Favorite Game

The History Of How Football Became America's Favorite Game
Photo: Walter Ross Jr./Getty Images
Executing one of his signature jump passes, Joe Namath shocked the world with his New York Jets in Super Bowl III. Games like this one made NFL football America’s favorite sport.
Pro football, with its long and storied history, is the most popular sport in the United States

It was January 1969, with the nation still in the thrall of the Summer of Love. A quarterback with long sideburns, bushy hair and a penchant for wearing white shoes made a brash prediction. Responding to a heckler at a Miami supper club, Joe “Willie” Namath guaranteed victory in Super Bowl III against the Colts, a juggernaut favored by 18 points. 

Few gave the Jets a chance, but Namath was more than ready. “We had an advantage because the Colts had this defense that killed the whole NFL that season,” says Namath, now 74, remembering that day more than 50 years ago. “Why would they change for an 18-point underdog? I knew they would stick with the same fronts and coverages and the same blitzes. It was like having all the questions for an exam two weeks before you actually take it. By the time we played, I knew those guys inside-out.”

Namath’s Jets beat the seemingly invincible Colts 16-7 and the football universe would never be the same. “We sent a message to all the underdogs out there,” Namath says. “If you want something bad enough and aren’t afraid to lay it on the line, you can do it. I can’t tell you how many times I have had people tell me they used our win as a motivating force. Teachers, coaches, everyday people. They figured, if the Jets did it, they could do it.”

Moments like that one are the reasons that professional football is entrenched, firmly, as America’s game. Back in 1961, a Gallup Poll showed that people preferred baseball to football by a margin of 34 percent to 21 percent. By 1972, the numbers had flipped: people now favored rectangular warfare to baseball’s subdued charm, and nearly 50 years later, football is more dominant still, more than three times as popular as other sports. “Baseball is what we were,” wrote Mary McGrory, a Pulitzer winning columnist. “Football is what we’ve become.” 

Our infatuation with football reveals our desire for speed and violence. Football joins the swiftness of a track meet with the brutality of highway crashes. It juxtaposes the grace of ballet with the ungainliness of clashing bodies in a mosh pit. “The contact, the speed, and the hitting—go back to the Colosseum days when people were fighting to stay alive,” says Namath. 

“Football is not a contact sport,” Mike Ditka once said. “It’s a collision sport.” Ray Lewis, in last October’s Cigar Aficionado, described the intensity he put into one tackle. “Everything that I have been through in life,” he said, “I gave to that hit.” Our love of football holds up a mirror to ourselves and reveals our bellicose nature. The show is too good to ignore. 

Football’s timeless images are endless. Johnny Unitas straddled over center, inventing the two-minute drill on the fly, leading his team to a title in ’58. Lawrence Taylor standing almost completely upright at his right end position in the ’80s and ’90s, tossing aside blockers to get to the quarterback. Tom Brady ignoring a seemingly insurmountable 28-3 deficit and leading the Patriots on a record-setting comeback in last season’s Super Bowl.

The Early Years

Long before Brady, Unitas, Namath and Taylor, pro football was quite a different game. In 1920, the National Football League (then called the American Professional Football Association) was seeking star power to keep pace with the college game. That year a mere 19 passes were thrown in 40 pro games—about one toss every other game. Rules of the day caused this grounded offense. Passes had to be thrown from five yards behind the line of scrimmage, so defenses were better prepared. An incomplete toss in the end zone cost you possession of the ball. The ball itself was fatter, making it easier to kick than throw. Since two-way players worked 60 minutes on offense and defense combined, they didn’t want to run extra pass patterns. It wasn’t until decade’s end that the pass was becoming a weapon. 

The search for a face of the league, a star that the game could hitch its wagon to, was ongoing. Baseball had Babe Ruth. Football lacked anyone of that stature. It appeared that the candidate might be Jim Thorpe, but in that inaugural 1920 season Thorpe was 32. He would play only 52 games with six different teams and didn’t finish the decade. But another star was born. 

An elusive runner at the University of Illinois, Red Grange had averaged 6.6 yards every time he carried the ball in 1924. His final college game, a 14-9 Illinois victory, drew 85,000 fans at Ohio State. Then he announced he would forego the rest of his education and sign a professional contract. Not a week later he debuted for the Chicago Bears before a throng of 36,000 at Wrigley Field, the largest crowd to date ever to see a professional contest. The Bears anticipated his impact and paid him $12,000 for his first game. 

The gridiron shook. On December 6, 1925, a crowd of 68,000 fans and 100 reporters squeezed into New York’s Polo Grounds to watch Grange and the Bears top the Giants 19-7. The star back pocketed $30,000 in gate receipts. Now the professional game challenged the hegemony of the college game. The fraternity of college coaches were aghast that players such as Grange, who hadn’t finished college, would sully their amateur standing by making money off the game. But this was wanton hypocrisy, as they earned generous salaries to coach. In addition, a 400-page study by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, entitled Bulletin Number Twenty-Three, revealed that 102 of the 130 colleges visited illegally subsidized their athletes in some form. The report, released in October 1929 and based on four years of investigations and interviews, revealed that the universities themselves, and booster clubs, gave their athletes cash handouts, tuition waivers and jobs. 

So taking money for play was nothing new, and Grange got his. Like Ruth he endorsed, well, anything—candy bars, cigarettes, fountain pens. He was the first football player to appear on a box of Wheaties. Grange was the “Galloping Ghost,” a nickname that only added to his stature as a shadowy figure eluding mere mortals seeking to tackle him. In the hyperbolic reporting of the day, Grange was a mythic figure. “Grange does the work of three men and a horse,” wrote Damon Runyon. 

Grange had mediocre professional statistics. But, like Ruth, Grange had the touch of everyman. “There are many things you can learn on the football field,” he once said to children surrounding him, extolling the game’s virtues. “You can learn how to take a good licking and not cry about it, and learn how to hand one out and not brag about it.” Moreover, Grange brought stability to the league. “When I came into pro football in the 1920s, it was really a nothing game. When I played outside of the franchise towns nobody knew anything about pro ball.” But he was wrong in assuming that football lacked a future.

That future would be shorter on mythology but longer on stellar play. Two players would carry the ball—actually and figuratively—into the modern era. They were “The Alabama Antelope” Don Hutson and a sidewinding Washington quarterback, Slingin’ Sammy Baugh. Hutson, who played for Green Bay from 1935 to 1945, was also a defensive back (he intercepted 23 passes in his last four years) and a kicker. He helped Green Bay to three titles—and changed the game from run to pass almost overnight. 

In his 11 seasons Hutson led the league in receptions eight times and receiving yardage and touchdowns seven times. The two-time Most Valuable Player caught 99 touchdowns, a record that stood up for 44 years. One of his slick moves was to grab the goal line goalpost and then pivot off of it, away from defenders. Grainy films show Hutson, who ran 100 yards in 9.7 seconds, blazing past backs. “Nobody in the league could touch him,” said Baugh, claiming that one defender alone couldn’t stop Hutson. While skilled ends are commonly double-teamed now, that tactic was untried until Hutson came along. 

In 1942 he might have posted the most dominant season ever. In an 11-game schedule he caught 74 passes for 17 touchdowns and 1,211 yards. Hutson orbited in a galaxy all his own: he scored 138 points, the first NFL player to surpass 100. In 1944 he scored 29 points on four touchdowns and five conversions—in one quarter. 

Had he teamed with Baugh he might have shattered even more records. Baugh closed out his rookie campaign in the 1937 NFL Championship Game by slinging three long touchdowns to lead Washington to a 28-21 victory over Chicago. Baugh changed the game from low scoring trench warfare to an aerial assault. “They finally realized that people liked to see scoring,” Baugh recollected. “You don’t want to sit out there in the cold and see a 14-6 game.” 

A two-way player, Baugh was a safety who logged 31 interceptions, and a booming punter who still owns the mark for the highest average in a season (51.4 yards in 1940), and a career (45.1 yards). He even snatched a rare “triple crown” in 1943, leading the league in passing, punting and interceptions. He led the NFL in punting for four consecutive years. The Skins’ quarterback played 16 years and made the pass a staple of the game.  

The Stars Multiply

The stars were brighter, and more plentiful, in the 1950s. That decade witnessed Unitas and his other half, receiver Raymond Berry, and the great Cleveland Browns, with Otto Graham and Jim Brown, the player who the Giants’ Frank Gifford called “the greatest player of all time.” 

For many, Otto Graham is the very embodiment of transcendent records. From 1946 through 1955—four years in the All-America Football Conference and then six more in the NFL—Graham brought the world championship home to Cleveland seven times. When the Browns joined the NFL in 1950, Graham threw four touchdown passes and led Cleveland to a 30-28 win over Los Angeles in the 1950 title game. 

Before players were heavily recruited, Graham was “discovered” playing intramural football as a freshman. That gives him something in common with his successor as the greatest quarterback of the 1950s—Johnny Unitas. A ninth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1955, Unitas was cut and played semipro ball for $6 a game while working as a piledriver at a Pittsburgh steel mill. The Colts signed this undrafted underdog as a free agent for $7,000 in 1956. Two years later, “The Lord of Baltimore” orchestrated the most famous drive in football history. The Colts trailed the Giants 17-14 with 1:58 left in the 1958 title game at Yankee Stadium. Starting from his own 14-yard line, Unitas threw an 11-yard completion to Lenny Moore, then strikes of 25, 15 and 22 yards in succession to Berry, his favorite target. Steve Myhra kicked a 23-yard field goal to put the game in overtime. After a Giants’ punt, Unitas completed four passes, and audibled to back Alan Ameche for 22 yards up the middle when he saw Giants’ linebacker Sam Huff move to help out on Berry. Finally, a one-yard plunge from Ameche won the contest, 23-17. As twilight turned to dusk in the great three-tiered stadium, Unitas essentially drew the curtain on the two-minute drill, as if it was a new Broadway dance production being seen for the first time.   

“He was the best play caller I’ve even seen,” recalls Sam Huff, the Giants linebacker. “Unitas to Berry, Unitas to Berry—it drove me crazy. We weren’t smart enough to stop that offense.” The game was televised and did more than any other to carry the NFL to hitherto unseen heights of popularity. It was the first overtime game in the playoffs and is in the minds of some the greatest game ever played. What cannot be argued is that it was the most important. The legend of the slump shouldered quarterback with the black high tops, and his perfect drive, only grows larger over time.  

The 1960s, a decade that unleashed a tsunami of social and political upheaval across the fruited plain, did the same in football. First came a new league, the American Football League, a league built on a try-anything, high-octane style of offense. The AFL (the fourth league to bear that name) was also a doormat for the National Football League, as evidenced by the first two Super Bowls when the new kids were chastised severely by the smirking establishment, as Green Bay dusted Kansas City and then Oakland by a combined score of 68 to 24. Namath and his Jets changed all that with their improbable Super Bowl victory in 1969, which set off a decade-plus in which the AFC new kids—New York, Kansas City, Miami, Pittsburgh and Oakland—wiped the floor with their NFC competitors, winning 11 of 13 Super Bowls, nine of them by a margin of a touchdown or greater. The merger was on, and so was an annual rite of winter: unholy ass kickings. Only the Cowboys—who won in 1972 and 1978—could stop the bloodletting.

The “Me Generation” 1970s saw crew cuts replaced by facial hair, several dynasties and near-dynasties emerge, and witnessed legendary defensive outfits with nicknames like the “No Name Defense,” “The Purple People Eaters,” “The Doomsday Defense” and “The Steel Curtain.” The decade witnessed the advent of cocaine and steroids, the latter even showing up in players’ cereal bowls. One thing remained the same: salaries were routinely lousy, as owners held the puppet strings that players danced on. But above all, it was a decade dominated by one of the greatest outfits ever assembled—the Pittsburgh Steelers. 

“I’m going to make them a winner,” said a young man with straight blond hair. He was Terry Bradshaw, and he was tall and looked clean, scrubbed and unblemished, like John Voight in Midnight Cowboy. His “I wanna go deep” style combined with the steady ground game of Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, and a reckless defense which seemed to compete with the Oakland Raiders for violent excess and a longing to set ever higher standards for bad taste. The formula for the Steelers isn’t hard to grasp. When it was over we knew we had witnessed a decade of football so unlike any other, and the Steelers had four championships.

Football Goes Primetime

“Monday Night Football,” which debuted on ABC on September 21, 1970, was a game changer. (It had been turned down by CBS and NBC, which certainly regretted the decision, as the show caught fire instantly.) In the booth were Dandy Don Meredith, the former Dallas quarterback, crooning in his notable twang; Frank Gifford, a Giant on the New York sports scene, literally and figuratively, whose straight delivery and good looks bumped the female audience, which made up 40 percent of Monday night viewers; and Howard Cosell, the acerbic lawyer turned sportscaster. In a poll of people most hated by Americans, Cosell finished below Richard Nixon but above Satan. Still, the haters who loathed his knowledge and nasal delivery tuned in to hear what he would say and to catch his highlights of the weekend games. These he did, unscripted, in about four minutes. Everyone watched. 

A rectangular sport framed by a rectangular screen, football was suddenly must-see television. As Kevin Cook relates in his book The Last Headbangers, CBS telecasts featured more cheerleaders, especially the Dallas cheerleaders, who, baring more skin than cheerleaders in other cities, drew some 58 million viewers between the first and second quarters of the 1972 Super Bowl. “I like to give the fans a little sex with their violence,” said CBS producer Chuck Milton. Commercials for Noxema had Joe Namath “getting creamed” with shaving cream by Farrah Fawcett.  

None of this advertising foreplay would have mattered if the product was lousy. But the revolution that brought changes also brought identifiable dynasties, near-dynasties and savage rivalries. The 1972 Miami Dolphins ran off 17 consecutive wins, the only team to go through a regular season, playoffs and Super Bowl without losing. Pittsburgh and Oakland hated each other and faced off in the playoffs five years in a row. Pittsburgh’s defense for the ages included Mean Joe Green, Jack Lambert and Jack Ham, all of whom seemed ready to slay ball carriers without thinking twice. 

As Pittsburgh dominated the ’70s, so did San Francisco rule the ’80s. In 1985, the 49ers faced the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX. Their combined record was 29-3, then the best ever for two opponents in the big game, and the contest was promoted as a mano-a-mano duel between football’s best quarterbacks: Dan Marino, just finishing his second year as the first ever to pass for 5,000 yards in a season and the youngest quarterback to start a Super Bowl, and Joe Montana. “Montana always threw it right where he was supposed to,” says San Francisco running back Roger Craig, the first player to get three touchdowns in a Super Bowl. Coach Bill Walsh drew up a plan to attack Miami’s vulnerable inside linebackers, and his six-back-defense held the Dolphins’ ground attack to a pathetic 25 yards. Marino appeared flummoxed and was sacked four times in the second half alone. Finally, Craig hauled in a Montana spiral and was untouched across 16 yards for his third score. “He had great touch,” Craig marvels of Montana. “Like he was handing it to you.” The Niners won in a rout, 38-16. “They called him ‘Joe Cool’ for a reason. He was pretty much unflappable,” says Carl Banks, who won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants and faced off against Montana several times. 

The 49ers dynasty was followed by that of the Dallas Cowboys, who ruled the 1990s with their high-powered offense. From a 1-15 record in 1989, they rebuilt into the league’s best team, winning Super Bowls in 1993, 1994 and 1996. New England, run by the Kraft family, coached by Bill Belichik and orchestrated by Tom Brady, has been the dominant team of this century, with five Super Bowl wins between the 2001 season and 2016.

For every champion, there was a loser. Marino never returned to the Super Bowl. Fran Tarkenton and Chuck Foreman took the Minnesota Vikings to three Super Bowls, but never won. In their final Super Bowl together, in 1977, they faced the Raiders. The legendary Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray might have had the best line: “The Vikings play football like a guy laying carpet. The Raiders play like a guy jumping through a skylight with a machine gun.” Oakland won 32-14. Years later, the Buffalo Bills would make it to four straight Super Bowls only to lose all four. 

Today, fans wonder how long can New England rule? Who will their successor be? And who is the greatest ever to play the game?

“Everybody that is a detractor from what Brady and Belichick have achieved is just jealous,” says Dan Hampton, a Hall of Famer who played for the Chicago Bears for 12 years. Hampton thinks that Brady is the greatest quarterback of all-time—better than Montana, better than Unitas, better than them all. His estimate of Belichick is the same. His reasoning? “Brady will not have anyone in the Hall of Fame off of his team,” Hampton says. “True, Randy Moss was there for one year and a cup of coffee, but Noll coached about 10 Hall of Famers and Montana had his share.” 

Let the debates continue. That’s football, too. 

Ken Shouler is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado magazine.