Sportsballs: (Akron) Pros before Broncos

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How the Ak-Rowdy landed professional football’s first-ever world championship

The truth sounds like someone’s weird dream.

Almost 100 years ago, the city of Akron was home to a professional football team, which was a charter member of the same American Professional Football Association that would become the NFL and later net Canton the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In fact, the notes for that famed meeting were kept on stationary for the Akron Pros, which were previously known as the Akron Devils, the Akron Indians and the Akron Burkhardts, after the beer-making local family.

Akron_pros_celebratingThe Akron Pros team played on a field at League Park on the corner of Carroll St. and Beaver St., a stone’s throw from Infocision Stadium at the University of Akron, where co-owner Art Ranney played football. (Back in the day, college football legend John Heisman left Oberlin College for Buchtel College — aka the present day Zips — where he introduced the center hiking the ball to the quarterback instead of rolling it behind him. Heisman also coached the Buchtel baseball team, which was one of the oldest continuous programs in the nation until it was cut by President Scott Scarborough last summer, putting the players and their families in financial hardship so he could plow over the field to build a “grand entrance.”)

Akron_pros_1920In 1920, the Pros were nearly unstoppable, twice beating Jim Thorpe’s Canton Bulldogs and then held the Decatur (Ill.) Staleys to a scoreless tie to maintain the league’s best record (8-0-3). Between the ensuing controversy and the fact there was no Super Bowl-esque game to settle matters on the field, it wasn’t until the following April that the owners gathered at the Portage Hotel in Akron and voted to award the Pros a “silver loving-cup,” donated by Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company (appropriately, the Tire Division) for the APFA’s very first championship.

The next year, the Pros fielded professional football’s first black head coach, “Little” Fritz Pollard, who was the team’s well-regarded running back and co-coach. Paul Robeson, who is best known now as an actor, singer and civil rights activist, was a star on the 1921 Akron Pros team. Before the 1923 season, the APFA was renamed the National Football League. The first championship game wouldn’t take place until 1933. The first Super Bowl wasn’t until January 15, 1967, almost 50 years ago.

fritz pollardMore than 50 years after he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame, Pollard, who graduated from Brown University and would later publish the first black-owned newspaper in New York City, was posthumously elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005, the only member of the Akron Pros to be so enshrined. Pollard also credited the owners of the Akron Pros, Ranney and Frank Nied, kept other league owners from enacting a color barrier to keep African-American players off the field. Still, this was at a time when the KKK was prominent in Akron, and Nied was justifiably afraid for Pollack’s safety. He had the player change before games in the cigar store he owned at Main and Mill.

The Akron Pros would win another eight games in 1921 but lose three and tie one, falling to third place. Their slide continued through 1926 when they again became the Indians. A year later, the team disbanded.

Meanwhile, no one knows what happened to the championship trophy the Pros won in 1920. Maybe it’s still hidden away somewhere in Akron?

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