A man’s grandmother passed away. As it often happens eventually to every family, it came time to sort through a lifetime of mementos and belongings. And there, in the basement, amongst those mementos of a life well-lived was a treasure trove of artifacts regarding the long-ago history of the grandmother’s father. And those revelations led to a pursuit of the great-grandfather’s legacy as a pivotal pioneer in a sport – oh, yes, you’ve heard of it…football!
The man’s great-grandfather was Bob Shiring, and his legacy included being the Captain of a pioneering football team at the turn of the 20th Century. He was the team’s center, later had the distinction of hiking the ball in the first recorded play involving a forward pass, and eventually was named the “world’s greatest center” in the press.
And that history led Shiring’s great-grandson to research further his family’s involvement in the sport which has grown so immensely, resulting in a wonderfully chronicled “coffee-table” book: Gridiron Legacy – Pro Football’s Missing Origin Story.”
Shiring’s legacy, and the story of football’s fertile roots has been impressively detailed by his great-grandson, Gregg Ficery, a Georgetown grad and Pittsburgh native who spent 15 years, yes, 15 years, delving into the game’s origins, which, as it turns out, actually pre-dates baseball by a wide margin.
Just about every sports fan knows at least some of baseball’s mythic origins, that a Civil War General named Abner Doubleday somehow organized a primitive version of a baseball game in 1839 on a cow field in a sleepy little village in upstate New York named Cooperstown. Of course, that’s a fable as accurate as the Easter Bunny hitting a home run off a slider thrown by the Tooth Fairy, but it’s accepted as much as Santa Claus being able to skinny himself down chimneys and the truth has long been discovered that a group of New Yorkers took the ferry to a field in New Jersey in 1846 and really organized what became the National Pastime.
But what about football? There are possibly millions of fans of the NFL who believe the sport was invented in 1920 when a league was formed called The American Professional Football Association, the forerunner to the NFL. Or maybe there’s a handful of young fans who think football began with the debut of the what would eventually be called the Super Bowl in 1967.
But no, of course, the football’s roots go back much, much farther, and way, way before the collaboration of a group of organizers in Canton, Ohio, in 1920.
After discovering a museum’s worth of materials regarding his great-grandfather’s involvement to football, including photographs, newspaper clippings, souvenirs and memorabilia, Ficery took 15 years to research the project, and with the help of the National Football Hall of Fame in Canton, this new exploration answers a great many questions you may have pondered.
First question answered – the name of the game. Football fans easily recognize that the game is derived from rugby, but rugby is a derivative of what Americans and Australians call soccer.
Games involving a ball might go all the way back to the ancient Greeks, who played some sort of sport on a rectangular field with goal lines. During the 9th Century in Wales, games were mostly played by peasants “on foot,” hence the first reference to “football.” Scotland’s King James I actually outlawed the sport with the Football Act of 1424, requiring a fine to be paid by those guilty of the sporting crime. Even Shakespeare referenced football in one of his plays, calling it “a low form of amusement.”
The word, soccer, is actually sort of a nickname originating in England related to “Association Football.” The abbreviation of association was “Assoc.,” pronounced “a-sock.” And over time that morphed into “sock-er,” kinda like when the Baby Boom gave birth to “Boomers,” or a joke is told by jokers, and those who played rugby became “ruggers.”
So perhaps whether or not it was called soccer hundreds of years ago might not matter in an engraving from 1807 that showed students at Yale University playing some sort of game kicking around an inflated pig’s bladder on a field. In Top Hats, no less. But the origin of rugby can actually be traced specifically to a 16-year-old student in England named William Webb Ellis, who in 1823, while playing soccer, decided late in one game to pick up the ball and run with it.
You could arguably say two sports were born that day, rugby, and football.
There is an engraved stone tablet on display at the Rugby School in England commemorating the moment Ellis crossed the goal line carrying the “ball” as opposed to kicking it across.
In 1827, students at Harvard regularly played a Sunday afternoon game they called “ballown,” which was a rules-be-damned brawl on a field with dozens of “players” literally fighting their way downfield to carry that pig bladder across a goal line. The ensuing battles led to the following day of classes to be labeled, “Bloody Monday.”
For the balance of the century, schools in the UK and America played improvised versions of soccer/rugby/football – take your pick. What is considered the first official college football game occurred on November 6, 1869, between students of Princeton and Rutgers. Princeton was known as the College of New Jersey at the time.
The Rutgers players wore red bandanas of some sort to distinguish themselves on the field of battle, and sure enough, that became the school’s official colors to this day.
Back to Ficery’s great-grandfather.
Shiring was not only there in what can be said of pro football’s infancy, he became a central figure in an early game-fixing scandal in 1906.
As the Captain of the Massillon (Ohio) Tigers, Shiring was questioned about a series of “World Championship” games the Tigers played against the Canton Bulldogs, and isn’t that interesting that Canton – the birthplace of Pro Football – was also accused.
“Gridiron Legacy” does a magnificent job of in-depth research into the Century-plus scandal that could have derailed the sport before it got off the ground, and definitely movie-worthy, but here we can at least provide the headline from the Massillon Morning Gleaner that reported the story the morning of November 26, 1906: “The Famous Massillon Tigers of 1906 Could Not Be Bought Off With A Price.”
You will definitely enjoy football’s early history with Ficery’s informative explorations, fully documented with team photos, magazine and newspaper clippings, various artifacts, memorabilia, team photos, historic drawings and engravings, hundreds of other photos and other pertinent data. It really is a must-have for any fan of football.
It’s not the first book to chronicle the history of the game. There was a Random House book in 1965 called, “The Story of Football,” and Grosset & Dunlop published a history of the sport by Earl Schenk Miers in 1967, simply labeled, “Football,” (reprinted in 1969 and 1971).
But none of them had the history and the accounts of someone who was there in the baby-steps days, as well as with materials that not even the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton had privy to, so this is truly a watermark publication.
“Gridiron Legacy,” with a foreword by the late Franco Harris, is available wherever books are sold, published by The Ringer LLC (hardcover, 352 pages, $49.95).