FOOTBALL. The first organized football game in Cleveland was reportedly played in 1887, 18 years after the first college football game was played in the United States, between Rutgers and Princeton.
In the first game in Cleveland, a CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL team defeated a group of freshmen from Case School of Applied Science (See: CASE WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY). Newspapers provided general coverage of eastern college football, which had grown in popularity through the 1880s, but locally the game remained a little-known sport until 1890, when graduates of eastern colleges living and working in Cleveland shared their knowledge of football rules and strategies with local men and boys. Several important games in 1890 promoted and popularized football locally. These games included the first high school game in the city's history (25 October, University School 20, Central 0); a series of games between UNIVERSITY SCHOOL, Central, Case, and Adelbert College; and a charity game that attracted 1,500-3,000 spectators to National League Park to watch the Crescent football club of New York defeat a team from Cleveland. By 1895 a number of schools and athletic clubs in the area had 1 or more football teams, and by 1900 local newspapers were giving extensive coverage to the daily practices of high school and college teams. But problems emerged during the early years as the sport remained informal and rough. Players formed football clubs with little regard for eligibility rules or game schedules; arranging games through the newspapers was a common practice at various levels into the 1900s. Another problem was "ringers" who played for money.
In the first decade of the 20th century, two organizations were formed to provide oversight of the sport. In the early 1900s, critics had raised serious objections to the violent nature of football. Safety became a major issue, and in 1905, at the behest of President Theodore Roosevelt, the International Athletic Association of the United States was formed to govern collegiate football and make it safer. Five years later, it was renamed the National Collegiate Athletic Association. New rules were adopted to reduce formations like the flying wedge, which emphasized strength and force and led to injury or even death. By 1912, the game more closely resembled today’s game, with legalized forward passing, 4 downs to make 10 yards in order to retain possession of the ball, and touchdowns worth 6 points.
In 1907, the Ohio High School Athletic Association was formed to regulate high school sports. Locally, the chaotic scheduling of the 1890s had become more ordered: high schools, colleges, and athletic clubs no longer played one another—there were separate leagues for each.
In November 1904, the Athletic Senate, made up of school administrators, adopted new eligibility rules and academic standards to govern athletics in the elementary and high schools. In 1936 the high school Senate expanded participation to include PAROCHIAL SCHOOLS and additional public schools and reorganized itself into East and West divisions to improve competitiveness and help schools maintain self-supporting athletic programs. Organizations such as the Senate and the OHSAA brought order to the sport but did little to support the individual school's football program; as late as 1940, the financial management of local high school football programs rested with the faculty manager, coach, or principal in each school, and only 4 of the 17 Senate teams had their own playing fields. At Western Reserve College, an athletic association composed of students and interested alumni and faculty controlled the sport until 1919, and at Case until 1947. Case reigned as the state's football powerhouse between 1902-11 under the strong guidance of athletic association president FRANK VAN HORN. As early as 1903, an amateur football league also had been organized with divisions in various weight classes and teams composed of former high school and college players.
As the 1920s approached, football in Cleveland became more of a spectator sport, with local businesses sponsoring the teams for advertising purposes. Football was also cited as a way to as a way to rally pride around the performance of a team, whether at the ethnic, neighborhood, or city level. Fans developed their own meanings for the game and its stars. Star quarterback BENJAMIN (BENNY) FRIEDMAN, became a symbol of Jewish pride and ability to excel in manly sports as well as other areas of American life. Various ethnic and racial groups had their own symbols and sources of pride on the gridiron, both individuals—such as Ted Green, the black star at Case in 1902 and 1903 and then at Reserve while in law school in 1905, and Bill Willis and Marion Motley, who helped break the color barrier in pro football with the Browns in 1946—and entire teams, such as the Mohawks, an all-Italian team that claimed the city championship from 1914-18. The players might play simply for the enjoyment of the game, but fans and others invested the gridiron struggles with their own meanings.
In elementary and high schools, sports in general and football in particular were used as tools to enhance the moral development of children; football became a way to teach boys self-discipline and character and a way to save potential juvenile delinquents. Moral rhetoric over football in the high schools gave way to the values of the marketplace for the Big 4 of Case, Western Reserve, JOHN CARROLL UNIV., and BALDWIN-WALLACE COLLEGE, where a strong football program was seen as good for business, attracting publicity, new students, and financial contributions to the schools. Local college football was extremely popular between 1920-45. But by 1950, local college football was in serious trouble. The increasing commercialization of big-time college football made it much more difficult for the small, private schools in the Cleveland area to compete for talent and finance their programs. The NCAA decision in 1952 to allow colleges to award full scholarships solely on the basis of athletic ability further increased the pressures on local schools, where football attendance was on the decline and the athletic programs were losing money. In Dec. 1954 the presidents of small colleges in the region formed the Presidents' Athletic Conference, which banned athletic scholarships and sought to create an atmosphere conducive to competitive athletics on a regional basis without great expense. Although the conference went through several reorganizations, local college football has remained less spectator-oriented since 1955.
Marketplace values and football also came together in the development of professional football in Cleveland. The pro game flourished in surrounding northeastern Ohio towns after 1903, but no pro team developed in Cleveland until 1916, when the Cleveland Indians were organized by Gene Watson "Peggy" Parratt and sports promoter Herman Schleman. Parratt, a baseball and football star at Case, introduced professional football in Cleveland when his team defeated the Carlisle Indians at LEAGUE PARK on 8 October 1916. However a successful season on the field (8-3-1) did not bring the financial success the team's organizers had hoped. In 1919 the CLEVELAND TIGERS (sometimes Indians) played in the last year of the so-called Ohio League, and the following year, on 17 September 1920, the owners of professional football teams met in the showroom of Ralph Hay's Hupmobile Agency in Canton to found the American Professional Football Association, which became the National Football League (NFL). Representing the Cleveland franchise were STANLEY B. "Stan" COFALL, vice-president of the new league, and James M. "Jimmie" O'Donnell, who had owned the 1919 team. But the pro game had difficulty establishing itself against the college game in Cleveland (see the CLEVELAND BULLDOGS and the CLEVELAND PANTHERS of Red Grange's short-lived American Football League), and was generally less popular than the collegiate game for decades to come.
Despite the lack of a popular pro team, football was integrated into the social life of the community during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s because of the uses people found for the sport. During the Depression, civic leaders inaugurated the PLAIN DEALER CHARITY FOOTBALL GAME as a means of raising funds for the poor. In the late 1930s and 1940s, civic boosters used football to promote the city, using the 80,000-seat stadium and its potential for large gate receipts to lure to Cleveland major college games such as Navy vs. Notre Dame and Ohio State vs. Illinois. This pleased local football fans, made money for the city and local businesses, and put the city in the national spotlight, if only briefly. In 1947 and 1948, Cleveland Stadium was even the site of a bowl game, the GREAT LAKES BOWL.
Two new amateur leagues the Catholic Youth Organization, founded in late 1937, and the Muny Football Assn., led by president Fr. Joseph Andel from 1946-60 -- also helped integrate football into the fabric of the city's social life by providing leisure activities for young boys and men. The increasing popularity of professional football in the post-WORLD WAR II years made the game an integral part of Cleveland's lifestyle. Professional football gained a foothold in the city with the CLEVELAND RAMS, who began life in the American Football League in 1936 before joining the NFL the following year. The Rams won the pro championship in 1945, then moved to the sunnier financial climate of Los Angeles.
By that time, a new league was under development, the All-American Football Conference. Taxi magnate ARTHUR B. “MICKEY” MCBRIDE bought a team and hired PAUL E. BROWN, formerly the coach at Massillon High School and Ohio State University. An innovative and highly successful coach, Brown emphasized character, intelligence, and speed and developed many of the coaching procedures that revolutionized and rationalized the game. The war had disrupted college football, and Brown was able to nearly handpick his team from the best players he had seen during his coaching career. The team became known as the Browns, and debuted in 1946. It became part of the NFL in 1950. Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967, Brown was joined in that shrine by 6 of his initial pro recruits: quarterback Otto Graham, inducted in 1965; fullback Marion Motley, 1968; offensive tackle and placekicker Lou Groza, 1974; pass receiver Dante Lavelli, 1975; defensive middle guard Bill Willis, 1977 (College Hall of Fame, 1971); and center Frank Gatski, 1985. Brown brought 3 other future Hall of Famers to the Browns: record-setting running back Jim Brown, inducted in 1973; defensive end LEN FORD, 1976; and offensive tackle Mike McCormack, 1984. Former Cleveland Ram BOB WATERFIELD was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1965, and wide receiver Paul Warfield was enshrined in 1983. Two other Cleveland Browns players inducted into the Hall of Fame were Leroy Kelly and Bobby Mitchell. Paul Brown's tenure as Browns coach ended in 1963, when he was fired by owner ARTHUR B. “ART” MODELL, a young advertising executive and former television producer from New York. Modell parlayed his franchise into power and status in the community. He bought the team in 1961 and soon became a leading force among NFL owners, serving as league president 1967-70 and piloting the league through its merger with the American Football League and subsequent reorganization.
After 1960 Cleveland football was affected by economic considerations and general social changes. At the high school level, recurrent violence at the Charity Football Game in the 1960s contributed to a decline in attendance and a change in the site of the game. Beginning in 1968, the parochial schools withdrew from the Senate for economic reasons, and after the school desegregation order, the Senate was reorganized in the fall of 1979 from East and West divisions, suggestive of the racial divisions within the city, into North and South divisions. In 1981 civic and business leaders expressed concern about the future of interscholastic sports in the financially troubled public schools. That pro football is a business and also shares in the general ills of society became painfully apparent to fans as a result of players' strikes and revelations in 1982 and 1983 that several Browns players had drug problems. The move of the Browns to Baltimore, announced in late 1995, made the business side of the sport crystal clear. Such events went far toward debunking the myth of the necessarily virtuous athlete, yet many coaches and administrators believed that football remained one way to instill in boys and young men character and the important values in life. Players in high schools and such leagues as the Northern Ohio Touch Football League continued to play for pure enjoyment and dreams of gridiron glory.
One such effort to play for the love of the game came from women's football. In 1980, the Cleveland Brewers women's football team joined the National Women's Football League and won the league championship in 1983. Financial troubles and lack of attendance plagued the league and the Brewers left in the mid-80s to compete in local flag football leagues. Soon both the team and the league disbanded. Women's football would return in 2001 as the Cleveland Fusion was formed as part of a newly re-formed National Women's Football League. The Fusion played their first game in Cleveland Browns Stadium, which was built for the Browns’ return to the NFL in 1999 under the ownership of Al Lerner. Al Lerner died in 2002, and his son Randy inherited the Browns. Randy Lerner owned the Browns until 2012, when he sold them to Jimmy and Dee Haslam.
Cleveland was also home to two Arena Football League teams. The Thunderbolts played at the Richfield Coliseum from 1992 to 1994, and in 2007, the Las Vegas Gladiators relocated to Cleveland. The league suspended operations in the wake of the Great Recession for the 2009 season, but returned the following year. Due to renovations at the Gladiators’ home field of Quicken Loans Arena (now Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse), the team suspended operations for the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
Kenneth Rose (dec)
Updated by Vincent Guerrieri