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The First "Arena" Football Game?
by Randy Snow
Originally posted on ArenaFan.com, Thursday, August 10, 2006

Most Arena football fans are aware of the fact that the inspiration for the game occurred on February 11, 1981. Thatís when Jim Foster, a promotion manager with NFL Properties, attended a Major Indoor Soccer League All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden in New York. During the game, he got the idea for a new kind of football game and drew a diagram of an Arena football field on the back of a manila envelope. It wasnít until April 26, 1986 that the first Arena football "test" game was played in Rockford, Illinois between two semi-pro teams, the Rockford Metros and the Chicago Politicians. The Arena Football Leagueís first season officially kicked off on June 19, 1987.

Of course, the birth of the Arena Football League was not the first time that football had ever been played indoors. In 1968, the NFL Houston Oilers began playing their regular season home games indoors at the Houston Astrodome. But surprisingly, that also was not the first time that football had been played indoors. There were other times, prior to 1968, when football games were played indoors.

In the early days of the NFL, there was no championship game. When the season ended, the team with the best record was simply declared the league champion and that was that.

However, in 1932, the Chicago Bears and the Portsmouth Spartans ended the season tied. The Bears record was 6-1-6 while the Spartans were 6-1-4. In those days, ties did not count in the standings. Since the league did not have any procedures in place at the time to deal with a tie at the end of the season, the two teams got together and decided they would play one more game to determine a champion.

That same season, the Green Bay Packers actually had a better record, 10-3-1. However, because of the way the league calculated winning percentage at the time, the Bears and Spartans both had better winning percentages than the Packers, based on their one loss each. Thatís how they came to be in the championship game.

The game was originally scheduled to be played outside at Wrigley Field, but freezing temperatures in the Chicago area at the time caused the two teams to reconsider the gameís location just days before it was to be played. They were afraid that a lot of people would not attend an outdoor game in such conditions. So, on Thursday, December 8, the teams decided to play the game indoors at the Chicago Stadium, which, at the time, was where the Chicago Blackhawks played hockey.

The stadium had hosted a circus the week before and there was still a layer of dirt in place on the floor to accommodate a football game.

Because of the smaller size of the stadium, the field was only 80 yards long and goal posts were only set up at one end of the field. Therefore, in order to keep things consistent with the 100-yard game, a few special rules were instituted. For example, after each kickoff, the ball was moved back 20 yards and field goals were not allowed.

The game, which was played on Sunday, December 11, 1932, featured a couple of notable players that you may have heard of before, Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski. Both men played for the Chicago Bears. The lone touchdown of the game came on an option pass from Nagurski to Grange in the fourth quarter on a fourth down play. The extra point gave the Bears a 7-0 lead. In the final minutes of the game, a bad snap on a punt by Portsmouth resulted in a safety and Chicago went on to win the game 9-0.

In 1933, the NFL decided it would have a championship game each year and it has done so ever since. In 1934, the Portsmouth Spartans moved from Ohio to Michigan and became the Detroit Lions.

The Bears may have had a bit of an unfair advantage in that 1932 game, however. You see, two years earlier, on December 17, 1930, the Bears defeated the Chicago Cardinals in an exhibition game that was also played indoors at Chicago Stadium.

But that exhibition game in 1930 was still not the first indoor game. You have to set Mr. Peabodyís Way-Back Machine to December 28, 1902 in order to find the first ever pro football game played indoors. The game took place at the original Madison Square Garden in New York and it was part of a five-team tournament called the World Series of pro football. One team, simply known as New York, was made up of pro baseball players from the Philadelphia Athletics and the Philadelphia Phillies. In the first game of the tournament, the Syracuse Athletic Club defeated New York 6-0 before a crowd of about 3,000 people.

As you can see, the concept of playing football indoors on a smaller field goes back a bit farther than the 20 seasons of the Arena Football League. So the next time you are enjoying yourself at an Arena football game, think about what it must have been like to watch Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski play in a similar setting almost 75 years ago. Just add dirt.


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