The Dayton Triangles took on the Columbus Pan Handles in the first-ever NFL game right here in Dayton
by Mark Luedtke
The World Series is over, NBA owners have locked out the players and Thanksgiving is fast approaching. For Ohio sports fans that means it’s time for football, football and more football. Especially NFL football. The NFL is far and away the most popular sports league in the U.S., and it seems like it’s been around forever. And nowhere is football bigger than in Ohio. Football is so big here that the NFL, originally named the American Professional Football Conference, was created in Canton, Ohio in 1920, and the first game was played in Dayton at Triangle Park.
Originally, the league included exclusively Ohio teams, but after just two months, it expanded to include teams from New York, Michigan and Illinois. Jim Thorpe, the man who won Olympic gold medals in 1912, played professional baseball and basketball and played for and coached the Canton Bulldogs in the new league, was named president of the new league.
Dayton’s football team was founded in 1913 by basketball players from St. Mary’s College, now the University of Dayton. In 1916, Carl Storck took over the team and filled it out with employees of Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, the Dayton Metal Products Company and the Domestic Engineering Company. By 1920, the team had changed its name to the Dayton Triangles, named after Triangle Park, and they were preparing to play the inaugural NFL game against their main rival, the Columbus Pan Handles. The Pan Handles took their name from a train route connecting Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis.
Ohioans’ industry and love of football is illustrated by several dates. The Great Flood was in 1913, but the Triangles were founded and won the city league that year. The Triangles won the Ohio League in 1918 during World War I and the worldwide flu epidemic. And the first NFL game was played in 1920 during the short but deep post-World War I recession.
While this was professional football — Jim Thorpe earned a tremendous $250 per game — it wasn’t quite the same game we know today. College football was much bigger than professional football, and professional football wasn’t exactly a universally respected profession.
The Friday, Oct. 2, 1920 Dayton Evening Herald offers some insight: “When the Triangles stack up against the Pan Handles Sunday afternoon at Triangle Park, they will find pitted against them a former Ohio State player. The fellow’s name is Reeves, at least that is the name he is playing under, because of parental objection to professional football. He is an end and was classed as one of the best in the western conference. He played on the State team for three years and completed his course last June. Followers of Ohio State activities should be able to tell who the new Pan Handle end is.”
The Triangles had their own big-time college player to boost their chances.
“Chuck Helvie, former Hoosier star and who has played in a Triangle uniform, will be back again this season. He wrote Carl Storck that he would be in for Sunday’s game, that he is in good shape and ready to do battle.”
It seems bringing in ringers was common practice.
“Two other out-of-town men will be here for the game and will tote the ball for the Triangles. George Roudebush will play a half back and will come here directly from Oberlin where is to referee the game Saturday. Mike Houser, who is managing a jewelry store in a city of Kentucky, will be here to take his place at tackle.”
The Herald reported that this rivalry game, to kick off the new league, was a popular attraction.
“Nishaus & Dohse report the seat sale large and such is the case at the various Triangle factories. If a good football day can be had the park should be swarmed with fans who want to get their first glimpse of the Triangles this season and also a look at the strong Pan Handle combination.” The Saturday paper sported the huge headline: “TRIANGLES — PAN HANDLES TO OPEN SUNDAY”.
The Herald’s headline on Monday told the tale: “LARGE CROWD SEES LOCAL TEAM HUMBLE COLUMBUS 11.”
The Herald describes a struggle between titans, “The Pan Handles came here with the best team they ever turned out and it is mighty fortunate the Triangles were so well fortified. The game was cleanly played, neither side resorting to any rough tactics and there wasn’t one argument in the entire game. Time was taken out but on few occasions, so the game was all that could be asked in football.”
The Triangles defeated the Pan Handles 14-0 with a score in the third quarter and fourth quarter heroics.
“The [punt] sailed over Bacon’s head, and he ran around catching it on the bounce. He started toward the Pan Handle goal from his own 35-yard line. He outran the two nearest men, and then Abrell cut down another foe. Bacon shook off another tackler and dodged two more, and with the field clear he outran the Pan Handle defensive quarter, and negotiated the 65 yards for the touchdown.”
The league changed its name to the NFL in 1922 and moved to Columbus. The Dayton Triangles’ lineage can be traced to the Indianapolis Colts. And while the game has certainly evolved for the better, the Herald reports at least one aspect was superior back then, “The Triangles showed up well. They were pitted against a strong team, but they displayed a great deal of class.”
Reach DCP freelance writer Mark Luedtke at MarkLuedtke@DaytonCityPaper.com.