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Deflategate, Roaring '20s Style: New England's 1st Controversial NFL Champions

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterMay 19, 2015

AP Images

An NFL champion headquartered in Providence, Rhode Island? Sounds ridiculous…until you look at a map.

Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots, is 24 miles from downtown Providence. It is 28 miles from Boston Common. When the national press travels to Patriots games, we are stationed in Providence, not Boston. The Patriots are as much Providence's team as Boston's team, and the city of Providence hosted NFL champions long before Tom Brady and Bill Belichick showed up in New England. 

Back in 1928, when the Providence Steam Roller gave the region its first pro football championship, the thought of naming a team after a five-state region was preposterous. This was the era before television or interstate highways. Sports teams clung to cities, sometimes small ones, and fans traveled by train or trolley to watch games held inside bicycle-racing arenas that had to end by sunset. At a time when movies just learned to talk and F. Scott Fitzgerald chronicled the Roaring '20s in real time, the Providence Steam Roller were, ever so briefly, the best football team in America.

Like a certain modern New England team, they also often found themselves in the middle of the major controversies of the day. The Steam Roller played in an era when players were sometimes owners, quarterbacks caught passes from tailbacks and newspaper articles about the NFL Championship were the length of classified ads. But no matter how much the NFL has changed, the story of the Steam Roller proves that sports narrative has remained eerily the same.

Note: Much of the source material in this story comes from archived newspapers found at Newspapers.com and NewspaperArchive.com. Two articles from the Pro Football Researchers Association were also invaluable sources: Bob Gill's account of the 1924 Steam Roller and Bob Carroll's story of the 1928 season. This website on the 1928 Steam Roller was also an invaluable source, though it is never explicitly quoted or referenced.

Chapter 1: The Steam Roller Challenge the Integrity of Football to Beat a Team from Apponaug

The Steam Roller professional football team evolved out of the rich primordial broth of the 1910s New England sports scene. The small cities of the region, like Providence and smaller burghs like New Haven and Bridgeport, all supported minor league baseball teams back then, in addition to popular sports of the era like cycling and college athletics (the Ivy League was the SEC of the era). Most towns had their own newspapers then, and newspapers were the primary sporting promotional tool of the pre-television era.

Charles Coppen and Pearce Johnson, an editor and writer respectively for the Providence Journal, founded the Providence team in 1916, a few years before the birth of the NFL. Local sports impresario James Dooley soon joined them as an investor. The team played home games at Kinsley Park, a multiuse downtown field on the banks of the Woonasquatucket River. The "Steam Roller" nickname began appearing in newspapers by the winter of 1916; legend has it Coppen heard the name when a fan pointed out that an opposing team was getting "steamrolled."

The Steam Roller were able to roll on with the help of "ringers," college players earning extra cash by moonlighting with professional and semipro teams. Newspapers from 1916 coyly pointed out that Providence fielded Syracuse star guard Chris Schlachter in a 7-0 victory over Apponaug at Melrose Park.

"A big blonde guard, said to be an All American player from a New York State university, was very much in evidence," read the report from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. "More than one claimed to recognize the man. The other visitors were also said to be prominent college stars." It's not clear why two Rhode Island teams were playing in Brooklyn, but teams of that era "barnstormed" from city to city in search of opponents, venues and fans willing to sully themselves by watching professionals play a college boy's game.

Ringers were a big deal in 1910s football. College players were expected to play football for their scholarships and their love of hallowed State U, then as now. College players knew full well that amateurism was a self-serving sham, then as now. All-Americans and other regional college stars participated in professional or semipro games to earn some money, sometimes under thinly veiled aliases. Because pro football paid poorly and had a seedy reputation, they weren't competing against recently graduated fellow All-Americans, just local tough guys who starred in high school, small college or town teams.

A team that could afford ringers could dominate the competition, and the Steam Roller spent the teens moving past opponents like Apponaug and toward higher-caliber competition. Public opinion slowly changed, too. As the 1910s became the 1920s, newspaper columnists and university professors slowly ceased railing against professionalism destroying the sanctity and integrity of amateur athletics, mostly because fans were enjoying the games.

By the early 1920s, a loose affiliation of New England teams faced each other semi-regularly each year. The Steam Roller could expect to face quality opponents from Bridgeport, New Britain (nearly always referred to as Hardware City in the sports pages), New Haven (the Blues), Hartford, New London, Waterbury and even smaller towns, plus teams from Boston neighborhoods or suburbs. Scheduling was haphazard, and owners quibbled over guaranteed gate receipts or percentages of revenue.

A much-anticipated Bridgeport vs. Hardware City game to cap the 1923 season was cancelled when the New Britain team kept changing the terms of the arrangement; Bridgeport's owner promptly called the Steam Roller as a replacement foe. "New Britain had a chance to meet us here on Dec. 2 but they tried to make a big filibuster of it, as I cannot leave my dates open long I promptly signed up with the Steam Rollers," said Mike Healy, the player/coach/GM of Bridgeport. "We are receiving the largest guarantee a Connecticut team ever received for this game."

The Steam Roller were able to offer major guarantees because they were becoming one of the most famous professional football teams in the world. When not intervening in squabbles between Bridgeport and Hardware City, they were barnstorming against national traveling teams like the Cleveland Panthers, called "The Ex-Collegian Globe Trotters" by newspapers of the era.

The Steam Roller were clearly outgrowing their quirky, disorganized regional league. They were ready to join the biggest quirky, disorganized regional football league in the nation, one that in 1925 showed no signs of growing into one of America's dominant cultural institutions.

Chapter 2: The Steam Roller Become Entangled with the Cardinals, Maroons and Fighting Irish

To borrow a phrase used in every term paper ever written about the Holy Roman Empire: The National Football League of the 1920s was not national—not a league in the modern sense—and played a sport that did not look all that much like modern football.

Teams in the early NFL were clustered around the Midwest and the Great Lakes, with a smattering of big-city outposts in the east. Cities like Rock Island (Illinois), Hammond (Indiana) and Pottsville (Pennsylvania) had NFL franchises; in most seasons, Boston, Baltimore and St. Louis, let alone San Francisco or Dallas, did not.

NFL schedules were haphazard, with teams dropping out, going bankrupt or just playing a bare minimum number of league opponents while filling out their schedules against independent teams. The unpredictable scheduling caused all sorts of problems. In 1925, the Pottsville Maroons appeared to win the NFL championship when they beat the Chicago Cardinals 21-7 on Dec. 6. The Cardinals hastily scheduled two more NFL games, beating the Hammond Pros and Milwaukee Badgers (two teams with a combined 1-10 record; the Badgers had scored one touchdown in six games) by a combined 72-0 score during a three-day span. The Badgers, who hadn't played an NFL games in weeks, actually fielded high school players against the Cardinals.

Coemgenus at English Wikipedia

The extra wins boosted the Cardinals record to 11-2-1, better than Pottsville's 10-2 record. Meanwhile, the Maroons faced a barnstorming team of Notre Dame All-Stars in an exhibition game in Philadelphia's Shibe Park. The NFL suspended Pottsville from its final game for violating the territorial rights of the nearby Frankfort Yellow Jackets, who originally scheduled the Notre Dame exhibition but lost the right to play it when they lost to the Maroons on Nov. 29. Faced with a Gordian knot of broken promises, verbal agreements and dubious victories, the NFL did not officially name a champion in 1925.

In other words: Eat your heart out, Deflategate. The Maroons' opponent in the cancelled final game that might have secured them a championship: the Providence Steam Roller.

As for the football-ness of 1920s football, one two-minute video of the Steam Roller in action is worth 1,000 words. 

The footage shows the Steam Roller, a full-fledged NFL team in 1927, facing the independent Framingham Lion Tamers in what appears to be a suburban town park. The sport is recognizably football, except with leather helmets, primitive techniques and players the size of smallish college rugby players. Plus, there is the matter of an NFL team facing a forgotten local town team in a neighborhood playground.

Nothing typifies the state of the NFL when Providence entered the league quite like the Steam Roller's home field: the Cycledrome. It was built by sports promoter Peter Laudati as a bicycle racing stadium. Cycling was an incredibly popular sport in America back then. The football field was the infield of the wooden cycle track. The oval of the track carved away the corners of the end zones. Fans sat on the track's straightaways to watch the Steam Roller. They were so close to the field that players sometimes ran out of bounds and into patrons' laps.

Providence joined an NFL with 20 total teams in 1925, but all it cost to join the NFL back then was $100 and a vow (which was often kept) to prioritize other NFL opponents when scheduling a minimum number of league games.

Really, the NFL consisted of George Halas' Chicago Bears, Chris O'Brien's Chicago Cardinals, Curly Lambeau's Green Bay Packers and a bunch of startups. Some, like Tim Mara's New York Giants and Bert Bell's Frankford Yellow Jackets (who would later become the Eagles) eventually caught on. Others, including teams representing sizable cities like Cleveland and Milwaukee, struggled to meet weekly obligations.

Chapter 3: The Steam Roller Briefly Tarnish Red Grange's Legacy

The Steam Roller went 6-5-1 against NFL competition in their inaugural season in 1925, led by player/coach Archie Golembeski and star fullback Jim Laird. Their biggest win, the one that made national headlines, was a victory over the Bears and their superstar halfback: Red Grange.

To most of us, Grange is more a mythic character of the 1920s, like Charles Lindbergh or Al Capone, than a sports personality. In 1925, Grange was a LeBron James-like lightning rod for what we now call "hot sports takes."

Associated Press

Grange signed a $100,000 contract with the Bears the day after playing his final game at the University of Illinois. This was in an era in which NFL players typically made about $100 per game and professional football was still considered by many to be "beneath" a proud amateur like the Galloping Ghost.

George Halas needed immediate return on his investment, so the Bears played five games between Dec. 5 and 13, introducing Grange to crowds in New York (the massive gate receipts saved Mara's Giants), Philadelphia (by way of Frankford) and Boston (against the Steam Roller) in one five-day whirlwind.

The Steam Roller notched a 9-6 victory over the clearly weary Bears in what was billed as the first pro football game ever played in Boston. It's time now for the 1920s edition of First Take, as newspapers of the time sharpened very different axes when discussing the Galloping Ghost:

Grange appeared tired and listless, and when he retired from the game, after playing exactly forty-four minutes, he was booed by a few hundred of the spectators. The now wealthy Wheaton iceman played safety first football during his stay of the game.

He carried the ball but five times, all on end runs, for a total yardage of thirteen. He ran the single punt he caught back eight yards, attempted three forward passes, one of which was intercepted, and made two unimpressive tackles. This action did not take more than four minutes of his time. During the remaining forty minutes of his stay in the game, Grange stood back beside the defensive quarterback, far from the scrimmage line.

Thanks, AP writer!

Let's hear another take (this taken from a syndicated editorial in the Mount Carmel Item from Dec. 10, 1925) and see if we can embrace debate:

Bending under the burden of trying to live up to a reputation and disillusioned by the life of a great public hero, a worn and haunted Red Grange was here today trying to keep going on his dash for a fortune.

As Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth had learned before him, Grange is beginning to know that the penalty of fame is "thumbs down" when a star doesn't deliver and that the public expects much of a hero when he is being paid for it.

Wow. Grange was worn, haunted and rejected by the public just days after leaving college. There were reports after the Providence game that he was physically ill, that the other Bears refused to speak to him or block for him and that he had not yet received any of the money he was promised.

Jameis Winston has it easy. The only thing missing from these instant reactions are musing about what the big money and listless performances would do to Grange's "legacy," but only because Grange (and Ruth and Dempsey) were just inventing sports "legacy."

Grange got top billing over the victorious Steam Roller, but his presence made it possible for anyone to be billed at all. NFL newspaper coverage was increasing. More clubs joined the NFL, including the Steam Roller's old Hartford rivals, but most quickly shook out.

Halas' Bears (minus Grange, who left to form a rival league) and the other well-supported teams were becoming too powerful for the Racine Tornadoes or Dayton Triangles. The Steam Roller stood somewhere between the haves and have-nots. To remain a "have," they had to scavenge and salvage from among the less fortunate.

Chapter 4: A Dandy Quarterback, Moody Tailback, Wrasslin' Lineman and a Controversial Call Bring Glory to Providence

It didn't take much for a player to become an owner in the 1920s. Grange, as we saw, had the name recognition to rewrite the NFL economy and found his own league. Famous college stars were the NFL's only reliable draw in most cities, so it sometimes made sense to just put the superstar in charge. Even a lesser-known player with a head for management could rise from lineman to "manager" to owner in a league where franchises came and went on a monthly basis.

So it came to pass that Jimmy Conzelman, a George Halas discovery from Washington College in Missouri, started with the 1920 Bears before playing/coaching in Rock Island and Milwaukee and eventually getting his own franchise in Detroit. Conzelman's Panthers went 8-2-2 while the media was excoriating Grange for losing to the Steam Roller in 1925, but gate receipts were poor in 1926 and the team took a year off in 1927. Conzelman bolted for Providence.

Conzelman was a single-wing quarterback, which means that he called plays but was more likely to block or catch a pass than throw one. The team's star rusher and passer was tailback Wildcat Wilson, who had played on University of Washington's Rose Bowl teams a few years earlier.

Associated Press

Conzelman was a jovial 1920s Renaissance man who later became a stage actor and much-sought dinner speaker (as well as a successful coach for decades). Wilson was electrifying but temperamental; he was the team's highest-paid player and had a reputation for being all about the bucks. They were like Pete Carroll, Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch rolled into two people. The Steam Roller also had former Detroit Panther and pro wrestler Gus Sonnenberg on the line. Pro wrestling was mostly legitimate back then, so the modern equivalent would be an NFL team drafting a UFC fighter.

Several teams collapsed or took a hiatus in 1928, which helped Providence in more ways than the additions of Conzelman and Sonnenberg. Powerhouses like the Bears used to feast on NFL newcomers and weaklings before those teams had a chance to go bankrupt; as an NFL entity, the Louisville Colonials of 1926 existed to get clobbered by the Bears, Packers and Conzelman's Panthers in exchange for a payday against established opponents. With fewer weaklings to spawn-kill, the Bears, Yellow Jackets and other schedule-stackers couldn't run away from the league.

The Steam Roller raced out to a 4-1 start before Conzelman suffered a knee injury. With a home game against the Detroit Wolverines looming—the team replaced Conzelman's Panthers and was led by rookie Benny Friedman, two-time All-American and the best passer of the 1920s—promoters built temporary bleachers at the Cycledrome, and Conzelman coached from the sideline on crutches. Wildcat Wilson threw a 45-yard touchdown pass, Friedman was ineffective and the Steam Roller won 7-0.

The weekend after Providence topped Detroit, the Yellow Jackets, 5-1-1 at the time, played a home-and-home doubleheader against their archrival, the Pottsville Maroons. The Yellow Jackets played a lot of doubleheaders. Sunday sports were illegal in Philadelphia, so the team would host a nearby opponent on Saturday, hop aboard a train with a sleeper car and play the same opponent on the road Sunday. The Yellow Jackets won both ends of the twin bill by a combined 43-0 score to take the lead in the NFL standings.

The Steam Roller also won a doubleheader in the second week of November. However, it was against Pere Marquette, a semipro team in Boston. Yes, teams in the thick of the NFL championship race were still barnstorming in 1928. The Steam Roller lost starting wing-back Pop Williams to injury in the exhibitions. And the Steam Roller had a doubleheader scheduled against Frankford for Nov. 17 and 18.

The first game ended in a 6-6 tie, with Wilson rushing for a late touchdown to prevent a Steam Roller loss. Then it was off to Providence in a sleeper car: still a long and uncomfortable train ride from Philly. A crowd of 11,000 filled the Cycledrome despite heavy morning rains. Wilson tossed a short first-quarter pass to Curly Oden, Conzelman's on-field backup and a Wes Welker-like figure for Steam Roller fans (Oden went to Brown University and had been with the Steam Roller since before they entered the NFL). Oden dodged and juked his way to a 54-yard touchdown. With both teams obviously exhausted and the conditions miserable, the Steam Roller's 6-0 lead stood for the rest of the afternoon.

The win and tie gave the Steam Roller a lead in the standings that the Yellow Jackets would not be able to overcome. But there was controversy: Frankford filed an official protest with NFL president Joseph Carr over several calls in Saturday's tie.

"Ivan Annenberg, the umpire, ruled that Arnold Oehirgh of Frankford had run out of bounds at the 25-yard line while running for what would have been the winning touchdown," the AP reported (taken from the Brooklyn Eagle). "The Frankford management also is protesting an alleged shortening of the periods by the officials."

"The protest is the first of its kind to be made since the formation of the National League."

Image from Reading Times newspaper, via Newspapers.com.

Checking the video of Oehirgh's run was impossible at the time, of course. The protest went nowhere; Providence held a better record and a head-to-head edge over Frankford. The Steam Roller went on to beat the Maroons and the Giants.

The Steam Roller entered their final game against the Packers at the Cycledrome needing only not to lose. They did not lose, tying the Packers 7-7 in front of 10,500 fans. A 72-yard final drive, capped by a 23-yard catch-and-run by Oden on a pass from Wildcat Wilson, preserved the tie. Frankford lost to the Bears the same afternoon to eliminate all doubt.

The Providence Steam Roller won the NFL championship. The Associated Press story that ran in most national newspapers was four paragraphs long. Steam Roller players received a gold watch and a celebratory banquet at the Biltmore hotel. Conzelman, injured for much of the season, was named team MVP by a player's vote.

Chapter 5: The Steam Roller Make History Before Getting Steamrolled by the Depression

Even in the late 1920s, it was hard to defend a title. Gus Sonnenberg defeated Strangler Lewis at Madison Square Garden in January 1929; as the world heavyweight wrestling champion, he had little time for the Steam Roller. Conzelman coached but only played sparingly. Wildcat Wilson took a step backward; he was also about to abandon pro football for wrestling. Oden left football for a year to take a job with an insurance company.

Benny Friedman's passing knew no bounds. He even did it early in games.
Benny Friedman's passing knew no bounds. He even did it early in games.Associated Press

The Steam Roller won some early games but were shut out twice by the Giants and new quarterback Benny Friedman. "Friedman's passing knows no bounds," the Brooklyn Eagle reported. "Benny called on it with the game only a few minutes old and got the ball to midfield, from whence unvaried line bucks and plunges smote the vaunted Providence line asunder until [Tony] Plansky slithered off the right side for the score from the one-yard line." Pro football was changing, and the Giants just discovered the virtues of passing to set up the run.

One week after the Giants smote their vaunted line asunder, the Steam Roller faced four opponents in one six-day stretch. The Chicago Cardinals were supposed to be the first opponent on Nov. 3, but heavy rains made the Cycledrome field unplayable. So the Steam Roller ferried to Staten Island to tie the Stapletons on Nov. 5 while promoters rigged up flood lights at old Kinsley Park. The Cardinals beat the Steam Roller in the NFL's first night game on Nov. 6. The ball was painted white; newspapers joked that it looked like an egg and that "there was a panicky feeling that the player who made the catch would be splattered with yellow yolk."

The Steam Roller lost both ends of a Yellow Jackets doubleheader after the historic night game. Meanwhile, the stock market crashed. Promoters and investors like Coppen, Dooley and Laudati soon had much more to worry about than rainouts.

The Steam Roller battled through two more seasons, but attendance was low and expenses were high. The Great Depression shrunk the NFL to 10 teams, most of them in major cities. The Frankford Yellow Jackets moved downtown and embraced the New Deal by becoming the Eagles. The Portsmouth Spartans became the Detroit Lions. But the Steam Roller were Providence-owned, and Boston was more than 50 miles away.

Coppen and the others suspended operations for a year, then turned the franchise rights back over to the NFL. A Washington, D.C.-based laundromat tycoon named George Preston Marshall won the rights to put an NFL franchise in Boston in 1932; the Braves (soon to become the Redskins) replaced the Steam Roller as the NFL's New England presence. The Patriots would not arrive for three more decades.

Pearce Johnson kept the "Steam Roller" name alive, and Providence semipro and minor league teams have used the name ever since. If a "Continental Football League" or "Atlantic Coast Football League" popped up in the 1950s or 1960s, chances are a team called the Providence Steam Roller was involved. The Arena Football League fielded a New England Steamroller team in its early days. One of the 11 original NBA franchises of the 1940s was named the Providence Steam Rollers.

Rhode Island hasn't hosted a major sports franchise since the NBA team folded. But Providence residents can still hop on I-95 and reach Gillette Stadium faster than the typical Bostonian can.

If the Patriots can learn anything from the Steam Roller, it's that scandals and controversies are nothing new to championship-caliber New England teams. Sports narratives haven't changed much in the last century, and if fans remember anything, it's the trophies and the larger-than-life superstars, not the soap opera. Scandal has always been a part of football. It's best to just roll with it.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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