When people think football, Texas inevitably comes up. The state’s Friday-night high school football games draw huge crowds. In addition to many of the strongest NCAA football programs, the Lone Star state has two NFL teams, including the Dallas Cowboys aka “America’s team.”
Yet, if we take a longer view of the history of American football, another state comes up over and over. Texas is today’s standard-bearer for the NFL, no doubt. But of all places, Ohio has made the biggest impact on football history since the ’20s.
The storied history of professional football in Ohio
Before there was an entity called the “National Football League,” there was the Ohio League. These were the most dominant teams in American gridiron football from the early 1900s through 1919.
A gathering of top players from the Ohio League and rival New York League met in Canton, Ohio to hammer out a larger joint league with 10 starting teams. In less than a year, the American Professional Football Association added four expansion teams.
These 14 football squads were the original teams that formed the soon-to-be-renamed NFL. Canton’s own Bulldogs were the top dogs of this era. They still hold the NFL record for consecutive wins — 25! — and won the pre-Super Bowl NFL championship twice.
When Ohio football was at the top of the NFL
Calling Ohio football’s epicenter can seem like a joke to some fans. The state’s modern teams — the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns — are notorious for cursed seasons.
The Bengals are repeated wild-card losers, and the Browns frequently turn in poor regular-season runs. This wasn’t always the case.
With strong seasons in the ’80s, the Bengals made it to the Super Bowl twice throughout that era. The 1981 and 1988 Super Bowl losses are seared in the memories of older fans, for sure, but Cincinnati’s inability to escape the first round in the modern era makes this look somewhat more palatable.
Then Ohio has the Browns — a team that followed up a dismal 1-15 season in 2016 with a 0-16 run in 2017. In 1946, however, the Browns wrecked the entire AAFC and rolled over the championship game four times in a row. Once the league expanded and merged to become the more competitive NFL, the Browns won the 1950 NFL Championship, too.
Quarterback Otto Graham and legendary head coach Paul Brown were crucial to the development of the game. They literally invented modern play-calling during their time together. The ’50s were the most successful decade for any team in NFL history: seven championship wins across 10 appearances.
How Ohio became the home of the NFL Hall of Fame
Ohio’s deep history at the center of the NFL universe is why the Hall of Fame is located in Canton, Ohio. The Hall opened in 1963 — not far removed from the Bulldogs’ dominance and the Browns’ Otto Graham years. The Browns tacked on their final championship title to date just a year later.
Still, Canton hosting the Hall of Fame wasn’t always a foregone conclusion. A campaign organized by locals was the needed push to land the deal. For any sports buffs, the significance is hard to miss. Generations of players return to the NFL’s home to pay homage to the game.
The Bengals and Browns may not have the same allure today as the Cowboys. Ohioans may not be as famous for a fanatical love for high school football. But Ohio is, nonetheless, the location of the richest football history on earth.