William Heffelfinger Becomes First Professional Football Player in 1892

By davidfunk74
Nov. 12, 2015

On November 12, 1892, the first known professional football player debuted in a game for the Allegheny Athletic Association against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club.  It was on this day that William "Pudge" Heffelfinger became the first professional football player when he was paid $500 by the Allegheny Athletic Association to play a game.

American football came into existence in 1869 when the first collegiate game between Princeton and Rutgers took place.  Although more rules were later established to evolve more like the game it is today, it was mass chaos on and off the field.  Even over twenty years after the first American football game was played, the rules and scoring system went through constant changes.

With no professional teams or leagues going on in the 1880s, it was the college game that began to flourish with mainly eastern schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Penn.

However, the game appealed to blue collar workers and amateur clubs as well as other associations began to compete on the field and for the services of players.  It was a common practice among them to loophole around collegiate regulations by paying incentives to players.

Heffelfinger played football at Yale beginning in 1888 under the coaching of the "Father of American Football" Walter Camp.  He also played with future college football coaching legend Amos Alonzo Stagg, who later was the all-time leader in wins as head coach until Paul "Bear" Bryant broke his mark.  Heffelfinger was one of three Yale players to be on the first ever All-America team at guard in 1889 along with Stagg.  He would be named All-American in 1890-91 as well.  Harvard went 54-2 and had shutout wins in 47 of those games when Heffelfinger played there.

Due to his All-American status, he was able to play amateur football after his days at Yale for the Chicago Athletic Association including being part of the game against West Point at the Chicago's World Fair in 1893.

The Allegheny Athletic Association came into existence in 1890 and were later involved the University of Pittsburgh's first ever collegiate game in October.  The game was played at Exposition Park and is quite possibly the first official football game in Pittsburgh.

Allegheny would become the premier football team in western Pennsylvania the following year.  They reached prestigious level being admitted into the Amateur Athletic Union in 1891.  They even recruited players such as William Kirschner from the East End Gym where the Pittsburgh Athletic Club was since they didn't field a team at the time.

However, the Pittsburgh Athletic Club emerged onto the football scene with a team of their own after Allegheny matched the club's level of prestige in 1891.

This began a fierce rivalry between the two.

It would also lead to professional football being born.

Up until 1892, rumors swirled that players such as Ross and Lawson Fiscus were paid to play by Allegheny since they traveled over 30 miles to play for them in 1891 instead in Greensburg where they lived.  Other players like Doc Proctor and Grant Dilbert were also rumored to have been paid to play.  However, no proof of this has ever existed and it could've been a masterful persuasion by manager O.D. Thompson in recruiting them.

The two teams met for the first time on October 8, 1892 with Allegheny winning 20-6.  The two were set to meet two weeks later in a rematch.

Both teams met in Pittsburgh for a rematch, but the animosity between them ran at an all-time high.

Before the rematch, the two were at odds over A.S. Valentine, who played for Pittsburgh to start the year only to go back to Allegheny's side.  Accusations of being enticed back or even being a spy for Allegheny followed with Valentine going back to his old team.

The two teams battled to a 6-6 tie with each getting about $600 a piece in total gate receipts.

However, the animosity grew even more after the game.

Before the rematch, Pittsburgh captain Charley Aull recruited a player calling himself "Stayer" to replace a supposedly injured player.  After the injured player appeared to be okay the following day, suspicion as to who "Stayer" was grew.  As it turned out, "Stayer" was in fact Penn State football captain A.C. Read.  Locals in the area were shocked to hear of the news, but now both sides would not hesitate to bring professional players.

Even though A.C. Read was involved in the game under an assumed name, there has never been any proof to him being paid to play for Pittsburgh against Allegheny.

But after his identity was revealed, it wouldn't take long for that to change when the two sides played a third game against each other on November 12.

The two rivals met at Recreation Field in Pittsburgh on what turned out to be a pivotal day in professional football history.

Before the game, Heffelfinger appeared in the lineup for Allegheny after playing for Chicago that year.  Sport Donnelly and Ed Malley from the Chicago team were also on the Allegheny team for the game.

Pittsburgh objected to this and forfeited the game to Allegheny as a result.  Allegheny was to win 6-0 in the forfeited game.

It was later discovered that Pittsburgh had tried to recruit and Heffelfinger first by offering him $250 for the game after scouting a game he played in against Cleveland.

After what happened in the previous game involving A.C. Read, it was Allegheny that wanted Heffelfinger badly in part because of that.  Allegheny decided to double Pittsburgh's offer after he rejected them since he didn't want that to ruin his amateur status.  Heffelfinger felt it was worth it, and was paid $500(about $13K today) as well as $25 in expenses by Allegheny.

Due to the large amount of fans in attendance to watch the two rivals, Allegheny quickly scheduled a game against eleven players from Western University to appease them for Pittsburgh forfeiting.

Allegheny and Western played for ten minutes until Pittsburgh returned with a proposal for the Allegheny team.

Pittsburgh wanted the game to only be considered an exhibition and that all bets would be off because of the forfeit.  Allegheny agreed and the game was on.

In the game, it was Heffelfinger that scored the game's only points when he returned a fumble for a 35-yard touchdown as Allegheny beat Pittsburgh 4-0(touchdowns were worth four points in those days and extra points hadn't been used yet).

One week later, Donnelly was paid $250 by Allegheny to play against Washington & Jefferson.  Despite that, Allegheny lost 8-0.  He would play for Allegheny until 1894.

In 1895, John Brallier was paid to play for the Latrobe Athletic Association.  In that same year, the first ever football game involving all professional players took place between Latrobe and Jeanette Athletic Club.  Brallier was recognized as the first openly paid professional player due to this into the 20th Century.

Until the 1960s, Brallier was considered the first paid football player until a man named Nelson Ross met Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney.

Ross gave Rooney a transcript about the early history of professional football.  Ross had examined Pittsburgh newspapers that indicated that Heffelfinger was the first paid professional football player.

Furthermore, it was discovered that a torn page from a 1892 account ledger from Allegheny manager O.D. Thompson by the Pro Football Hall of Fame had a line on it that said, "Game performance bonus to W. Heffelfinger for playing (cash) $500".  Thus, Heffelfinger is now recognized as the first paid professional American football player.

The following year, Heffelfinger took his first head coaching job at California.  His team went 5-1-1 on the season.  After 1893, he took a head coaching job at Lehigh going 5-9 before leaving after a year for Minnesota.  He went 7-3 with Minnesota in his final year as head coach.  He went 17-13-1 in his career as collegiate head coach.

He also was consulted for years on helping with rule changes and anything football related.

It has been said that Heffelfinger once talked to then-President Teddy Roosevelt about giving the game a second chance after he was under pressure to ban the game due to the string of deaths of the field.  Furthermore, Heffelfinger suggested rules to help with player safety including helmets, padding, and the banning of the flying wedge that was the main culprit in the deaths of players on the field.  It's not fully known if it that was true.  However, what is known is that he and Roosevelt were friends after the future President once seen him play a game for Yale against his Harvard team.

Later while playing for West Point, future President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said his idol was Heffelfinger.  He died in 1954 just a few years before he was discovered to have been the first paid professional football player.

Despite Heffelfinger becoming the first known paid football player, the professional game took a backseat to the college game well into the 20th Century.  That was until the pivotal year of 1925 when Harold "Red" Grange signed to play for the Chicago Bears giving the pro game its first true superstar and the credibility it needed.  It was also when a NFL team from Pottsville beat the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame in a game that December that helped bring more legitimacy to the NFL.  Even though the Great Depression crippled the league in the 1930s, professional football was on its way to being the dominant sport in America.

Even though it wasn't known for over a half century, Heffelfinger brought us professional football.  Though it was under controversial circumstances as to how he became the first paid player, the origins of professional football begin with William Heffelfinger.  Heffelfinger did much for the game in his life, but he'll forever be known for becoming the first to be paid to play professional football.