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Pudge Heffelfinger: Iconic Minnesotan was football’s first pro

February 2, 2018 GMT

The origin of professional football is traced to an iconic Minnesotan born just 10 blocks north of where Super Bowl LII will be played on Sunday.

William (Pudge) Heffelfinger arrived Dec. 20, 1867 in a modest home wedged between two warehouse buildings at 319 First Avenue North in downtown Minneapolis. His 50-year playing career began when he was a 15-year-old boy at Central High School, ended when he was a 65-year-old legend playing nine minutes to boost ticket sales for a charity game in Minneapolis, and was immortalized on Nov. 12, 1892 when the former Yale star guard became the first documented player to be paid in the history of football.

We think thats pretty neat because Pudge is such a bigger-than-life character in our family, said 69-year-old Tom Heffelfinger, a Minneapolis attorney for Best Flanagan, the great-great nephew of Pudge and the grandson of Totton Peavey Heffelfinger, who founded Hazeltine National Golf Club with the vision of hosting major championships and Ryder Cups.

It wasnt until the early 1970s that the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, realized it had what it now calls pro footballs birth certificate. Found in a box of Western Pennsylvania football artifacts donated by the Steelers Dan Rooney was a ledger confirming the Allegheny Athletic Association paid Heffelfinger a $500 cash game performance bonus for playing against rival Pittsburgh Athletic Club at Recreation Park in Pittsburgh. Until then, Pennsylvania native John Brallier was recognized as the sports first documented professional, having accepted $10 plus expenses to play a game for Latrobe YMCA in 1895.

You dont think of $500 being a big deal, said Tom Heffelfinger. But I looked it up. The average annual income of a Pennsylvania family in 1892 was $834. Pudge made 2/3rds of that in one afternoon playing football. In todays dollars, thats $12,950.

Allegheny won 4-0. Heffelfingers 25-yard fumble return for a touchdown worth four points at the time was the games only score.

Fast forward 126 seasons. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is footballs highest-paid player. He makes $16,875,000 per game.

Subhed: Scourge of professionalism

By the late 19th century, football was a popular amateur sport played by big-city gentlemens clubs around the country. Winning games increased a clubs appeal, membership and revenue. Historians suspect Heffelfinger and others were paid under the table before Nov. 12, 1892, but no documents exist since clubs tried to hide professionalism to gain playing and wagering advantages.

When clubs started bringing these ringers in, they would say theyre, associate members, said Joe Horrigan, executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They didnt want them as part of their snooty little clubs, but they were willing to bring them in to play football.

The scourge of professionalism had reached a fever pitch by the time W.H. Lewis of Harpers Weekly wrote a blistering rebuke of the unseemly practice on Nov. 28, 1896.

There is no will-o-the-wisp so misguiding as that which leads to the gathering of outside stars in the hope of success; no sophistry so fallacious as that which proclaims the prosperity of football to depend on the mere winning, Lewis wrote. It will be an eventful day for club governors when they reach that conclusion.

Lewis was equally harsh on the professionals who masqueraded as amateurs, writing, perhaps they have become callous to the shame of it all [and] their example is demoralizing to the game and to many young boys who in ethical ignorance glorify some brilliant ground-gainer as a football hero, and accept whatever he does as the law and gospel of the game.

Subhed: Born for football

In high school, Pudge was 6-2 and a rawboned kid, weighing 178 pounds, as he recalled in his book This Was Football, co-written by John McCallum and published shortly after Heffelfinger died on April 2, 1954 in Blessing, Texas, at age 86.

He was a multi-sport star before starting the football team at Central High. He played fullback and taught his teammates how to play the game according to new rules that football revolutionary Walter Camp was introducing on the east coast to transition the game away from the English rugby rules that were prevalent from the first college game between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869 until the 1880s.

Camp is considered the father of American football. He played at Yale and took over as coach in 1888, the year Heffelfinger arrived in New Haven, Conn.

But Pudge also played for the University of Minnesota while he was in high school, said Frank Heffelfinger, Toms brother. There werent eligibility rules back then. The Gophers were at the train station going somewhere to play somebody. Pudge was standing there and they say, Hey, kid! You want to play football? He said, Sure, and they put him on the train and he played for them for a year or two.

Heffelfinger went to Yale, where he continued to be a multi-sport star. In his book, he said, football is a sissy sport compared to rowing a four-mile race.

He was moved to varsity guard during his first practice as a freshman and stayed there four seasons. He went undefeated twice, lost only two games and invented the pulling guard. His freshman year, Yale outscored their 13 opponents 698-0.

Pudge left Yale as a three-time All-American. It would have been four-time, but All-American teams werent picked until 1889.

Subhed: Pudge, first holdout?

Heffelfinger was 24 when his most historically significant game arrived on Nov. 12, 1892.

The game almost didnt get played, Horrigan said. Both teams were trying to sign Pudge. It was a big snafu with each team charging the other with professionalism and both denying it. Then, when Pudge showed up with two other known ringers, the Pittsburgh Athletic Club was refusing to play.

Daylight was disappearing while the arguing continued.

Finally, they agreed to play, but it was getting dark, so the game was shortened, Horrigan said. Pudge got his big payday, but Allegheny wasnt able to cash in because it was decided before the game that all bets were off because Allegheny had known ringers.

Over time, it was discovered that the Pittsburgh Athletic Club had offered Heffelfinger $250 and was angry that he wouldnt accept such a monstrous sum at the time.

Pro football had its first holdout even before its first pro, Frank Heffelfinger, now 66, said in a sixth-grade school paper he wrote about his great-great uncle.

Straight out of Yale, Pudge was a railroad office worker in Omaha, Neb., when he took a leave of absence for a six-game barnstorming tour with the Chicago Athletic Clubs football team. Because football was a straight-ahead running game with no forward pass at the time, Pudges brute strength and toughness was in especially high demand.

We started off in Cleveland, beating the daylights out of Case School, Pudge said in his book. The following afternoon we were knocking heads with Syracuse.

Obviously, said Horrigan, he started making enough money as a ringer that he quit his railroad job.

Heffelfinger went on to coach college football, including the University of Minnesota in 1895. He served as chairman of the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners in the 1920s, was Minnesotas delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1904 and 1908, and in 1935 started a popular publication called Heffelfingers Football Facts.

He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951.

Subhed: Saved by the book

Civil War historians will tell you Pudges father, Christopher, is the more famous Heffelfinger. Minnesotas was the first regiment raised to defend the union. And Christopher was one of the first persons to enlist on Day 1.

He rose from private to captain. In the battle of Gettysburg, he was shot in the chest but survived because he was carrying a book in his shirt pocket. The book is on display at the Minnesota Historical Society.

Without that book, we wouldnt be here, said Frank Heffelfinger, nodding to his brother, Tom.

Without that book, theres no Pudge either, Tom said.

Pudge began his football career before there were pads or helmets. As he grew older, he still found ways back onto the field.

In 1922, when he was 53 years old, Pudge suited up as the oldest player in a charity game against former Ohio State greats in Columbus, Ohio. It was the first time he ever wore shoulder pads and a helmet.

Pudge played a few minutes, dislocated his shoulder, got it popped back into place and played another 31 minutes as his team won 16-0.

In 1933, just shy of his 66th birthday, Pudge was asked by former Gophers end Ken Haycraft to play in a charity game between graduates from St. Thomas and semi-pro players.

The advance ticket sale was terrible, and the promoter feared a financial flop, Pudge wrote in his book. Ballyhoo was needed, and I was picked as the feature attraction.

There were no uniforms big enough to fit Pudge at that point in his life. He improvised by stuffing his pants with towels, grabbed a jersey and helmet and played nine minutes before his knee began to stiffen.

I said, Heff, you old fool. This is as far as you go, Frank Heffelfinger quoted Pudge in that sixth-grade paper as saying about the end.

Fifty years playing football, Tom Heffelfinger said. And the first pro player ever. We think thats kind of neat.

Mark Craig 612-673-7011