|Part I – Conzelman Organizes the Team
This will be the story of the 1928 Providence Steam Roller of the National Football League. The saga of this team's season provides a glimpse into what the NFL was like 80 years ago. Suffice it to say that it was a far cry from the world's richest, most popular sports league of today.
The NFL began in 1920, and in 1926 had as many as 22 teams, all in the northeast and midwest. However, by 1928, an all-time low of 10 franchises paid the $100 fee to enter a team for the new season. The league was not split into subdivisions as yet. So alphabetically, the list looked like this.
Frankford (PA) Yellow Jackets
|Green Bay Packers
New York Giants
New York Yankees
Pottsville (PA) Maroons
Providence Steam Roller
Joe Carr, who had gained executive experience in minor-league baseball, had been the league president from the beginning. He gets much of the credit for keeping the league alive in an era when baseball, college football, and boxing ruled the sports world. However, Carr could not centralize scheduling. As a result, each team made its own schedule. This practice caused great controversy.
- 1924: The Cleveland Bulldogs compiled a 7-1-1 record. The Chicago Bears played two more games and finished 6-1-4. Since winning percentage determined the champion and ties didn't count, the Bulldogs were declared the champions with a .875 percentage to the Bears' .857.
- 1925: The Pottsville Maroons completed their season by defeating the Chicago Cardinals on December 6 to give the Maroons a 10-2 record. At that point, the Cardinals were 9-2-1 and a half-game behind Pottsville. However, the Cardinals hastily scheduled two more games, both at home against teams that thought they had finished their seasons. Chicago won them easily to move their record to 11-2-1. This gave them a better winning percentage than the Maroons and the championship. To this day, the city of Pottsville believes that the 1925 NFL Championship was stolen from their team. As a result of this controversy, Carr persuaded the owners to agree on a final date by which all games that count in league standings must be played. (The NFL didn't centralize its scheduling until 1935.)
Providence had joined the NFL in 1925. Three local men shared the ownership and management of the team, which originated as a semipro squad in 1916. In three seasons, the Steam Roller amassed a mediocre 19-17-3 record. On September 17, 1928, the players assembled for the first practice under the direction of 30-year-old player-coach Jimmy Conzelman. He had started his coaching career the previous season, when Providence finished 8-5-1. Paid $292 per game, Conzelman played QB in the single-wing formation that most teams used in those days. He held practice daily from 11 am to 1 pm to coincide with the extended lunch break of one of the players, Jack Cronin, who taught and coached at LaSalle Academy (a Christian Brothers school that still exists in Providence). However, most of the 18 players allowed on the roster had no other employment. They generally received $100-150 per game depending on their skill and experience. The players all lived in permanent or temporary quarters in the Providence area.
|Part II – Home Field and Roster
John Spellman, wrestling Gold Medal
winner at the 1924 Olympics
The Providence Steam Roller played their home games in an unusual stadium, the Cycledrome.
- Built primarily for bicycle racing by Peter Laudatti, one of the team owners, the arena seated 10,000 in bleachers surrounding an wooden banked cycle track. The oval track, steeply banked around the turns but flatter on the straightaways, barely left enough room inside it for a football field. In fact, it wasn't quite enough.
- The players' benches and some seating for fans rested on the track, which ran right up against the sidelines. As a result, players tackling or being tackled near the edge of the field frequently wound up in the first row of seats. Also, the track cut off the last five yards of one end zone. The goal posts were on the goal line, as they were for many more decades in the NFL.
- Fans had a great view of the action whether they bought $2, $1.50, or $1 tickets.
- The stadium included only one dressing room, built to accommodate a few bikers and not the Steam Roller squad, who had to take turns using the two showers. But at least the home team had a locker room. The visiting team had to dress at its hotel before coming to the stadium, then return in dirty, smelly uniforms to shower.
- The field had a simple scoreboard and press box and a small area for parking, which was adequate for 1928 when few owned cars.
Many of the Steam Roller's 18 players hailed from New England.
- Brown University, the hometown school, contributed three players: Curly Oden who had been with Providence since 1922 and excelled as a kick returner and pass receiver; lineman Orland Smith; and another lineman, John Spellman, who also worked as a professional wrestler. Rookie Pop Williams came from Connecticut Agricultural College.
- The Cronin brothers, Bill and Jack, had starred for Boston College. Another wrestler, Gus Sonnenberg, who played without a helmet, came from Dartmouth.
Other players came from further away.
- Player-coach Jimmy Conzelman had played at Washington of St. Louis. His star was TB George "Wildcat" Wilson, a 1925 All-American at another Washington, in Seattle. Three good players came from the Cleveland Bulldogs, which had folded after the 1927 season: back Jim Simmons and linemen Clyde Smith and Milt Rehnquist. Smith had made All-Pro at C in 1927 while the 230-pound Rehnquist was among the largest players in the league.
- Veteran ends Norm Harvey and Duke Hanny excelled more as blockers and defenders than as pass receivers, which was typical of terminals in that era. Other linemen included 5'6" Jack Fleischman, veteran Jim Laird, and Abe Wilson, Wildcat's brother.
- The lineman with the most interesting story called himself Perry Jackson. Conzelman had heard of a star lineman by that name playing in Oklahoma and sent him a cable inviting him to tryout for the Steam Roller. Since the real Jackson was ill that summer, his teammate Arnold Schockley came for the tryout under Jackson's name and made the team, playing three years under the alias. The real Jackson later played one season under his buddy's name on a pro team in Boston!
This was the team that began its 11-game slate that included neither Chicago team, the Bears or the Cardinals.
Sunday, September 30 brought drizzly, 50-degree weather to Providence RI for the opening game of the NFL season between the Providence Steam Roller and the New York Yankees. 5,000 gathered for the 2:30 kickoff at the Cycledrome.
The Yankees were the creation of Red Grange and his agent, Ernie Pyle. Beginning play in 1927, the team's prospects took a decided turn for the worse when Grange hurt his knee. He missed the rest of that season and would sit out 1928 as well. To replace Red, Pyle signed another All-American, Gibby Welch of Pittsburgh.
The home team took the field in their black jerseys with yellow stripes. The Steam Roller band, a 30-piece group that did no marching but sat in the bleachers, played the National Anthem, and the game began. The Providence D stifled the Yankees O all afternoon. The first half ended 20-7, with the visitors' scoring on an INT return by Welch. The Steam Roller O lived up to its name, controlling the ball with power running and an occasional pass by Wildcat Wilson to Conzelman or Simmons. The scoreless second half completed the victory.
The Frankford Yellow Jackets came to Providence with a 2-0 record. Since Pennsylvania law prohibited sporting events on Sunday, Frankford played each home game on Saturday, then played a road game on Sunday. The 8,000 fans at the Cycledrome heard periodic updates of the World Series game between the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals in New York. Unfortunately, they saw their hometown heroes lose 10-6. The only Providence TD came on a fake FG pass from Wildcat to Conzelman.
Frankford-Dayton Game 1926
The Steam Roller bounced back against the woeful Dayton Triangles, a charter member of the NFL that had been reduced to playing all their games on the road. They often punted on second or third down to avoid mistakes by their inept O. The highlight of Providence's easy 28-0 victory was Gus Sonnenberg moving to the backfield to throw a 19y TD pass, then barreling over for the PAT. On the following Tuesday night, Sonnenberg and John Spellman both won wrestling matches in the Arcadia Ballroom in Providence.
The Steam Roller and a number of fans traveled by boat to New York for a rematch with the Yankees. Fans back home paid 50 cents at the Arcadia Ballroom or Empire Theater to hear announcers recreate the game from the Western Union play-by-play wire. Without Grange as a drawing card, only 8,000 in The House That Ruth Built watched New York go ahead 6-0 in Q3. Then the Steam Roller lost Conzelman for the season with a knee injury. In his absence, Wilson threw 42y to Harvey to set up a TD plunge. However, Sonnenberg missed the EP. A tie seemed inevitable until Duke Hanny returned an INT 38y for a 12-6 triumph. Providence was now 3-1.
Johnny Blood (McNally)
Pottsville Maroons RB
As the 3-1 Steam Roller prepared to host the Pottsville Maroons on Sunday, October 28, they nursed their injuries, especially in the backfield. Jim Simmons had an injured shoulder while player-coach Jimmy Conzelman was in the hospital for an operation on his knee. (He would not play any more that season and never regained the skill he displayed before the injury.) Wildcat Wilson took over as interim coach and tweaked the O to put more responsibility on his own shoulders.
- Before 8,000, Providence took the opening kickoff and drove 73y in seven plays for a TD. TB Wilson connected on two long passes to QB Curly Oden before scoring himself on a one-yard dive. Wilson hit Oden again in Q2 for a TD to make the score 13-0.
- The Maroons finally cranked up their O in Q4 using off-tackle runs and short passes. They scored early in the period to cut the lead to 13-6. Later they drove deep into Steam Roller territory in the final minutes, reaching fourth and goal from the 3. But Bill Cronin batted down a Maroon pass in the end zone to move the home team's record to 4-1.
The next opponent was the Detroit Wolverines, the most exciting team in the NFL in 1928. It wasn't just their 3-0 record. It was their high-scoring attack led by TB Benny Friedman, the league's premier passer. The All-American from Michigan pioneered the use of the forward pass as the primary O weapon. He could also run and place-kick and was a fine DB. The Steam Roller installed 500 extra seats. However, the threat of rain held the crowd to 8,500.
- The Wolverines arrived from Frankford, where they had suffered their first loss, 25-7, on Saturday. Conzelman left the hospital to coach his squad on crutches.
- The Steam Roller put a pass rush on Friedman to hold him in check. The half ended scoreless.
- Providence broke through in Q3 when Wildcat hit Pop Williams on the run for a 45y TD. Oden drop-kicked the extra point.
- The Steam Roller D repelled the only real Detroit drive at their 13 in Q4 to hold on, 7-0.
With no NFL game scheduled the following weekend, the Steam Roller played two games against Pere Marquette, an independent team from Boston that featured many former Boston College and Holy Cross players. The doubleheader was touted as being for the "New England Championship."
- On Saturday, the teams met at Braves Field in Boston with Providence copping a 14-7 decision.
- The next day, 6,000 in the Cycledrome saw their Steam Roller take an easy 20-0 decision. Unfortunately, Pop Williams suffered a hip injury in the contest.
- Meanwhile, the Frankford Yellow Jackets defeated Pottsville both Saturday and Sunday to take first place to themselves.
As luck would have it, Providence was scheduled to play back-to-back games against Frankford the next weekend.
The Steam Roller took their four-game NFL winning streak to Frankford on Saturday, November 17. The squad rode a train to Philadelphia Friday afternoon, stayed overnight in the City of Brotherly Love, then hopped another train Saturday morning to the suburb of Frankford. 15,000 packed the stadium to watch the battle for first place.
Frankford Yellow Jackets Stadium
- The scoreless first half was not surprising considering that both teams prided themselves on tough front walls and stubborn Ds.
- The first break went to the Yellow Jackets when they blocked Wilson's punt, picked it up on the five, and ran it in. The PAT failed but a 6-0 lead in this defensive tussle seemed insurmountable.
- However, the kicking game giveth and the kicking game taketh away. A poor Frankford punt set up Providence on the enemy 25. Seven straight rushes led to Wildcat's 2yd TD plunge. Oden's drop-kick went just under the crossbar.
- The two teams had numerous bruises but only a 6-6 tie for their troubles.
Both teams boarded sleeping cars on a midnight train to Providence for the crucial Sunday game.
George "Wildcat" Wilson
As the Frankford Yellowjackets and Steam Roller took the field in Providence on Sunday, November 18, they were still sore from the bruising game the day before in Frankford. However, the Jackets routinely played back-to-back weekend contests because of PA's ban on Sunday public events. Adding to the Steam Roller's challenge, injuries had knocked out player-coach Jimmy Conzelman along with three other backs, Pop Williams, Jim Simmons, and Al Hadden. As a result, the backfield of Wildcat Wilson, Curly Oden, and the two Cronins (Bill and Jack) would have to play the entire game.
- Despite a threat of rain, an overflow crowd of 11,000 packed the Cycledrome for the 2:15 kickoff to see which team would seize the NFL lead.
- Providence struck early in the game when Wilson fired a pass from the Frankford 46 to Oden who eluded several tackles and raced 40y to paydirt. Curly's drop kick was low, leaving the score 6-0.
- The Steam Roller couldn't score again, but their D limited Frankford to three first downs to preserve the victory.
The defending champion New York Giants, with a 4-3-2 record for 1928, came to Providence the following Sunday, November 25. They boasted a strong line led by E Cal Hubbard (later an American League umpire) and T Century Milstead, a Yale All-American. The Giants also boasted Bruce Caldwell, fresh from a standout season for the Eli in 1927, who was presented with a travel bag by a group from his hometown of Ashton RI just before the kickoff. Caldwell was soon released, however, another example of a college star whose skills didn't translate to the NFL.
- 13,000, a record throng, bundled up against the snow flurries to see their league-leading Steam Roller. They would not be disappointed.
- After a scoreless Q1, Providence drove 41y on nine plays with Jack Cronin carrying over from the 2. Gus Sonnenberg missed the PAT but soon made up for his mistake by causing a Hinkey Haines fumble that he turned into a 28y FG.
- With Hadden, Simmons, and Williams back in action, Providence was able to survive Wilson's injury in the first half. Ahead 9-0, Conzelman rested his star the second half.
- Cronin scored again in Q4 and also kept the Giants pinned up with four punts inside the ten in the period.
- The 16-0 victory also provided the Steam Roller owners with a $4,467 profit.
With two games left against relatively weak opponents, you couldn't blame Providence fans for counting on a championship. As writers in a later era would say, the Steam Roller controlled their own destiny. However, the two games would be played within a space of four days.
The 18 players boarded a train on Wednesday afternoon, November 28 for a Thanksgiving Day game in Pottsville (PA). They spent the night in a Philly hotel before traveling 60 miles NW to the small coal-mining city. Contenders in 1925-6, Pottsville was an also-ran by 1928 but were tough on their home field. In fact, they had just upset Green Bay there, 26-0, in a snowstorm that left the field still muddy four days later.
- Despite the threatening skies, 10,000 fans jammed the stadium.
- Providence sustained one of the few drives in the game in Q2 to gain a TD on Jack Cronin's 10y end run. Sonnenberg's PAT made it 7-0.
- The D pitched another shutout although it wasn't easy. Twice they stopped scoring threats within the 10.
- Conzelman used the same 11 players until late in Q4 when Jack Cronin sustained a broken nose on a line plunge and was replaced by Simmons.
The Steam Roller stood at 8-1-1 with second place Frankford at 9-2-2. The Yellow Jackets, with three games left to play, needed help from the Packers on Sunday in Providence to have any chance.
The Steam Roller needed only to tie Green Bay on Sunday, December 2 to clinch their first NFL crown. However, they were worn down by the long season and the grueling Thanksgiving game. The trainer crafted a face mask for Cronin that looked like a horse's blinders over his nose. Crude as it was, the device enabled Jack to play the finale. (You can spot him in the photo below at the far right of the first row.)
The 5-4-2 Packers were playing the fourth game of a five-game road streak to end their season. They boasted one of the league's best backs in Verne Lewellen. In addition to being one of the NFL's top punters, Verne was a lawyer who had just been elected District Attorney of Green Bay's county.
- 10,500 at the Cycledrome saw both teams miss scoring chances in Q1. Oden returned a punt to the enemy five but Wilson threw an INT in the EZ. Then the Packers drove to the 5 but lost a fumble.
- The visitors finally scored in Q3 on a 30y pass from Lewellen to Larry Marks. The PAT made it 7-0.
- Like true champions, Providence responded by taking the kickoff and pounding 72y in 11 plays. Wilson threw 23y to Oden for the score. Sonnenberg place-kicked the tying point.
- Wilson's punts kept GB bottled up the rest of the afternoon to preserve the 7-7 tie.
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The Steam Roller finished 8-1-2 in the league with two non-league victories as well. The city threw a banquet the following Tuesday evening at the Hotel Biltmore that was attended by local dignitaries and 200 paying fans. In lieu of bonuses, each team member received a gold watch, and a cup was presented to Conzelman as MVP, an award voted by the players that was more akin to Coach of the Year since Jimmy didn't play after his injury in Game 4. One of the speakers that evening was State Attorney General Charles P. Sisson. In congratulating the team, he said: "I think the day is coming when pro football, if it follows the example set by the Roller, will take its place with baseball as the great national professional sport."
Five Steam Rollers made the all-NFL team. Wildcat Wilson and Clyde Smith were granted first team honors, while Curly Oden, Milt Rehnquist, and Gus Sonnenberg were listed on the second team. On January 4, 1929, Sonnenberg reached an even higher athletic plateu when he beat Strangler Lewis in the new Boston Garden for the world heavyweight wrestling championship.
Part I: Conzelman Organizes the Team
Part II: Home Field and Roster
Part III: Games 1-4
Part IV: Games 5-7
Part V: Games 8-11
Other Seasons in Time
Notre Dame 1924
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