Before The League

The story of the people and towns that made pro football America's biggest sport.

The 6-part documentary story of the people and towns that made pro football America's biggest sport.

“Before the League” examines how small towns like Canton and Massillon, Ohio were the blueprint for fielding early pro teams as well as fostering healthy rivalries. As precursors to the NFL, teams like the Akron Pros, Dayton Triangles, Portsmouth Spartans, Ironton Tanks, Shelby Blues, Oorang Indians, Rochester Jeffersons, Buffalo All-Americans, Milwaukee Badgers and Columbus Panhandles laid the groundwork for the successes of today’s big city teams.



Recalling the colorful oorang indians - dayton daily news, dayton, ohio | nov 15, 2015

'Before The League' documents ohio's part in nfl history - good morning cincinnati, wkrc-tv/wstr-tv, cincinnati, ohio | nov 10,2015

 'Before the league' documentary examines early NFL history - Cleveland Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio | Nov 6, 2015

Photo gallery: "Before the League" documentary examines early NFL history -, Cleveland, OHio | Nov 1, 2015


'Before the League' documentary targets pre-NFL era - Ironton Tribune, IRONTON, OHIO | Oct 29, 2015

'Before The League' Looks At Small Town Pro Football Before NFL - WVXU, CINCINNATI, OHIO | Oct 14, 2015

Documentary looks at pro football before the NFL - Canton Repository, CANTON, OHIO | Oct 27, 2015

'BEFORE THE LEAGUE' looks at pro football before the NFL - Massillon Independent, MASSILLON, OHIO | Oct 27, 2015

"Before the League" Debuts Nov. 17 & 18 on TWC SportsChannel - TIME WARNER CABLE SPORTS, NEW YORK, NY | OCT 19, 2015

All of us who are fans and passionate about the game of pro football now are the benefactors of what the people did before the league was founded.
— Chris Willis, NFL Films


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Episode 1: Origins

Football was born in America in the late 1800s, evolving from a hybrid of soccer and rugby through a series of adaptations introduced on the field by college and working class men. Pioneers of the sport like Walter Camp, a student at Yale who attended the game’s first rules committee, Charles Follis, the first African American to play professional football, and William “Pudge” Heffelfinger, the game’s first documented paid player, were instrumental in creating a new sport.

Episode 2: Ringers

Football is described as being akin to the “wild west” with teams, coaches and players exploiting loopholes in the rules. Company teams like the Columbus Panhandles, made up of working men who played football during their lunch breaks, and the original Green Bay Packers, formed as a way to advertise the Acme Packing Plant, were created to support local industry. Opportunity gave way to exploitation as ringers flooded the sport, eager to make their mark and their fortune.

Episode 3: Scandals

From the beginning, money and competition led to historic scandals between teams like the Canton Bulldogs and the Massillon Tigers, with accusations of cheating. Brutality on the field led to the intervention of President Roosevelt, putting an end to some of the game’s most dangerous elements like the flying wedge. But coaches and players persisted in shaping rules to their advantage.

Episode 4: Legends

The power of celebrity to bring fans, attention and money to the game is seen with the addition by Jack Cusack of Olympic powerhouse Jim Thorpe to the Canton Bulldogs. While rule changes like the elimination of restrictions to the forward pass helped strike a balance between offensive and defensive plays.

Episode 5: Formation

Once again, Stark County is pivotal in guiding the future of football with the first ever owners meeting held to in Canton, Ohio to form a new league. Dayton, Ohio claims the first-ever NFL game and Fritz Pollard makes history becoming the first African American coach of an NFL team, leading the Akron Pros to the first league title.

Episode 6: Business

The arrival of players like Red Grange effectively ends the sandlot era of football, pushing teams to compete for permanent rosters. The promise of increased revenue through expansion, directly threatens the small town team originally at the core of football’s identify. The Oorang Indians are a momentary exception and the smallest NFL franchise on record while small town teams like Portsmouth Spartans, Ironton Tanks and Dayton Triangles can’t compare with the success of the Green Bay Packers.

It gave us great pleasure to have the opportunity to be a part of the documentary ‘Before the League.’
— Joe Horrigan, Pro Football Hall of Fame



Chris Willis has worked at NFL Films as Head of the Research Library since 1996. He has written four books on early pro football. His first book, Old Leather: An Oral History of Early Pro Football in Ohio, 1920-1935, was published in 2005 and was given the 2005 Nelson Ross Award by the Professional Football Researchers Association for recent Achievement in Football Research and Historiography. His second book, The Columbus Panhandles: A Complete History of Pro Football’s Toughest Team, 1900-1922, was published in 2007. His third book, The Man Who Built the National Football League: Joe F. Carr was published in 2010. Willis’s fourth book, Dutch Clark: The Life of an NFL Legend and the Birth of the Detroit Lions was released in 2012. As the resident historian at NFL Films he helps oversees all aspects of research for the company and their producers. In 2002 he was nominated for an Emmy for his work on the HBO Documentary “The Game of Their Lives: Pro Football in the 1950’s.” He is also a member of the College Football Historical Society (CFHS) and since 1993 a member of the Professional Football Researchers Association (PFRA). Several of his articles have been published in the PFRA publication The Coffin Corner. Willis was awarded the PFRA’s 2012 Ralph Hay award for lifetime Achievement in Pro Football Research and Historiography. In 1997 and 1998 he gave oral presentations at the “Pro Football and American Life” Symposiums held at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Before starting at NFL Films he graduated from Urbana (OH) University in Physical Education -while also playing four years on the Urbana football team- and attended one year of Graduate School at the Ohio State University in Sports History. Chris Willis is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Audubon, New Jersey.


Kate Buford

Kate Buford’s award-winning Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe (Knopf 2010) was an Editors’ Choice of The New York Times (paperback 2012 University of Nebraska Press). Burt Lancaster: An American Life (Knopf/Da Capo/Aurum UK) was named one of the best books of 2000 by The New York Times and other publications. Buford has written for The New York Times, Film Comment, Bluegrass Unlimited, History Now, Readex, among other publications, and has appeared on numerous televison shows including Charlie Rose, History Detectives and Reel Sports. She was a commentator on NPR’s Morning Edition and APM’s Marketplace from 1995 - 2004. She serves on the board of Biographers International Organization (BIO), and of Union Settlement Association in East Harlem, New York.


Joe Horrigan

Horrigan, a 39-year executive of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Hall of Fame Museum and its satellite programs, the annual Enshrinee Selection Process, and is the organization’s Chief Communications Officer. Horrigan, a recognized historian of the sport of pro football, has authored, co- authored, edited and been a contributing writer for several books on the subject including The Pro Football Hall of Fame Answer Book, Football Legends of All Time (with Bob Carroll), Total Football The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League, and most recently The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 50th Anniversary Book (with John Thorn). He has also authored numerous articles on pro football and pro football history for various national publications. A regular contributor to NFL Films and NFL Network productions Horrigan has been featured in several sports films and documentaries including the recently released Forgotten Four: The Reintegration of Pro Football. He is also the co- host of the weekly national radio show, The Pro Football Hall of Fame on Sirius XM . Horrigan has served on several NFL and Team Committees, including the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Committee, the Washington Redskins 75th Anniversary Committee, and the Cleveland Browns Legends Committee. He also served as a Communicator on an NFL Instant Replay team for three seasons (1999-2001).



Former Syracuse superstar and Pro Football Hall of Famer Floyd Little ‘67 returned to Syracuse University in July 2011 in the role of special assistant to the athletics director. The five-time Pro Bowl selection is responsible for development and donor relations, assisting with student-athlete and team development and prospective student-athlete on-campus recruitment activities. In addition, he handles special projects as assigned by the director of athletics and he serves in many other capacities for the department. A three-time All-American and 1966 ECAC Player of the Year at Syracuse, Little was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010. He is one of 18 Syracuse representatives to be enshrined in the College Hall of Fame and one of seven with Syracuse ties to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In May 2012, Little was honored at his alma mater, James Hillhouse High School in New Haven, Conn., as part of the “Hometown Hall of Famer” program. The recipient of more than 19 professional athlete achievement awards and more than 31 distinguished community service awards during his career, Little is enshrined in seven Halls of Fame. In January 2012, he was recognized by the Walter Camp Football Foundation as its Distinguished American and in 2014 was honored with the Doak Walker Legends Award. In 1974 alone, Little received three prestigious community service awards: the YMCA Brian Piccolo Award, The Distinguished American Award for Community Service presented by the Connecticut Hall of Fame, and the American Jewish Community Appeal for Human Relations Citation in recognition of the outstanding contributions he made toward the betterment of man and his community. In addition to the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame, Little has been honored as a Syracuse University Letterwinner of Distinction and recognized by the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame, the Denver Broncos Ring of Fame, the Gator Bowl Hall of Fame, and the African American Ethnic Sports Hall of Fame. In 1992, Little was honored with the NCAA Silver Anniversary Award. The sixth player selected overall in the 1967 draft, Little made an immediate impact on the Denver Broncos. A multi-dimensional player, Little combined his rushing talents with great hands and also served as a return man, amassing more than 12,000 all-purpose yards during a career that spanned from 1967 to 1975. Little graduated from the University of Denver’s College of Law in 1975, and in 1979 he completed the Ford Motor Executive Management Training Program, where he participated in extensive seminars and in-field training in the areas of sales, marketing, accounting, finance and purchasing. The former president and owner of Pacific Coast Ford, which became a private capital dealership in 1996, Little was known as one of the most successful and well-respected Ford dealers in the industry and has served as a consultant and instructor for Ford’s Minority Dealers Program. In 2009, Little retired as a Ford dealer and was the longest tenured minority dealer in the Ford portfolio at the time. Since his retirement, Little has made appearances at NFL and Hall of Fame events and been a popular and sought after speaker for Touchdown Presentations, LLC. He also participates in and supports numerous charitable events around the country. Little, who is married to Syracuse native DeBorah A. Green, has two daughters, Christy Jones and Kyra DaCosta, a son, Marc T. Little, and four grandchildren, AJ, Skye, Blaze, and Hayes Jones.



In addition to being a national speaker and Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) and trained CPA, Jack’s love and passion for football run deep. He is a frequent commentator on sports radio, 97.1 The Fan, has contributed to projects with ESPN, WBNS-10TV, Big Ten Network, HBO, NFL Films and TWC SportsChannel. He is the author of three books about Ohio State football, “The Ohio State University Football Vault with Afterword by Two-Time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin,” “The Official Ohio State Football Encyclopedia with Foreword by ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit,” and “Ohio State Football...The Great Tradition with Foreward by Two-Time Heisman Winner Archie Griffin.”

Jason Pheister

Jason Pheister

Jason Pheister is a accomplished producer, director and writer with success in long and short form dynamic content. He is an award-winning show creator and executive producer of several nationally-acclaimed documentaries and news programs. His work has appeared on CBS, NBC, MSNBC, Regional PBS, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Channel One, Time Warner Cable, Fox Sports and ESPN. His passion is telling the underdog's untold story no matter the circumstance. In addition to documentary and entertainment program direction and creation, he has spent several years as an Executive Producer of local and regional news and sports productions. Pheister is a recipient of several Emmy,® Telly, and SPJ Awards for his work in varied mediums and formats across the country. His recent work on “Before The League” was a four year project seeded by his time living in Ohio where he was inspired to showcase the pride of several small towns that trace their history to the foundation of the NFL. His projects include additional stories of the founding pillars of the NFL including historical documentaries on legendary NFL coaches Vince Lombardi and Paul Brown.



Alison Momeyer

Alison Momeyer

Alison Momeyer has had great success and a diverse career of dynamic storytelling and production management. While she is an accomplished producer, she is, more than anything, an exceptionally talented writer who brings stories to life. Her work spans many media—from television to commercial advertising to strategic communications. Since 2005, Alison has combined high-calibre writing with creative production leadership for some of the top companies in Ohio and across the United States. She has been awarded several Emmy,® Telly, and AVA awards for productions which have been showcased regionally and nationally. Her breadth of experience with culture, people and places shapes and informs her work. Alison is driven by curiosity and a unique ability to connect with people that gets at the heart of stories - from the smallest obscure detail, to the big questions that reveal, embolden, and enlighten.


© 2015 Before The League, LLC.