Pro football struggled in Detroit during the Roaring ’20s

Before his career as a civil rights activist and actor, Paul Robeson spent one year in the 1920s playing professional football in Detroit.

Many people who believe professional football in Detroit began with the Lions are surprised to learn that the team that moved here from Portsmouth, Ohio in 1934 actually represented the fifth attempt to launch a National Football League franchise in the city.

The four previous attempts all occurred in the 1920s, a decade that saw unprecedented prosperity and population growth in Detroit – but not enough enthusiasm for college football’s weaker sister to keep any of the NFL franchises around for longer than a couple of seasons.

Pro football was a risky proposition in 1920, the year the American Professional Football Association was founded inside the showroom of a Hupmobile dealership in Canton, Ohio. Over the next dozen years the loosely organized affiliation of mostly midwestern clubs sounded more professional than it really was. Teams made up their own schedules, statistics were sporadically kept, and the awarding of championships often was arbitrary and almost always hotly debated. The APFA, which changed its name to the National Football League in 1922, included a franchise in Detroit, the Heralds. The 1920 Heralds (re-named the Tigers in 1921) were followed by the Panthers (1925-1926) and the Wolverines (1928). All failed to attract a following large enough to ensure their survival.

The Heralds had been organized as an amateur team in 1905 by a group of University of Detroit athletes when the school temporarily dropped its football program. By World War I, the Heralds were a well-known semipro squad, having won city and state championships. They were coached by Bill Marshall and managed by John Roesink, a local merchant and sports promoter. Roesink owned the Heralds’ home venue, Mack Park, but the Heralds often leased Navin Field when larger crowds were anticipated. In 1917, for example, the Heralds drew 16,000 rooters to The Corner in a benefit game against the Fort Custer All-Stars. The Heralds also hosted Jim Thorpe and the Canton Bulldogs that year.

When the new pro league looked to put a team in one of the nation’s largest cities, the established Heralds were a natural choice. Like all clubs, the Heralds were a mix of former high school and collegiate stars and overage sandlotters. The team’s captain was Clarence “Steamer” Horning, an All-American tackle and punter from Colgate who also took an occasional turn running the ball. Players typically made between $50 and $100 a game and worked full- or part-time jobs to supplement their salary.

Detroit’s first NFL game took place on October 17, 1920, as the Heralds traveled to Chicago to take on the Chicago Tigers. A couple of botched punts led to two Chicago scores as the Tigers notched their only league victory of the season, 12-0, in front of a Sunday crowd of 5,000.

The following Sunday, October 24, the Heralds played the Columbus Panhandles in the first-ever NFL game in Detroit. Emblematic of the league’s low status was the fact that the Heralds’ tussle with their traditional rival was played at Mack Park because Frank Navin had reserved his ballpark for an amateur hurling match. The Heralds defeated Columbus, as an end named Fitzgerald returned an interception 85 yards for the only points in a 6-0 whitewash. Horning “played splendid football on defense, being in every play and stopping the Columbus ball-toters repeatedly,” observed the Free Press, which also mentioned that “A big crowd watched the contest.”

The Heralds played two more league games, both shutout losses on the road, to finish their abbreviated NFL campaign with a 1-3 record. Like other league clubs, they filled in their schedule with as many semipro games as possible.

The Heralds returned the following season with a new name, the Tigers, and snazzy new orange-and-black uniforms to replace their longtime red-and-white ones. The team had adopted the name of their baseball cousins, looking to capitalize on their popularity.

The first NFL game at The Corner was between the Tigers and Dayton Triangles on Sunday, October 9, 1921. No attendance figures were given, though the Free Press noted the game “was played under fine weather conditions and a good-sized crowd was on hand to cheer the home team, something that has been lacking in past games here.” The Tigers won, 10-7. The winning score was delivered by Tillie Voss, a familiar face around local gridirons. The former University of Detroit standout and ex-Herald end returned a blocked kick 65 yards for a touchdown.

The Tigers’ victory proved to be their only one of the campaign. The turnstiles quit spinning, management quit paying its players, and the club finally dropped out of the league with a 1-5-1 record, but not before hosting one other game of note. On October 16, the Tigers took on the Akron Pros. Akron won handily, 20-0, thanks in part to the skillful play of two black stars. One was wingback Fritz Pollard. The other was end Paul Robeson, a true Renaissance man playing his only NFL season. In years to come, the powerful and imposing orator, actor, singer, and activist would be a regular visitor to Detroit, performing in downtown theaters and participating in various civil rights causes. A hero to African Americans and white liberals in the 1940s and ‘50s, few knew that the internationally famous figure had once chased an NFL football around Navin Field for the better part of a Sunday afternoon.