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Pro football’s long quest to the West Coast

The roots of professional football were firmly entrenched in the Midwest and Western Pennsylvania. The pro game's beginning can be traced to Pittsburgh and a game in which a star player, William "Pudge" Heffelfinger, was paid $500. That payment is the first evidence of someone receiving money to play the game of football. Nearly two decades later, the sport launched its first professional league, the National Football League. First known as the American Professional Football Association, the league was formed during a meeting held in Canton, Ohio.

The teams that comprised the new league were mostly from small cities in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois. The league quickly began to realize, however, if it was going to survive it needed to spread to other regions.

That happened in a big way on Jan. 16, 1926 when Red Grange and the Chicago Bears, in the midst of a 19-game barnstorming tour, traveled to Los Angeles to play the semi-pro L.A. Tigers. Approximately 75,000 jammed into Los Angeles' Memorial Coliseum to witness the West Coast's first taste of major professional football. Grange, who was one of the most noted college football stars in the country had just started his pro career in the NFL two months earlier, scored both of Chicago's touchdowns that day. The Bears downed the home team, 17-7. Grange and the Bears continued their West Coast swing by traveling to San Diego, San Francisco, Portland, Oregon, and Seattle.

Just a few months later, the Los Angeles Buccaneers joined the NFL for play during the 1926 season. The new franchise featured many quality players including back Tut Imlay and end Brick Muller, both All-NFL selections. The distance from Los Angeles to any other league city, however, made travel very difficult. The Buccaneers, who finished the season with a respectable 6-3-1 record, played all of their games on the road and disbanded after just one season.

Over the next several years, more western U.S. teams popped up in leagues that rivaled the NFL. Most notable among these rival circuits was the Pacific Coast Football League (PCFL) which operated from 1940-48. As the names suggested, the PCFL featured teams located out West from the Pacific Ocean to the Rocky Mountains.

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Although it was viewed as a minor league compared to the NFL, the PCFL had a great deal of influence on the sport. Most notably was the fact that the league did not shy away from employing African American athletes like Jackie Robinson and Kenny Washington. The successful integration of African Americans into this league helped pave the way for reintegration in the NFL that occurred in the late '40s and early '50s.

With a large group of major league talent on the field, the PCFL enjoyed a great deal of growth and success during the league's eight seasons. The league expanded into several new cities, including Honolulu, Hawaii in 1946 and had attendance figures ranging from 7,000 to 15,000 per game.

The beginning of the end however, may have occurred when the Cleveland Rams of the NFL, along with the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Dons of the newly formed All-America Football Conference, invaded the West Coast. This was spurred in part by the development of air travel and transportation during World War II. What had in the past been a three-day trip to the West Coast could now be accomplished in just a matter of hours.

The Rams had drawn only about 70,000 in total attendance and lost money during their 1945 championship season. So, the team's Hall of Fame owner Dan Reeves decided to relocate the Rams to Los Angeles in 1946, thereby making the team the first major sports franchise to move to the West Coast. Reeves was eager to make the move as he recognized the area's huge increase in population, industry and desire for entertainment. The team, along with the NFL's MVP quarterback Bob Waterfield, was warmly welcomed and saw an average crowd of approximately 42,000 per game.

In the AAFC, the Dons and 49ers, both enjoyed success on the football field and at the ticket office during their first season of play. The 49ers, who boasted such stars as quarterback Frankie Albert and running back Norm Standlee, averaged more than 26,000 spectators per game and delivered a 9-5 season record. The Dons, with star quarterback Charlie O'Rourke and fullback John Kimbrough, had a 7-5-2 record and an average attendance of 20,000 per game.

The AAFC was a sensation for three more seasons drawing more fans to the stadiums and talent to the football field. The well-established NFL began to view the AAFC as a legitimate threat to its operations and began merger talks with the rival league. After months of negotiations the two leagues finally agreed to a merger following the 1949 season. Under the terms of the agreement, only the 49ers, along with the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Colts, were absorbed into the NFL.

Major professional football would not see new teams on the West Coast teams until 1960 when the American Football League began play with teams located in Los Angeles, Oakland and Denver.

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