Pudge Heffelfinger: Iconic Minnesotan was football's first pro | Star Tribune
Super Bowl LII History

The "Birth Certificate of Professional Football" reveals the name of the first person to be paid for playing football. He was a Minnesotan, born in 1867. He lived a mile from where the Super Bowl will be played Sunday.

He was Pudge Heffelfinger.

Photos courtesy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Pudge, the first pro

The origin of professional football is traced to an iconic Minnesotan born only 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 that’s 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 wasn’t until the early 1970s that the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, realized it had what it now calls “pro football’s 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 the rival Pittsburgh Athletic Club at Recreation Park in Pittsburgh in 1892. Until then, Pennsylvania native John Brallier was recognized as the sport’s first documented professional, having accepted $10 plus expenses to play a game for Latrobe YMCA in 1895.

“You don’t think of $500 being a big deal,” Tom Heffelfinger said. “But I looked it up. The average annual income of a Pennsylvania family in 1892 was $834. Pudge made two-thirds of that in one afternoon playing football. In today’s dollars, that’s $12,950.”

Allegheny won 4-0. Heffelfinger’s 25-yard fumble return for a touchdown — worth four points at the time — was the game’s only score.

Fast forward 126 seasons. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is football’s highest-paid player. He makes $1,687,500 per game.

Carlos Gonzalez
Frank and Tom Heffelfinger are the great nephews of William "Pudge" Heffelfinger. Pudge is the first known professionally played football player.

Scourge of professionalism

By the late 19th century, football was a popular amateur sport played by big-city gentlemen’s clubs around the country. Winning games increased a club’s 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 they’re ‘associate members,’ ” said Joe Horrigan, executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “They didn’t 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 Harper’s 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.”

Associated Press photos
In 1933, Pudge Heffelfinger, an old football star at the time, returned to Minneapolis at the age of 66 to boost ticket sales in an alumni game.

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 multisport 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, Tom’s brother. “There weren’t 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 multisport 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. In his freshman year, Yale outscored their 13 opponents 698-0.

Pudge left Yale as a three-time All-America. It would have been four-time, but All-America teams weren’t picked until 1889.

photo courtesy of Yale University
Pudge Heffelfinger is in the middle of the back row of this 1888 Yale football team photo, behind the player wearing a cap. The team’s record was 8-0.

Was Pudge first holdout?

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

“The game almost didn’t 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 wasn’t 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 the Pittsburgh Athletic Club had offered Heffelfinger $250 and was angry that he wouldn’t accept such a monstrous sum at the time.

“Pro football had its first ‘holdout’ even before its first pro,” said Frank Heffelfinger, now 66, 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 Club’s football team. Because football was a straight-ahead running game with no forward pass at the time, Pudge’s 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 Minnesota’s delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1904 and 1908, and in 1935 started a popular publication called “Heffelfinger’s Football Facts.”

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

Associated Press photo
Heffelfinger went to Yale, where he was a multisport star in addition to a football All-American. In his book, he said, “Football is a sissy sport compared to rowing a four-mile race.”

Saved by the book

Civil War historians will tell you Pudge’s father, Christopher, is the more famous Heffelfinger. Minnesota’s 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.

“Without that book, we wouldn’t be here,” said Frank Heffelfinger, nodding to his brother, Tom.

“Without that book, there’s 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 semipro 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 that’s kind of neat.”