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The Rochester Jeffersons Take to the National Stage (Part 1)

A look at the 1920 season

Even though it had been attempted previously, 1920 saw yet another push to form a professional football league. Teams in the mythical “Ohio League” saw clubs from other parts of the country draw more fans to the games, which obviously translated to increased revenue for the teams participating. The fear was that more talented players would be drawn away from the smaller Ohio towns to other cities in search of larger salaries. Something needed to be done to keep the Ohio teams on a competitive level with organizations from outside of the Buckeye state.

The first step was taken on August 20, 1920, when four of the Ohio League teams met at Ralph Hay’s Hupmobile dealership in Canton, Ohio. Hay owned the Canton Bulldogs and was joined by his star player Jim Thorpe. Also at the meeting were Frank Nied and Art Ranney of Akron (Nied and Ranney were forming a team to replace the 1919 Akron Indians, who disbanded), Jimmy O’Donnell and Stanley Cofall of the Cleveland Tigers, and Carl Storck of the Dayton Triangles. Since no minutes were recorded for this meeting, the final outcome is a bit of a mystery, but a few things could be ascertained from media accounts of the event. First, the name of their new “league” was to be called the American Professional Football Conference and Hay was elected Secretary. Now, the focus could shift to the major issues facing those teams. Players were running from team to team to collect a paycheck. The members wanted this to stop and agreed to refrain from enticing players to leave their current club. Next, they needed to get player salaries under control, so they introduced a salary cap. Finally, they needed to address the increasing row between colleges and professional clubs with respect to undergraduate players. Colleges increasingly frowned on their players involving themselves in professional contests. The members of the league agreed to not allow these undergraduates to play on their squads. With that all of the major issues addressed, they needed to get outside clubs to join and agree to the aforementioned stipulations.

All of the work that came out of the meeting would be for naught if only the four attending clubs were members of the league. They needed to bring in the organizations they most feared would induce their players to leave. Hay was responsible for contacting top-notch professional clubs in the surrounding states to have them attend the next meeting. Before that, however, the league received letters from three clubs, expressing interest in joining. The first was from Leo Lyons of the Rochester Jeffersons. Actually, it is not absolutely certain that the letter was from the Jeffersons, but since they were by far the strongest Rochester team, it can be assumed that it was from the Jeffersons. Couple that with the fact that Leo Lyons attended the follow-up meeting to the August 20th affair, it is safe to say that the letter was from the Jeffersons. Leo had always pushed for a league and when he heard that there was the possibility of one forming, it is assumed that he jumped at the chance to participate and sent the letter. The second letter was from Buffalo. Again, since no meeting minutes were recorded, there is no way to be absolutely certain who wrote the letter, but it is assumed that it was the Buffalo All-Americans, who were essentially the 1919 Buffalo Prospects under new management. The third letter was from Hammond, but it is unclear as to which Hammond team sent the letter. The Hammond Pros attended the second league meeting, but the Hammond Bobcats were also a strong contender in the area. The answers to these questions remain to this day.

The second league meeting was held September 17, 1920 in Canton. Hay and Thorpe were there, along with previous attendees Nied, Ranney, Storck, Cofall and O’Donnell. New to the meeting were Leo Lyons of the Rochester Jeffersons, Doc Young of the Hammond Pros, Walter Flanigan of the Rock Island Independents, Earl Ball of the Muncie Flyers, George Halas and Morgan O’Brien of the Decatur Staleys, and Chris O’Brien of the Chicago Cardinals.  One of the first items to come out of this meeting was to change the name of the league to the American Professional Football Association (APFA). Next up was to choose the leadership. Jim Thorpe was elected as president, Stanley Cofall was elected vice-president and Art Ranney took the secretary-treasurer position. With the leadership in place, they could now get down to the details. Young, Flanigan, Storck and Cofall were responsible for drawing up a constitution and bylaws. It was also decided that each team would provide a list of all players used during the 1920 season and that this list was to be provided to Art Ranney (Association secretary) by January 1, 1921. This was in reference to teams enticing players to jump teams, the only of the three items that actually addressed the reasons why the league was formed. The league shaped up as follows: Akron Pros, Buffalo All-Americans, Canton Bulldogs, Chicago Cardinals, Chicago Tigers, Cleveland Tigers, Columbus Panhandles, Dayton Triangles, Decatur Staleys, Detroit Heralds, Hammond Pros, Muncie Flyers, Rochester Jeffersons and Rock Island Independents. All that was left was to play the games.

It is unclear as to exactly when the Rochester Jeffersons were formed. Current research has them playing games as early as 1902, but a curious article appeared in 1925. According to an October 22 article in the Appleton Post-Crescent, “Way back in 1898, the Rochester Jeffs started making professional football history in New York State. That year, several of the University of Rochester Gridders gave too much attention to the pigskin and not enough to midnight oil. As a result, university authorities suggested to them that they take the air while the going was good.” The article continued to say that the players went to the Jefferson Club to start a football team. The club agreed to back them and the Jeffersons were born. Independent research has not been able to confirm this story. Regardless, the Jeffersons became a prominent part of the Rochester football scene over the next couple of decades, including winning the state championship in 1916. The 1920 season would be different, as the Jeffersons finally reached their goal of playing on a national stage as a member of the APFA.

After starting the season with easy victories over All-Buffalo (10-0) and Ft. Porter (66-0), as well as a scoreless tie against the Utica Knights of Columbus team, Rochester was still not ready to take on an APFA member and instead met up with the Syracuse Stars for a final warm-up game before taking on a league opponent. It did not start well for the Jeffersons. Rochester had the ball and was driving, but unfortunately, fullback John Barsha fumbled and Syracuse recovered. Cooper and Mike Purdy combined to move the visitors toward the Rochester goal and the drive ended with Lewis catching a Mike Purdy pass for the score. Rochester battled back to score two touchdowns in the second quarter with halfback Jim Laird involved in both. The first was a run and the second was a Jim Laird pass to end Harold Clark. Halfback Bob Argus sealed the game with a run for a score in the third quarter to give Rochester the 21-7 victory.

With four games under their belt and a 3-0-1 record, the Jeffs finally felt that they were ready to take on an APFA opponent: The Buffalo All-Americans. This turned out to be a bad decision as Buffalo had their way with the Jeffs. Buffalo scored seventeen points in the first half, while Rochester was only able to muster two field goals the entire game. Buffalo took the opening kickoff and proceeded to drive down the field. They were stopped short, but were able to kick a field goal for the initial score of the game. Rochester’s opening drive was less than stellar as they lost the ball on downs. Buffalo took over and continued where they left off on the previous drive. Persistent runs drove the ball to the Rochester three-yard line, where John Weldon took it over for the touchdown. Buffalo again scored in the second quarter, when guard Swede Youngstrom blocked a Rochester punt. Red Quigley was punting from his own endzone when Youngstrom broke through the line for the block and guard Bill Brace recovered for the score. This turned out to be the only APFA game that the Jeffs played that year. While the desire to play on the national stage was there, the talent was not and it was readily apparent that the Jeffersons were not ready to play the best clubs in the country. This 16-7 loss proved that fact.

The previous meeting between the Jeffs and the Utica Knights of Columbus resulted in a scoreless tie. The rematch, however, was not even close. Two of Rochester’s scores were the result of blocked punts. The first score happened when the Kaycees were punting from their twenty-five yard line. The Jeffersons broke through the Utica line to block the kick and guard Jimmy Woods fell on it in the endzone. The next Jefferson score came when Rochester received a Utica punt at midfield. Halfback Jim Laird tossed a pass to end Carl Thomas and he took the ball to the five-yard line. At that point, halfback Bob Argus ran off tackle for the score and a 13-0 lead at the half.

The Utica offense started to click in the third quarter, but even though they were able to drive to the Rochester goal line, they were still unable to score until the fourth quarter. Utica drove down to the Jefferson goal line, but lost the ball on downs. Laird was brought in to punt, but his kick went out of bounds at the Rochester fifteen-yard line. It took Utica three plays to score; the first being a forward pass followed by two runs, the last being by Wilcox. The Jeffersons scored two touchdowns in the last five minutes of the game. Hank Smith punted deep into Utica territory, but the Kaycees fumbled the kick. On the next play, Wilcox intercepted a Rochester forward pass. This drive would be short-lived, as Thomas intercepted a Utica forward pass on the next play. Laird proceeded to toss a pass to Thomas, who brought the ball to the Utica goal line. Fullback Mike Purdy finished the drive by running for the touchdown. The final Rochester scoring drive came when the Jeffersons blocked a Utica punt. A couple of plays later, Purdy again took the ball over the goal line for the score and the 27-7 victory.

Feeling confident after their win, the Jeffersons took on the strong All-Tonawanda Lumberjack team. Rochester played the Lumbermen tough, driving to the one-yard line in the opening quarter, but Tonawanda held and Rochester went away empty. Both teams continued to battle, but it was not until the third quarter before the scoreless tie was broken. Rochester was on their own ten-yard line when they lined up to punt. Red Quigley fumbled the punt and the Lumberjacks recovered. Tonawanda halfback Ziggy Hasbrouck capitalized on the miscue and took the ball over for the only score of the game. That was the first home loss of the season for the Jeffersons, dropping their record to 4-2-1.

In the first of three meetings in 1920 with their in-town rival Rochester Scalpers, the Jeffs took the game 16-0. Scoring was difficult in the first half as the Jeffs were only able to get a safety on the tough Scalper squad. The second half of the game was a different story, as the Jeffs were able to score two touchdowns in the final quarter to put away the game. Jim Laird tossed a pass to Carl Thomas for the first touchdown. The second came on a Laird run.

In their rematch, the All-Tonawanda Lumberjacks again defeated the Jeffs. As with the previous meeting, Tonawanda was able to take advantage of Rochester miscues, scoring twice on turnovers. In the second quarter, Ziggy Hasbrouck caught a tipped Rochester pass and ran it twenty yards for the score. In the fourth quarter, Red Quigley fumbled a punt that was recovered by Tonawanda quarterback Frank Primeau, who picked up the ball and ran it in for the score and the 14-3 victory. The Jeffersons were 5-3-1 for the season and had two games against the Rochester Scalpers left on their schedule.

The second matchup between the Jeffs and Scalpers almost never happened. Several players were calling for a strike over wages paid to players from outside of Rochester. Jim Laird refused to suit up for the Jeffs and went to play for the Buffalo All-Americans. Red Quigley (team captain) did not show up for the game. An unknown player (some believe that the unknown player was Butch Clark, but research has not been able to confirm this rumor) tried to get the rest of the team to go out on strike. It was not until Bob Argus stood up and said, “There’s a big crowd out there waiting to see a football game, not a strike! And I’m going to go out there and play like hell!” before cooler heads prevailed and the game was played. Even with the absence of star players and the theatrics before the game, the Jeffs were still able to barely beat their long-time rival. The difference happened to be a failed extra point on the part of the Scalpers. The Jeffs were able to score in the second quarter on a Bob Argus run. The Scalpers answered in the final quarter, when Hunt took the ball over for the touchdown, however, Arnold missed the kick, preserving a narrow 7-6 victory for the Jeffersons. A rematch with the Scalpers was set for the following week.

As a result of the potential strike the previous week, it was agreed that players would only play the third and final matchup of 1920 between the Jeffs and Scalpers with players from Rochester. The Jeffs roster was decimated as most of their regular players were out. The game was ugly…the field was ugly…and neither team would come close to scoring and the game ended in a scoreless tie. With the way that the season played out, it was fitting. That was the last meeting between these two clubs, which ended a twelve-year rivalry.

That would also mark the end of the first year of the APFA. Even with their best efforts, the league was not able to stop the three things that forced them to create the Association in the first place: skyrocketing salaries, team jumping and the use of college undergraduates. In fact, it was as if the Association did not even exist. The end of the 1920 season still called for the formation of a pro football league, even by members of the Association!! Regardless, the APFA decided to continue and had a meeting on April 30, 1921. Thorpe and Cofall did not attend, so Art Ranney took charge. Other attendees included Joe Carr, Leo Conway (Union Athletic Association), George Halas, Ralph Hay, Lester Higgins (brother-in-law of Hay), Charles Lambert, Leo Lyons, Frank McNeil, Frank Nied, Chris O’Brien, Morgan O’Brien, Carl Storck and Doc Young.

First on the agenda was to vote for the “champion” of the association. Carr nominated the Akron Pros and it was approved. Akron was able to rack up an impressive unbeaten 8-0-3 record, playing tough opponents. This is what carried them to the “championship,” even though Decatur tied Akron (and thought that would be enough to get them the championship) and Buffalo tied Akron and beat Canton. Regardless, Akron won the championship based on the vote of the membership. Next would be the appointment of a new leader. After a short discussion, Joe Carr was elected the new Association president, replacing Jim Thorpe. Morgan O’Brien was elected vice-president and Carl Storck secretary-treasurer.

Making good on the promise from the previous meeting, members of the Association had until May 15th to submit a list of all players that played on their squad the previous season. These players were not allowed to be enticed into leaving until the club management released them from their contract. This was to address the team-jumping issue that plagued clubs of that era. Finally, the Association was taking a hard stand to clean up the sport.

Another point that needed to be addressed was players playing for more than one team in the same week. This hit home with Conway and McNeil, as both teams were guilty of this practice. McNeil’s Buffalo All-American players suited up for Conway’s Union team on Saturdays and then returned to Buffalo to play for the All-Americans on Sunday. This was pretty much overlooked up to this point, but the situation would boil toward the end of the 1921 season.

Another Association meeting occurred on June 18, 1921 at the Hollenden Hotel in Cleveland. The main purpose of this meeting was to start establishing schedules and to approve a new constitution (it looked like one was never written, as promised in the 1920 meetings). Leo Lyons never attended this meeting, but representatives from Akron, Buffalo Canton, Chicago, Columbus and Dayton all made the trip. There is no official record of Buffalo ever being admitted to the Association in 1920, but it was brought up at this meeting. Also attaining membership at this meeting was Cleveland, Detroit, Rock Island and Toledo. Even though Rock Island was a member in 1920, there seemed to be an issue with whether they were still members at the end of the 1920 season. It is unclear as to the exact reason, but the Independents played a team from Washington and Jefferson at the end of the season, a frowned-upon offense.

As if the first two meetings were not enough, a third meeting was held August 27, 1921 at the LaSalle Hotel in Chicago. Leo was able to make it to this meeting, which also included members of the Akron, Buffalo, Canton, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dayton, Decatur, Detroit, Evansville, Fort Wayne, Green Bay, Louisville, Minneapolis, Rock Island and Toledo squads. Coming out of this meeting was an agreement that any organization receiving a request to have a college player suit up for their team, must notify university officials. There are no records showing that any club followed through with this agreement. Also, Buffalo was officially admitted to the Association, along with Minneapolis, Evansville, Tonawanda and Green Bay. The Washington Senators and Brickley’s New York Giants were not admitted at this meeting, but were admitted before the beginning of the season.

09/10 New York Jets 1:00 pm
09/17 @ Carolina Panthers 1:00 pm
09/24 Denver Broncos 1:00 pm
10/01 @ Atlanta Falcons 1:00 pm
10/08 @ Cincinnati Bengals 1:00 pm
10/22 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1:00 pm
10/29 Oakland Raiders 1:00 pm
11/2 @ New York Jets 8:25 pm
11/12 New Orlean Saints 1:00 pm
11/19 @ San Diego Chargers 4:05 pm
11/26 @ Kansas City Chiefs 1:00 pm
12/3 New England Patriots 1:00 pm
12/10 Indianapolis Colts 1:00 pm
12/17 Miami Dolphins 1:00 pm
12/24 @ New England Patriots 1:00 pm
12/31 @ Miami Dolphins 1:00 pm

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