You may have heard that our man Rick Reilly wrote a movie about the early days of professional football. Leatherheads, starring George Clooney and Renee Zellweger, was recently released on DVD, allowing viewers to relive the days when pro football took a backseat to the college game, and players ran onto the field in little more than sweaters and thin leather caps.
The film is a work of fiction, but it is closely modeled on the true-life story of Hall of Fame legend Red Grange, the Illinois halfback who brought star power to the NFL in 1925. A then-record 36,000 spectators showed up on Thanksgiving that year to see the local legend suit up to help the Chicago Bears play their intracity rivals the Cardinals to a scoreless tie at Wrigley Field. Despite the lackluster result, pro football was never the same again
While college and pro football have outstripped baseball in terms of nationwide popularity, for some reason, probably depth of history, memorabilia from the tough-guy game still ranks a distant second to signed bats and balls. Vintage sports collector Kevin Johnson started Sports Artifacts with baseball in mind, but soon found that gridiron relics generated a more intimate brand of nostalgia for his customers. "People are personally close to the college football scene," he says. "They went to games, knew somebody who played, or played the game themselves." For some buyers, collegiate football memorabilia provides a direct link to that handful of halcyon years between parental control and adult responsibility.
Johnson sees two types of football collectors. The first kind buys anything to do with one team—ticket stubs, uniforms, programs and pennants. The second type collects vintage gear from the early 20th century in appreciation of its historical value. "I have a hard time keeping vintage leather football helmets in stock; high top leather cleats or uniforms," says Johnson. "Vintage college football programs and pennants always do well."
Will we ever revere these reminders of football's past the way we do baseball memorabilia? Grange only played three years in the NFL, so his actual rushing numbers do not fully explain the awe that accompanies the mention of his name. The true power of football was not realized until television technology made it possible for fans at home to follow every play. Even then, stars had to be so incandescently talented that their individuality would shine through helmets and pads.
Regardless of football's slow path to top status amongst American sports, there is still a very real mystique to vintage football equipment. It is a direct reminder of the anonymous toughness of players who expected to play every down of offense and defense; of muddy fields without cheerleaders or Gatorade buckets. Football was a mess back then … wasn't it great?
Football memorabilia up for sale:
1920s Princeton Letterman's Sweater: Try to avoid the holding penalty when your opponent is wearing this baby. The open weave seems made to snag a lineman's fingers.
1947 Carl Fennema U. of Washington Sweater: Former Husky and New York Giant Fennema probably wore this cardigan to a sock hop where he gave his sweetheart a fraternity pin to signal that they were going steady. The vintage cardigan is immaculate.
1930s Football Helmet: The fact that this is a youth-sized helmet borders on child abuse. Fortunately, the pee-wees don't hit like Ed Reed.
Pennants: Ranging all the way from 1910 to 1982—each holds its own unique echoes.
Replica 1948 Harvard Football Jersey: If you just want the look without the mothball smell, this one's for you.
Turn of the Century Football Helmets: This page is a veritable gallery of widowmakers. It's incredible how little leather these guys put between themselves and permanent brain damage.
1944 UW vs. Texas Rose Bowl Pennant: The Huskies lost 29-0 in the game, so this item might be more fun for Longhorns fans.
1976 NFL Jelly Jars: As kids, we used to put way too much jelly on our peanut butter sandwiches, just so we could empty these out quickly and start drinking milk out of them.
Seen anything interesting to bid on? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.