This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 28, 2005, issue. Subscribe today!
AT THE END of the 1954 football season, Red Grange agreed to speak at a banquet near his hometown of Forksville, Pa. It had been 20 years since he'd hung up his cleats, but the Galloping Ghost was still very much the showman. As the audience of 200 took their seats, the Hall of Fame running back teased them by promising to talk about the greatest football team the game had ever known.
Assuming old Red was referring to his beloved Chicago Bears, the diners smiled and kept shoveling their grub. What they didn't know was that Grange had been offered $500 back in the 1920s to play a game down the road in Pottsville, then a thriving coal-mining town 90 miles northwest of Philadelphia. The Pottsville Maroons were a notorious bunch, having once so brutalized the boys from nearby Coaldale that angry locals shot up their train as it chugged out of town. The same Maroons had humiliated Curly Lambeau's mighty Green Bay Packers, 31-0. And on the first snap of the game against a team of barnstormers, Pottsville players welcomed Grange to coal country by knocking him cold. A few woozy runs later, they did it again. As one eyewitness put it, "When he comes to, he looks up at our boys. And you know what Red Grange said? 'The hell with the $500 -- it ain't worth it.' And he walked off the field."
That beating would haunt Grange for the rest of his days. His entire banquet speech turned out to be an homage to the team that time forgot. "The Pottsville Maroons were the most ferocious and most respected players I have ever faced," he began, to a chorus of dropped forks. "You know, I always believed the Maroons won the NFL championship in 1925 ... but were robbed of the honor."
Grange was merely adding his name to a list that, over the past 80 years, has included Bears founder George Halas, former Notre Dame quarterback Harry Stuhldreher (of Four Horsemen fame), current NFL owners Jeffrey Lurie (Eagles) and Dan Rooney (Steelers) and commissioner Paul Tagliabue. "When you talk about the birthplace of professional football," Rooney says, "you're talking about Pennsylvania, you're talking about the Maroons."
The team's legacy has been preserved like an heirloom by generations of long-suffering fans. Chief among them is 89-year-old Nick Barbetta, chairman of the Maroons Memorial Committee and one of the last surviving locals to see them play. He drove a Model T Ford back in the day; now he steers the campaign to return the 1925 title to Pottsville. "The Maroons were rugged sons-of-guns, but they were honorable men, too," Barbetta says. "We owe it to them to get back what the NFL stole from the team and this town."
Built by an eccentric, molded by a visionary and loaded with personalities, the Maroons became one of the most influential and controversial teams in NFL history. High salaries, territorial squabbles, obtuse rules and obsessed fans are nothing new -- Pottsville battled all that and more. And yet the smallest city ever to host an NFL game also gave us the league's first juggernaut, one that would put the fledgling pro sport on the map ... only to find itself coldly discarded by the very power structure it helped create.
BY 1925, John Striegel was a rotund 39, with jowls that spilled over his shirt collar and onto the lapels of his wool coat. In his prime he was one of the finest football centers Pottsville High had ever produced. But after a leg injury ended his athletic career at the University of Pennsylvania, Striegel earned a medical degree and returned home to join the staff of the Pottsville hospital as a surgeon.
Doc Striegel and his wife, Neva, were fixtures in town. From their two-story walk-up on steep East Norwegian Street, the couple had front-row seats as America's insatiable need for coal transformed Pottsville from hilltown to boomtown. Cradled in a muddy valley of Sharp Mountain and divided by the brown waters of the Schuylkill River, the city was dotted with monuments to newfound wealth. There was a 60-foot, cast-iron statue of statesman Henry Clay, a new railroad station and a four-story, red-brick Yuengling Brewery that stocked the town's 44 saloons. The Queen City of the Anthracite featured eight luxury hotels, several theaters and a $100,000 YMCA for its burgeoning population of 27,000.
From 1919 until 1924, Pottsville also supported a successful semipro football team that Striegel and other town leaders were eager to test in the young NFL. After securing nearly $5,000 in start-up cash, Doc paid a $500 franchise fee and a $1,200 guarantee to join the 20-team league in 1925. Then he rang up Joe Zacko, owner of Zacko's Sporting Goods.
"I need 25 new uniforms," Doc said.
"What color?" Joe asked.
"Color's not important."
Zacko sent over a box of burgundy jerseys. The Maroons were born.
For his head coach, Striegel hired Dick Rauch, a protege of Penn State disciplinarian Hugo Bezdek. The professorial Rauch spent his off-seasons writing poetry and working as an ornithologist, traveling as far west as the Yukon to study the nesting habits of birds. His football strategy was as avant garde as his tastes. He was one of the first coaches to rethink the single-wing, the popular offense in which the quarterback, fullback and halfback lined up in a diagonal stagger, allowing the center to snap the ball to any one of them. Rauch sometimes added another halfback, creating a four-man funnel formation that looked like an inverted wishbone.
The coach was also a pioneer of daily practice, requiring his players to stay in Pottsville during the season. They didn't mind. Striegel paid them between $100 and $250 a week -- more than local miners made in a month. The Maroons spent their days hanging around the fire house, drinking Yuengling, playing cards and tossing footballs in the street, always keeping an eye out for Mother Striegel. Doc's wife was a proud woman who knew "more football than three-fourths of the men" in town, wrote the Pottsville Republican, noting Neva's unofficial role as general manager, nurse and team shrink. "After Mother Striegel talks to a temperamental player, if he doesn't turn and fight like a real man, he'll never be a football player."
Doc's deep pockets meant there was never any shortage of tough guys, but one man among them stood out. Inside mountains, pressure over time can transform ordinary chunks of black rock into diamonds. Pottsville's gem was a mountain of a running back named Tony Latone. When his father died in 1910, leaving a wife and six children, 11-year-old Tony was forced into the mines to support his family. Over the next decade, apart from a two-year stint in the Navy, his world was a dank hollow where he pushed steel coal cars 10 hours a day as dust piled up like inky snowdrifts all around him. The boy emerged as a chiseled and fearless 200-pound man. Latone played three seasons with the Wilkes-Barre Panthers, running over the Maroons at every chance. When Doc signed him in 1924, Pottsville fans dubbed their new back the Human Howitzer.
Even in the ruthless frontier days of the NFL, Latone could make the game's roughnecks step back in fear simply by dropping his fist in the dirt. When he was down in position, his brow would bunch up, casting a sinister shadow over his eyes. His crouch was tightly coiled, freakishly close to the ground. Just before the snap, the heel of his right cleat would rise like a lit fuse, causing those around him to seal up their breath. "Latone was a hell broth of a rugged coal miner," Grange liked to say. "For my money, he was the most football player I have ever known."
Players in the 1920s were roughly the size of a modern-day cornerback, and most saw action on both sides of the ball. The typical game featured 100 pileups at the line of scrimmage, prompting critics to call the NFL's product "paid punting." Speed, strength and smarts were nice, but in those days the primary requirement of a player was the ability to absorb pain. Some stuffed old newspapers and magazines into their shirts and pants for extra protection, while others relied on more quaint precautions. Duke Osborn, Pottsville's best two-way lineman, spurned the new leather helmets for his lucky wool cap.
Striegel also managed to lure speedy West Point star Walter French and Penn State bulldozer Barney Wentz to town. Frank Bucher, a Detroit grad and perhaps the game's first special-teams gunner, signed on to play defensive end. Charlie Berry, the Maroons' captain, had been an All-America offensive end at Lafayette and was one of the league's best kickers. He led the NFL in scoring while moonlighting from his job as catcher with the Philadelphia Athletics. Berry helped recruit former Lafayette QB Jack Ernst, a larger-than-life presence who became known in Pottsville as The Bear. In college, Ernst liked to make the last pass of the game to Berry, who would then run off the field and into town, where the pair would barter the ball for beer. As pros, they perfected an early version of the screen pass. "We were unstoppable," Berry once recalled. "We ran that screen 17 times in a row [in a 34-0 win] against Providence."
Pottsville's combination of talent, strategy and preparation was like nothing the NFL had seen. The Maroons began the 1925 season 6-1, outscoring opponents 162-6. (They lost their first meeting with Providence when the Steamrollers recovered a botched snap and ran the ball in for a score.) Fans poured into Minersville Park, which seated 5,000 and often attracted 5,000 more. To avoid the 60-cent ticket price, many would sneak under the fence or pay 10 cents for a program and sit up in the foothills that cradled the field. Everyone came in their Sunday best: men in wool three-piece suits with derby hats, women in long petticoats.
During one game late in that season, Pottsville's Howard "Fungy" Lebengood sent a punt through the end zone and into the bleachers, where it struck a comely young local named Mary Jane Reed. Lebengood raced into the stands to check on her, and was instantly smitten. With the players waiting patiently, the two agreed to continue their chat after the game. They were married a few years later. "Every time the Maroons played, it was like a holiday in Pottsville," says John Lebengood, Howard and Mary's son. "These guys were folk heroes."
By December, the Maroons (9-2) and the Chicago Cardinals (9-1-1) stood alone atop the standings. Doc Striegel happily accepted Chicago's offer to host a game that was billed in newspapers across the country as the NFL championship. (The league didn't have an official title game until 1932.) Maroons fans who couldn't make the trip packed into Pottsville's Hippodrome Theatre, where attendants moved miniature cutouts back and forth across a giant screen, corresponding to the play-by-play coming over the wire from Comiskey Park.
The game-time temperature on Dec. 6 was 18, and a driving snowstorm had covered an already icy field, neutralizing Latone's line plunges. In the second quarter, Chicago wingback Bob Koehler advanced to the Pottsville 20, where he was driven hard by Osborn all the way into the Cardinals' dugout. A donnybrook ensued, and after the penalties were handed out, Chicago got the ball on the 6-yard line. As future Hall of Fame QB Paddy Driscoll took his place under center, the Maroons' defense dug in. First Berry, then Bucher, then Osborn, then the brother duo of Herb and Russ Stein crashed through the wall of bodies to keep the Cards out of the end zone. Chicago moved the ball inside the Pottsville 12-yard line four times that day, but came away with only one touchdown. Big Herb Stein intercepted three Driscoll passes. Ernst returned a punt 45 yards to set up the first of two touchdowns by Wentz. And French broke several long runs, including a 30-yard score.
"As far as the Chicago Cardinals are concerned, Pottsville is the champion of the league," wrote the Chicago Tribune. "In the face of a driving attack by the Eastern eleven, the Cardinals curled up and were smeared in the snow on the gridiron at Comiskey Park yesterday, 21 to 7."
The Maroons weren't expected back in town until 7:14 the following evening. By 6 p.m. the crowd had already swelled beyond the train platform and into the streets. Giddy fans holding that day's Philadelphia Ledger -- "POTTSVILLE WINS NATIONAL PRO TITLE" -- shot Roman candles into the crisp night air. Others danced to music provided by the 75-piece Third Brigade Band. Children climbed atop fire trucks, craning their necks for the first glimpse of their heroes. Shortly after 7 p.m., the team's train crossed the Schuylkill River, carved its way around a pass in Sharp Mountain and barreled into view. "The roar from that crowd was like nothing I have ever heard," Barbetta says. "The noise just seemed to bounce around the town."
Pottsville's reign as NFL champ would barely outlast that echo.
SIX DAYS later, his coffers empty from high salaries and travel costs, Doc Striegel attempted to cash in on his team's success with a game in Philadelphia's Shibe Park against a college all-star squad featuring the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame. The 10-0 Irish were the reigning college champs, and fliers promoted the contest as the "Greatest Football Game Ever Seen in the East."
But not everybody wanted to watch it. Shibe Park (later renamed Connie Mack Stadium) was within the home region of the NFL's Frankford Yellowjackets, who'd lost 49-0 at Pottsville on Nov. 29. Still stinging from defeat -- and the lost chance to get those Notre Dame gate receipts -- Frankford's owner, Shep Royle, protested to the NFL that the Maroons had violated his territory. And he found a sympathetic ear in commissioner Joe Carr, who warned Pottsville not to play.
From a marketing standpoint alone, Carr should have had the opposite reaction. The NFL's finances were in shambles, and newspapers dismissed the pro game as barbaric and disorganized. But Carr, a former reporter, had made a name for himself by trying to clean up that mercenary image. So he didn't budge when Striegel said it was too late to get out of his contract with the game's promoters -- never mind that Doc swore he'd gotten permission from one of Carr's righthand men. During halftime of the all-star game, the commissioner sent a telegram to Striegel telling him that the league was fining Pottsville $500 and suspending the team. But the real punishment was that the Maroons were now ineligible for the title they'd won in Chicago.
Undaunted by the news, Latone carved up the college kids for 139 yards and a touchdown. (Irish coach Knute Rockne later said his Four Horsemen looked like out-of-shape donkeys.) Trailing by a point with just seconds remaining, Berry lined up to attempt a 30-yard field goal. As the ball sailed end-over-end in a graceful arc, the crowd of 8,000 stood perfectly still, not quite believing what was about to happen. The kick split the uprights, giving Pottsville a 9-7 upset. The Maroons had turned the football establishment upside down. College ball was no longer king.
It was a watershed moment in the history of American sports. The NFL gobbled up the positive press, then turned its back on the pioneers who'd made it possible. With Carr branding the Maroons "outlaws," the league voted to give the title to Chicago, though owner Chris O'Brien refused to accept it. The 1925 NFL championship was never formally awarded. Pottsville would never recover. A week after the suspension, the city threw a banquet for its team, with more than 300 fans and dignitaries in attendance. The guests of honor ate roasted chicken, stuffing and ice cream while listening to telegrams of support from across the country. The Maroons were heartbroken but stoic. They trusted that history, if not the NFL, would judge them by their actions on the field. At the end of the evening, as they lined up to say farewell to their fans, they were still clutching the tiny gold footballs given to them by Joe Zacko and engraved with the words "1925 World Champions."
Their final act as a team, noted the Republican, was "a sort of sad parting at that."
THE NFL reinstated Pottsville in 1926, and the Maroons went 10-2-1 that season. But there was less buzz around the team -- many of the top players had moved on -- and Striegel's heart wasn't in it anymore. In 1928, he leased the club to three of his players, who moved the Maroons to Boston. A year later, they folded. Latone, who had made the jump north, finished his career in Providence. With 2,365 yards, he was the league's unofficial leading rusher of the 1920s; now he's little more than a ghost, an eight-line footnote haunting the pages of the NFL Encyclopedia.
For many of the Maroons, the 1925 season was the least of their accomplishments. Bucher became president of A&P foods. Jack Ernst was a lumber company executive in Williamsport, where he started a youth baseball program that was the precursor to Little League. Berry went on to become the dean of American League umpires. The Stein brothers used their football money to start a multimillion-dollar business in iron ore. Osborn was an executive with Chrysler. And coach Rauch explored the Arctic as a government ornithologist.
In 1962, Zacko spearheaded a citizens petition asking NFL owners for a vote to restore the 1925 title. Support rolled in from papers across the country. "The Maroons could very possibly have been the Green Bay Packers of the East were it not for the now infamous stolen championship," wrote the Wilkes-Barre Independent. Everyone seemed to be in Pottsville's corner, except the NFL. The Maroons lost the vote 12-2.
Every once in a while over the next three decades, the Maroons would get another nod. In 1985, Pottsville became the only city to earn the NFL's prestigious Gladiator statue, for contributions to the game. And in 1995, the Hall of Fame added a tribute to the Maroons as part of its 100 Years of Football exhibit. The centerpiece is a football carved from shiny black anthracite and etched with the following words: "Pottsville Maroons, NFL and World Champions 1925."
But as the millennium ended, that black ball appeared to be the only prize Pottsville would ever receive. Then, at the owners meetings in May 2003, came a sign that pressure over time might finally transform the city's lump of coal into a Lombardi Trophy. As Dan Rooney, Jeffrey Lurie, Pottsville mayor John Reiley and Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell waited to plead their case -- in Philadelphia, no less -- they came up with a remarkably simple compromise that received Paul Tagliabue's blessing: let the Maroons and Cardinals share the title. As Reiley remembers, "The commissioner turned to me and said, 'Mayor, when we get this championship for you, the four of us are coming to Pottsville to present it to you personally.' I thought for sure it was finally over."
The giant wood doors to the conference room swung open. Once again, after nearly eight decades, all that stood between the Maroons and an NFL crown was the Cardinals. This time, though, it wasn't a fair fight. The Cards have won only one other NFL championship, in 1947, and both Reiley and Rooney believe that drought has caused owner Bill Bidwill to tighten his grip on the 1925 title.
Although his franchise is something of a laughingstock, the 73-year-old Bidwill remains a power broker in the league's old-boys network. The Cardinals have been in his family since 1932, when his father, Charles Bidwill, became owner. (Little Bill was a ball boy for several years.) As a member of the three-man committee appointed to look into the controversy, Bidwill used his influence to squash the Maroons. When the owners gathered again in October 2003, they voted 30-2 against even discussing the issue -- a moratorium Bidwill has kept for this story. "It's not all that hard to argue against someone who's not there to tell their side," Rooney says. "It's not right."
As yet another consolation, the NFL announced plans to present Pottsville with the Daniel F. Reeves Pioneer Award at the 2004 Hall of Fame festivities. But the city wasn't interested in more runner-up trophies; the ceremony was canceled. "That award is a slap in the face, and it would be a disgrace to the players to accept it," says Barbetta, who founded the Maroons Memorial Committee in the mid-1970s. "If we take it, the NFL would think the matter is closed. It isn't."
The more the old man talks, the more his fist shakes. He is surrounded by Maroons memorabilia inside his Schuylkill Haven home, but that doesn't soothe him now. The deep creases that crisscross Barbetta's face fall still; there is a sadness in his silence, a hint of defeat. It's a brief but startling glimpse at the human toll this controversy has taken on the proud people of Pottsville.
The players are all gone now, he says. The coach, the owner, the fans gone. (Joseph "Duke" Marhefka, the last known surviving Maroon, died in 2003 at the age of 101.) There's a strip mall where Minersville Park used to stand. Berry's bronzed cleat from the Notre Dame game sits in a glass case just off the lobby of the Schuylkill County Historical Society, next to the Gladiator statue. When Zacko died in 1975, his son Russ picked up the fight. Now he's gone too, and their store is closed.
Over the past decade, Barbetta has stood by and watched as the team's players and supporters have passed away without realizing their dream: to get back the 1925 title. He suspects that the NFL's intention all along was simply to outlast them.
When Barbetta himself was struck by colon cancer at 68, he figured, "That's it, I'm a goner, and so are the Maroons." Weak and delirious from his treatment, he writhed in pain in his hospital bed for days, fixating on the stolen championship. Certain he was about to die, Barbetta found peace with the one untouchable, untainted, undisputed fact regarding his beloved team -- a truth that still sustains him more than 20 years later.
"We'll always have those six days between the Chicago and Notre Dame games," he says. "And for those six glorious days, no one can deny that the Pottsville Maroons were champions of the world."