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Pudge Heffelfinger becomes first pro football player

On November 12, 1892, William “Pudge” Heffelfinger becomes the first professional football player when Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Athletic Association pays him $500 to play as a ringer in a game against its rival Pittsburgh Athletic Club. Before Heffelfinger, players had traded their services on the field for expense money, “double expenses,” or trinkets that players could pawn back to the team–but no one had ever openly accepted a cash payment to play football. (Baseball, on the other hand, had been frankly professional for almost 25 years.) For his part, Heffelfinger never acknowledged that he’d taken the payment. He went on to become a prominent insurance executive and congressman from Minnesota.

The AAA and PAC football teams, bitter rivals and sworn enemies, had played one another the month before. In that game, the star of the PAC team had been a mysterious young man who called himself “Stayer.” Team officials swore he was just a neighborhood kid who’d never played football before, but he turned out to be A.C. Read, the captain of the Penn State team. The AAA was livid and, though it had managed to play to a 6-6 draw, demanded a rematch. The PAC agreed, since its team manager had his eye on an even more promising ringer: Pudge Heffelfinger, who’d been a football star at Yale and was currently on leave from his job in an Omaha railroad office to play (in exchange for “expenses,” no doubt) for the fabled Chicago Athletic Association team. The PAC offered Heffelfinger and his teammate Knowlton “Snake” Ames $250 apiece to play for their team. At the end of October, the Pittsburgh Press helpfully printed an account of these negotiations; shortly afterward, the AAA contacted Heffelfinger and offered to double his pay if he’d play for their team instead. He agreed, but didn’t tell the PAC officials about it–and, consequently, they didn’t find out that they’d lost their ringer until he showed up at the field in an AAA uniform. (Meanwhile, Ames refused to play for any price; he didn’t want to jeopardize his amateur status.)

The PAC team was furious, as were its fans; the AAA was smug, and its fans were delighted. The PACers stormed off the field and refused to play until AAA agreed that the game wouldn’t count. For good measure, all bets were off–which appeased the PAC’s partisans but infuriated the people who’d were hoping to get rich on Heffelfinger’s team. In the end, Pudge turned out to be worth his paycheck: He scored the only touchdown of the game and the AAA team won in a shutout.

For the next week’s game, the AAA paid Ben “Sport” Donnelly (one of Pudge’s Chicago teammates) $250 to play for its team. The next year, team managers signed season-long, $50-a-week contracts with the young ringers James Van Cleve, Oliver Rafferty and Peter Wright. In 1896, the AAA went broke, but the model they’d pioneered survived.

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