Sports

The objects of the NFL’s story

Imagine that: The National Football League has reached its 100th season. A small organization founded in an auto dealership showroom in northeast Ohio in 1920 is now a multibillion-dollar industry with a near-religious following. It dominates television screens around the nation. It is an every-month-of-the-year obsession. It implants moments in fans’ brains — permanent, indelible cultural touchstones. The NFL certainly has evolved during its 100-season history. These artifacts from the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s collection tell the story of that evolution. — Jacob Bogage

1920

Ironton Tanks uniform

The Tanks were an independent semipro team that played early NFL clubs. In the league’s earliest days, teams played schedules that often included unaffiliated opponents. The canvas strips on the chest and sleeves of the Tanks’ jerseys helped players carry the football and were adopted by many NFL teams, including the Chicago Bears.

1924

Cleveland Bulldogs championship trophy

The Bulldogs won their only NFL championship in 1924, one of their four seasons as an affiliated NFL franchise. Several early championships were won by long-forgotten clubs, including the Akron Pros, the Frankford Yellow Jackets and the Providence Steam Roller.

1925

Thanksgiving Day program

NFL football on Thanksgiving Day is a tradition that dates back nearly a century and continues today. The 1925 Thanksgiving Day game between the crosstown-rival Chicago Bears and Chicago Cardinals ended in a scoreless tie.

1930

Cleveland Skeletons helmet

This leather helmet worn by Chuck Culotta is an early example of an attempt at facial protection. It was also a stylistic choice: The Skeletons wore dark uniforms and helmets with a glow-in-the-dark skeletal design painted on to intimidate opponents. The full leather mask style failed to catch on with players, many of whom felt it was uncomfortable to wear.

1940

George McAfee’s cleats

McAfee, a Chicago Bears halfback and defensive back, played all over the field and debuted the use of low-cut cleats to increase his speed and agility. At 178 pounds, McAfee was small even for his era and was seeking an advantage against bigger opponents.

1940

Sammy Baugh’s contract

Baugh, a Washington Redskins quarterback, was one of the league’s earliest stars. He was such a celebrity, in fact, he signed a "personal services" contract with team owner George Preston Marshall. But Baugh still needed a separate contract to play in the NFL, so he signed one worth $1 per game to remain eligible.

1940

Sid Luckman’s uniform

Luckman, who played for the Chicago Bears, was considered the first great quarterback to run the T formation. The tight formation was a hallmark of George Halas’s Bears teams of the era. Chicago won three championships in a four-year span from 1940 to 1943.

1941

Pearl Harbor Day game program

NFL games were underway when Japan attacked an American naval base at Pearl Harbor to begin the United States’ participation in World War II. The public address announcer at the Polo Grounds in New York interrupted his commentary during the game to instruct servicemen to report to their units. The NFL never missed a season during the war, but players and teams were impacted deeply.

1952

Championship game press pass

This pass allowed a videographer onto the roof of Cleveland Municipal Stadium to record the action at the 1952 NFL championship game between the Detroit Lions and the Cleveland Browns. Ever-increasing television coverage in the years and decades to come helped grow the popularity of the sport across the country.

Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post

1952

Johnny Unitas’s college playbook

The future Baltimore Colts quarterback carried this playbook with him everywhere he went during his college days at the University of Louisville. Once he entered the NFL in 1956, he took quarterback play to another level. He passed for more than 40,000 yards in his career and won three NFL championships and a Super Bowl. The Colts’ win in the 1958 title game is widely referred to as “the greatest game ever played.”

Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post

1955

Sudden-death overtime game program

The organizer of a preseason game in Portland, Ore., received permission from the NFL to use sudden-death overtime rules. The Los Angeles Rams and New York Giants were tied at the end of regulation, and the Rams won, 23-17, in the first non-playoff game to end in sudden victory.

Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post

1958

Bobby Layne’s shoulder pads

The game was slow to open up offensively after the legalization of the forward pass in 1933, but Layne was unafraid to air it out. He guided the Detroit Lions to three NFL championships in the 1950s, and when he retired in 1962 he was the NFL’s all-time leader in passing attempts, completions, yards and touchdowns.

1958

Baltimore Colts marching band drum

The Colts’ band was founded in 1947 and used this bass drum until 1965. The band survived the Colts’ relocation to Indianapolis in 1984 and still exists to this day as Baltimore’s Marching Ravens.

1958

Weeb Ewbank’s film projector

Ewbank used this projector to study film of his team and its opponents. He coached the Baltimore Colts to consecutive NFL titles in 1958 and 1959 in an era of innovative coaches. Cleveland’s Paul Brown and Green Bay’s Vince Lombardi were among the other brilliant minds who changed the game and the way it was taught.

1968

Joe Namath’s knee brace

Namath, the New York Jets’ quarterback, wore a brace during the 1968 season to stave off knee injuries he suffered in college. Namath led the Jets to a stunning win over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III that season, establishing the legitimacy of American Football League franchises and moving that league toward a merger with the NFL in 1970.

1970

Tom Dempsey’s shoe

Dempsey used this shoe to make a then-NFL-record 63-yard field goal on Nov. 8, 1970. The New Orleans Saints kicker was born without toes on his right foot and wore a modified shoe with an enlarged surface to help kick the ball. Dempsey mastered the straight-toe kicking style that was standard at the time.

1970

Willie Lanier’s helmet

Lanier, nicknamed “Contact,” played linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs and had extra padding on the outside of his helmet to protect him while he hit opponents. It would be several more decades before players had a fuller understanding of the lasting impacts of head injuries.

1972

Immaculate Reception turf

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris saved the strip of turf from Three Rivers Stadium where he made his famous catch known as the “Immaculate Reception” in a playoff game against the Oakland Raiders. The iconic play launched a dynasty, and the Steelers won four Super Bowls by the end of the decade.

1982

Metrodome seat back

The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome opened as home of the Minnesota Vikings in 1982, part of an era of domed stadiums and artificial turf around the league. The Metrodome was demolished in 2014 to make way for an expensive state-of-the-art facility that is increasingly becoming the norm.

1988

Doug Williams’s helmet and jersey

Williams wore this jersey and helmet during Super Bowl XXII, in which the Washington Redskins defeated the Denver Broncos, 42-10. Williams was the first African American quarterback to start a Super Bowl and was named the game's most valuable player.

2000

Tom Brady’s draft card

The New England Patriots selected Brady, a little-known quarterback out of Michigan, in the sixth round of the 2000 draft with the 199th overall pick. The unheralded selection became New England's starter in 2001 and has led the Patriots to six Super Bowl titles.

2015

Cardinals-Chiefs flip card

Then-Arizona Cardinals assistant coach Jen Welter and line judge Sarah Thomas met during a preseason game on Aug. 15, 2015. Welter was the first female assistant coach in NFL history. Thomas was the first female official. The two signed the flip card that listed the teams’ rosters and officiating crew, celebrating a landmark for diversity.