Hard-nosed and hard-hittin’, New Britain has long been a factory town that loves its football. It couldn’t be any other way in the birthplace of Walter Camp, Yale man and father of American football.
The high school team receives the most attention, and its legacy defines Willow Brook Park. But the city park’s history includes another remarkable footnote — it played host to the New York Giants’ inaugural game on Oct. 4, 1925. Yes, the NFL blue blood that plays in front of a packed stadium of more than 80,000 diehards, the franchise peppered with legends such as Lawrence Taylor, Michael Strahan, Frank Gifford and Stamford’s Andy Robustelli, the team with four Super Bowl championships, had its professional beginnings on a field in New Britain.
This month, the National Football League kicks off its 99th season, with its primetime matchups routinely the most-watched events on television. But in 1925 the NFL wasn’t an entertainment behemoth; it was an afterthought compared to college football and a struggling startup like any other. The New York Giants were just another team, not the venerable franchise of today, but big-city exposure was key to the NFL’s future. The man who gambled on the venture was a bookmaker (a lawful occupation at the time) named Tim Mara. He paid just $500 to create the New York Giants, an amount equivalent to about $7,000 today. Measure that against the $700 million expansion fee Houston Texans owner Bob McNair paid to join the NFL in 2002.
Mara and the Giants — legally known as the New York Football Giants to distinguish themselves from the New York Giants baseball team — arrived on the scene as part of a 20-team league in 1925 when franchises were scattered throughout middle America and the East in places like Pottsville, Pennsylvania; Rock Island, Illinois; Duluth, Minnesota; and Hammond, Indiana. And in those rag-tag early days, it wasn’t surprising when teams went belly-up in the middle of the season.
The New York Giants played their first legitimate game in New Britain, and are the fourth-ol…
The NFL was fighting a public relations battle and franchise owners were losing at the gates. Many considered professional football an ignoble pursuit in the 1920s, filled with bloodthirsty mercenaries and mindless violence (sound familiar?). Somehow there was more glory and prestige in the college game, and when players graduated they were expected to become teachers and professors, coaches of amateur teams, or men of industry — not pro football players.
But Mara believed in the NFL’s potential and New York fans’ ability to deliver a healthy return on his investment. That required a winning team, which he created immediately.
Head coach Bob Folwell, a successful college coach in the East, oversaw the Giants’ numerous stars, including former All-Americans Century Milstead (Yale), Rhett Bomar (Vanderbilt), Art Carney (Navy), Bob Nash (Rutgers) and Joe Alexander (Syracuse).
The Giants’ most famous player on the field was the estimable Jim Thorpe, considered one of the finest athletes in sports history as a college football All-American, professional football player, Olympic decathlete and pentathlete, and professional baseball player. Though past his prime at 37 years old in 1925, Thorpe still garnered attention and contributed to victories. He split the 1925 season between the Giants and the NFL’s Rock Island Independents, and then played another three seasons of pro football.
All-New Britain invested in its football team, too. Owner Edward J. Dailey hired famous former Yale halfback Raymond “Ducky” Pond as head coach and employed notable local athletes Henry “Zip” Zehrer, captain of New Britain High School’s 1924 state championship team, and Tracy “Shifty” Swem and Red O’Neil from Connecticut Agricultural College (former name of the University of Connecticut).
Pond’s relationship with Milstead as former Yale teammates played a key role in the Giants traveling up to New Britain for the 2:30 p.m. game and ensured many Yale alumni and fans would be in attendance.
The week prior, the Giants played in New Jersey against the Newark Red Jackets, a team cobbled together at the last minute that disbanded after what amounted to a glorified scrimmage. NFL historians mark that game as an exhibition contest, as they do the game against All-New Britain because New Britain wasn’t in the NFL.
But All-New Britain regularly played a full schedule during the 1920s and competed against NFL franchises in Frankford, Pennsylvania, and Providence while maintaining a fierce rivalry with the Hartford Blues, who became NFL members for one season in 1926. NFL Commissioner Joseph Carr blurred these league/non-league lines further when he named a player from a non-NFL team to the 1925 NFL All-Star Team.
All-New Britain was the first legitimate team the Giants played, making New Britain’s Willow Brook Park the site of the Giants’ first legitimate game.
The New Britain Herald announced the Giants’ arrival: “New York’s first league eleven will be a revelation to New Britain fans with its striking blue and red uniforms, hooded sweaters and huge numerals that can be seen for a block.”
The Giants had been training at the Polo Grounds under floodlights at night after the players got off work from their day jobs. The team arrived in New Britain at 8 a.m. Sunday with 20 players, four club officials and one game official. They ate a pregame meal at the Hotel Burritt and dressed for the game at the Knights of Columbus on Franklin Square before heading to Willow Brook Park.
Game-day temperatures offered ideal autumn weather in New England, and the Giants came out playing sharp football.
Thorpe kicked off to start the game, and All-New Britain used several short passes to move near midfield. But the team attempted one too many. New York’s Jack McBride intercepted a pass and ran it back for a touchdown and Dutch Hendrian kicked the extra point for a 7-0 lead. All-New Britain continued to push and consistently gained first downs against New York’s defense, but fumbles stymied scoring opportunities.
In the second quarter, the teams traded punts — with Thorpe kicking for the Giants — and New York ended up with the ball deep in New Britain territory after a penalty against the hosts. With the ball five yards from the end zone, Thorpe got the call and blasted through for a touchdown from his halfback position.
When Hinkey Haines returned a punt 57 yards for another touchdown, the Giants took a 20-0 lead into halftime. Thorpe didn’t play in the second half, and the last two quarters were quiet, save for Paul Jappe’s 35-yard touchdown catch from New Britain native Tommy Myers to cap New York’s scoring. (Myers, a halfback and quarterback at Fordham, played two NFL seasons, for the Giants in 1925 and the Brooklyn Lions in their only season in 1926.)
With a 26-0 win in hand, the Giants started making plans for the following week’s game in Providence.
“NEW YORK GIANTS SWAMP LOCAL TEAM,” the Herald declared before noting the admirable effort All-New Britain gave.
The New York Times wedged its game report deep inside the sports section among stories of amateur tennis matches, horse racing in Paris and an international chess tournament. Pro football struggled for attention in New York City. When the Giants played their first home game later in October, Mara gave away 5,000 tickets to boost attendance and generate enthusiasm.
But that changed with Red Grange, the college phenom turned Chicago Bear who drew massive crowds and legitimized the NFL during his 1925 rookie season. His appearance at the Polo Grounds in December drew more than 70,000 fans, the largest crowd to see an NFL game at the time, and provided enough gate receipts to save the nearly bankrupt New York Giants, who finished 8-4 in their first NFL season.
Only two years later, in 1927, the Giants would win the first of their eight league championships.
How many people in Connecticut witnessed the Giants’ historic first game? New Britain’s newspaper reported about 3,000 — which today’s Giants attract for training camp practices — while other news outlets, including The New York Times, claimed 10,000.
The New York Giants are now a proud NFL franchise with legions of fans who wait decades for the opportunity to become season-ticket holders in the sea of a sold-out crowd. But there was a time when they were grateful for crowds of any size, including the few thousand people who showed up at Willow Brook Park.