Author: Dan Daly

Publisher: University of Nebraska Press

ISBN: 9780803243439

As of this writing, the first full Sunday of NFL activity is just a few hours away. Very shortly, stadiums across the United States will be filled with deliriously dedicated fans, bedecked in league-licensed jerseys and cheering replays on the Jumbotron screens that have turned the game into an ear-splitting multi-media spectacle. Millions across the world will be watching on their own big screens, some wired to satellites that will bring in dozens of games within the space of a few hours. I daresay the game-day experience would be almost unrecognizable to Bugs Avery.

Who’s Bugs Avery? Bugs was a key figure in the operation of the scoreboard for the Staten Island Stapletons, a professional football team founded in 1915. Here’s how Dan Daly, author of The National Forgotten League, details Avery’s contribution:

Bugs Avery, a local mailman, would position himself along the sideline wherever the action was. As soon as the play was over, Bugs would signal by either tapping his head or chest or otherwise wigwagging. The man running the scoreboard would then post the information by hanging up numbers. There was also a scoreboard clock that was operated by moving the hands on the clock face. Fans didn’t pay much attention to it, though, because it was so unreliable….”

Can you imagine? Perhaps even more incredible, when the Stapletons entered the NFL in the late 1920’s, season tickets were $3. Now, that won’t even buy you a hot dog.

The NFL has become a remarkably well-oiled profit-making machine, and the marketing of the league has been one of the great success stories not only in the world of sport but in the entire U.S. economy. And though the game is still beloved by millions – and I count myself among that number – Daly’s book makes it irrefutably obvious that the NFL used to be a lot more entertaining – because it was a lot less predictable. The period of time that his book focuses on -- the 1920s through the next three decades -- was the incubation phase of America’s Game, a time when TV revenues were still a distant dream and forward passes were a rarity. In fact, in 1920, the league’s inaugural year, there were only 19 touchdown passes all season! (There will have been far more during just the first week of the season this year.)

But more compelling than the innovations that came and went – the flying wedge, the quick kick, the T formation – were the people who played and coached the game. Daly’s book is a reminder that football once attracted some bizarre, colorful, and endearingly eccentric characters. Players weren’t “handled” by agents and PR reps as they are today. As a result, the game had a dynamism and energy absent from today’s scripted and benign sports landscape. And the architects of the game, people like George Halas and Curly Lambeau, didn’t give a hoot regarding whether they had high TV favorables.

In a refreshingly non-academic-sounding “Preface,” Daly tells his readers to think of his book as a “scrapbook,” rather than a traditional narrative. That’s exactly right. The stories, trivia, factoids, charts, anecdotes, and observations flow freely. Though organized by decade, the book has an avuncular, rambling style that should make it appealing to all lovers of the spontaneity of sport. Almost every page features some noteworthy fact, amusing story, or genuinely useful piece of insider knowledge about the game so many people feel so strongly about.

I think even non-football fans would enjoy this glimpse into a storied past that is filled with the quirky and nascent machinations of today’s star-making sports zeitgeist. For people who know nothing about the NFL’s past – I thought I had a pretty good grasp of the game’s roots but almost everything in this book was new to me -- Daly’s book is a painless primer on the good ol’ days, when you didn’t get a concussion but rather you had your “bell rung,” and scoreboards didn’t shoot fireworks into the night sky.

In fact, they didn’t do anything until the mailman tapped his head.

Follow Here To Purchase The National Forgotten League: Entertaining Stories and Observations from Pro Football's First Fifty Years