Two books about the early days of football right here in Pennsylvania help provide sense of historical perspective. | Left Field | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Two books about the early days of football right here in Pennsylvania help provide sense of historical perspective.

Sports have been a part of history ever since cavemen started clunking one another on the head and other cavemen stood around cheering. But you don't have to look back that far to get a sense of historical perspective. Two books about the history of football right here in Pennsylvania do that quite nicely.

Sally Jenkins writes beautifully about a forgotten and painful era of American history in The Real All-Americans, which chronicles the Carlisle Indians football team.

The players were students of Carlisle Academy, founded by U.S. soldier Richard Henry Pratt, who sought to assimilate Native Americans by teaching them "the white man's ways." From tribes all over the nation, students left their families to come to Carlisle, in Eastern Pennsylvania. They experienced mixed success -- except the football team.

In a cauldron of westward expansion, fear-mongering and hatred of Native Americans, the Carlisle football team changed perceptions, at least some of the time. From their debut at New York's Polo Grounds on Thanksgiving Day, 1895 to the team's demise in 1915, the players were aware that it was red man versus white man. They were a sideshow draw for Eastern spectators, many of whom had never seen a real live Indian before. Thus, it was as important to play the game with dignity as it was to win. Which they did very often.

The Carlisle story is important for many reasons, not the least of which is to correct the commonly held misconception that Notre Dame pioneered the forward pass. Rather, it was Carlisle, coached by the recklessly inventive Pop Warner, who went on to great success at Pitt, but who remembered his days at Carlisle as his best. The Indians shocked opponents all through the Ivies by throwing long passes long before Knute Rockne came to South Bend. As Jenkins writes, "The Indians' contributions to the game were original, and the game belonged to them as much as anyone."

Despite the challenges of the time -- like blatant racism and battles for funding -- there were many success stories at Carlisle. Albert Exendine, for example, is unknown to most of us today, but he was one of the most reliable and explosive players of his era. Following his Carlisle education, he earned his law degree and spent much of his life insuring that Indians didn't get swindled.

But Carlisle's best-known success story, of course, is Jim Thorpe: Olympian and the rock upon which the Football Hall of Fame is built. He picked up a football as one of the scrawny new kids at Carlisle and became the greatest athlete of his time. Thorpe led Carlisle through several seasons, with his greatest moment as a football player coming in one of the most stunning upsets in college football: Carlisle's 1912 defeat of the West Point Cadets.

Last Team Standing is Matthew Algeo's history of the Steagles, the World War II love child of Steelers owners Art Rooney and Bert Bell, and Eagles owner Lex Thompson. War shortages were everywhere, even football: Rooney had only six players under contract at the time. The merger enabled both franchises to field a team in 1943.

Readers are walked through the machinations known as "The Pennsylvania Polka," wherein the Chief sold the franchise to Thompson, who intended to move the lovable losers to Boston. That move was quashed by the bombastic Redskins owner, George Preston Marshall. So -- see if you can keep pace here -- Rooney and Bell co-owned the Eagles for a season, after which they swapped franchises with Thompson, bringing Rooney back to Pittsburgh.

But for 1943, it was one state, one team, two coaches. Rooney chose disciplinarian Walt Keisling, who didn't care for the Eagles' choice, Greasy Neale: Keisling considered the T formation -- which Neil was mastering as his main offensive set -- to be nancy-pants trickery. Later, the Steelers went back to the archaic single wing and used it until 1952: the last team in the league to abandon it. Then as now, the wheels of change turn slowly in Pittsburgh.

Mostly Last Team Standing is a homage to the Steagles players, like 5' 10" quarterback Allie Sherman, and nine-year vet Vic Sears, a man who clearly understood his times when he said, "We weren't Eagles. We weren't Steelers. We were Steagles."

Jenkins and Algeo tell both stories so that they are more American history than sports history. Next time somebody tells you sports aren't important, give them a copy of one of these.

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