SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The NFL draft wraps up today. BJ Leiderman who writes our theme music hasn't been selected yet. On this last day, the draft league is returning to its first field in the Mississippi River town of Rock Island, Ill. Benjamin Payne of member station WVIK reports.
BENJAMIN PAYNE, BYLINE: The first Super Bowl was in 1967 - the Green Bay Packers played the Kansas City Chiefs.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (As character) The Super Bowl is underway, and it is a short kick from Smith. Adderley at the six. Across the 10, running to his right...
PAYNE: But by then, the NFL was already nearly half a century old. It began in 1920 in this small town three hours west of Chicago, specifically here at Douglas Park - a 10-acre space with two baseball diamonds, one soccer pitch and no football fields. John Gripp is Rock Island's Parks director and is walking the perimeter of Douglas Park. He stops at what looks like a couple of castle turrets made of white brick.
JOHN GRIPP: This is where you would have purchased your ticket and entered into Douglas Park to the NFL football game that took place in 1920.
PAYNE: The first NFL game that is. On September 26, 1920, the Rock Island Independents blew out the St. Paul Ideals 48-0. It's hard to believe the hallowed ground is here in Rock Island - a town whose entire population of about 40,000 could fit into the Packers Lambeau Field and still leave 40,000 seats empty.
JASON AIKENS: Of all the NFL teams that played that year in 1920, Rock Island was the first.
PAYNE: That's Jason Aikens the head curator at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. He says the NFL launched in small town America because of pent up demand.
AIKENS: You know, I kind of trace it to these towns didn't really have a college allegiance. They had athletic clubs. These small towns had kind of a local flavor of competition to them, and that's kind of where professional football kind of grew up.
PAYNE: Even in these markets, revenue was scarce and payroll tight. Take the example of Rock Island Independents manager Walter Flanigan.
AIKENS: It's kind of funny. He left the team to sell insurance, you know? And what (laughter) what often happen is these guys didn't stay in pro football very long because it was too hard to make a living. People considered it as a hobby.
PAYNE: Chris Zimmerman (ph) likes to pretend to be one of those guys.
CHRIS ZIMMERMAN: So what you see is some of the jerseys that we have in here. The pants are really kind of shorter, but we wear the long socks. You have some leather helmets.
PAYNE: Zimmerman's a financial planner by day and a vintage football enthusiast by night.
ZIMMERMAN: When you're 53 years old, you can't run very fast. (Laughter) You can't throw. You're not very good at catching a ball. Yeah, they let me hike the ball, and I try not to get run over. But that's my specialty at this point.
PAYNE: Today, they're going to recreate that very first game at a special NFL draft event in Rock Island. Zimmerman will be playing center for the Ideals. Do you plan on losing 48-0?
ZIMMERMAN: (Laughter) Forty-eight to 0. No, I hope we have a little bit better team.
PAYNE: Back then, football was largely a running game, passing was rare. At the Hall of Fame, curator Jason Aikens says coaches played it safe back then.
AIKENS: Oftentimes if, you know - if you were backed up in your own end zone, you would punt on third down. It was very much more conservative.
PAYNE: That conservative style extended to defense. You didn't see the high-flying collisions of today's game that have led to traumatic head injuries and other problems. As for the fan base, a turnout of 5,000 fans was considered a big crowd. These days average stadium attendance is just under 70,000 as millions watch on TV. The staggering growth is something Chris Zimmerman is thinking about as he gets ready to take the field.
ZIMMERMAN: If you go back to 1920 and those players that were playing in Douglas Park at that time, if they had any idea what this was going to grow to 100 years later, the stadiums, the amount of money and marketing and television and - I don't think they could possibly imagine that their love of the game of, what they just like to do was every going to grow into anything this huge.
PAYNE: The Rock Island Independents folded in 1927, but Douglas Park's legacy as the league's old stomping ground remains.
For NPR News, I'm Benjamin Payne in Rock Island, Ill. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.