clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Roll ‘Bama Roll Reading Room: ‘Gridiron Legacy’ is the missing link to pro football’s forgotten past

Sporting historians and pro football fans will be engrossed by this encyclopedic tome

Engrossing. Engaging. Meticulous. Impassioned.

Those are among the many adjectives you could use to describe Gregg Ficery’s magnum opus, “Gridiron Legacy: Pro Football’s Missing Origin Story.”

But, perhaps the one I would lean into is “authoritative.”

This hardbound coffee table tome comes in at a weighty 350 pages and almost five pounds of an unadulterated, century-old history that fills in the gaps of professional football’s forgotten origins.

By tracing his family connections, Ficery follows the sport’s professionalization across a three-decade journey that takes us from the diamond to smoke-filled bookie backrooms to courtrooms and the collegiate gridiron — and then to the hard scrabble, working class immigrant neighborhoods of Pittsburgh, and before ultimately landing in the sport’s Mecca: Ohio.

Sumptuously illustrated, meticulously edited, painstakingly documented, this work is the ultimate authority on those early days of professional football. The steel town rivalries; the ethnic and sectarian mistrust in places like Akron, Massillon, Canton, Dayton, Toledo, Miami; the local beat Coppers who became Massilon’s first pro team; the impact of Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School powerhouse; the Cradle of Coaches that began early by attracting top talent from across the country; the betting scandal and fixers that almost upended its championships — it’s all in here.

But really, it is the documentation and testimonials from family members that give Gridiron Legacy equal parts weight and humanity. I could (and did) spend hours just poring over those old handbills, depositions, photographs, programs, posters, advertisements. And I was taken back to a different world — with all of the pathos and triumphs, petty slights and high stake grudges — as all the best histories enable.

Is this book for everyone? Absolutely not. It’s for diehard fans and amateur sleuths; it’s for those who want a cerebral centerpiece to their sports literature collection. And above all, it’s for those who are truly passionate about the history of the sport, and how America’s history — particularly in the Rust Belt — is not complete without telling the story of America’s game. Football is ours: a uniquely and distinctively American experience. And these working class cities of Ohio at the turn of the 20th century were the pages upon which its history was written.

Gridiron Legacy doesn’t attempt to document that history, so much as it lets us take a peek behind the curtain of American life and the centrality of football to a very particularized experience.

If you’re that kind of reader or collector, then this is right up your alley.

Gridiron Legacy is available at all major book retailers (ISBN 611883709 Story Plant Publishers, Aug 15 2023).