Football and WWI

Learn About the Game During the WWI Era
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Black and white action shot of a group of North American football players mid-play.

Football was originally created in mid-19th century, but it was undergoing rapid changes and increasing public awareness in the years leading up to World War I, becoming a popular sport on college campuses. The first Army-Navy football game was played in 1890. By 1917, when the United States entered WWI, football had been played by many of the young men entering military training camps around the U.S.

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Black and white action shot of a group of North American football players mid-play, with spectators in the stands behind them.
Football game, image by O.I.C Photographic Detachment, Hazelhurst Field, Long Island, New York. Learn more in the Online Collections Database.

Sports, including football, had an important role in preparing U.S. soldiers for combat in World War I. Competitive team sports were used in training camps to get soldiers physically fit and ready for the rigors of life on the battlefield, as well as a leisure-time activity.

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Black and white photograph of an informal North American football game in an empty field. The players all wear military uniforms and hats.
Postcard of men at Camp Mac Arthur in Waco, Texas playing football, circa 1918. Learn more in the Online Collections Database.

 

“In the history of American football, 1919 will always stand out as a memorable year, one of remarkable achievements, and of splendid promise for the future…”

— from The New York Times, Nov. 23, 1919

 

The National Football League that exists today was founded in 1920 in response to a bidding war for players for professional teams, which some historians trace to a shortage of eligible men due to recent WWI military service. As soldiers returned from the war, interest in football skyrocketed. According to historian Chris Serb, in his book War Football: World War I and the Birth of the NFL, “More than 240 war football alumni, including seven Hall-of-Famers, would fill the NFL’s rosters during its early years, paving the way for the professional game’s survival and ultimate success.”

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Black and white photograph of a scrimmage line in a North American football game.
Photograph of Interdivision football by the U.S. Army Signal Corps, circa 1918-1919. Learn more in the Online Collections Database.

 


 

Sgt. Stubby: War Hero and Football Mascot

Did you know? Sergeant Stubby, the decorated military dog and mascot of the 102nd Infantry Regiment, also served as one of the earliest football mascots! After the war, his owner, Corporal J. Robert Conroy, attended Georgetown University and Stubby became the Georgetown Hoyas’ mascot in the early 1920s.

Kansas City's Football History

The National WWI Museum and Memorial also has its connections to football history, serving as host to the parade rally when the Kansas City Chiefs won Super Bowl IV in 1970. The event was documented in the Kansas City Times (the then-morning edition of the Kansas City Star).

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Scan of the front page of The Kansas City Times. Headline: Jubilant on Top of Football World. Photograph: Large crowd gathered in the area outside the Liberty Memorial. Many are holding signs.
Crowds at the Museum and Memorial, from the Jan. 13, 1970 issue of the Kansas City Times.

The grounds of the Museum and Memorial were also used to host the crowd during the parade rally for the Chiefs Super Bowl LIV win in 2020.

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Aerial photograph of the North Lawn of the Liberty Memorial. An enormous crowd fills the space all dressed in red.
Crowd at the Feb. 5, 2020 Chiefs Rally, photograph by Dan Videtich.

Want to learn more about Football and WWI?

Read this article by our Senior Curator Doran Cart