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The Gipper

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This article appeared in today's Akron Beacon Journal. Northeast Ohio's first NFL title trophy is missing:



Is it locked up in a musty trunk in the attic? Is it forgotten on a dusty shelf in the cellar?


Come on, Akron.


Try to remember.


Where did you last see it?


An important piece of sports history could be lurking somewhere in Summit County.




The long-lost Brunswick-Balke-Collender Cup, a Holy Grail in pro football memorabilia, was awarded 90 years ago in Akron during the spring meeting of the American Professional Football Association.


Team managers from a dozen U.S. cities gathered April 30, 1921, at the Portage Hotel at Main and Market streets to take care of unfinished business from the league's debut season in 1920 and to suggest improvements for the game.


It took audacity to meet during baseball season, stealing headlines from the ''Great American Pastime,'' but these football backers believed they had something special. They organized the league the previous Sept. 17 during a meeting in Canton at the Ralph Hay Hupmobile dealership at Cleveland Avenue and Second Street Southwest.


Attending were representatives from the Canton Bulldogs, Chicago Cardinals, Cleveland Indians, Dayton Triangles, Decatur Staleys, Hammond Pros, Massillon Tigers, Muncie Flyers, Rock Island Independents and Rochester Jeffersons.


Oh, yes, the Akron Pros were there, too.


Akron's football team, which had been known as the Indians since 1908, changed its name to the Pros after co-owners Frank Nied and Art Ranney took control in 1920.


The team played at Akron's League Park, which Nied's father, Lew, had laid

out in 1906 at Carroll and Beaver streets.


Coached by Elgie Tobin, the leather-helmeted Pros featured standouts such as Al Nesser, Rip King, Nasty Nash, Charlie Copley, Pike Johnson, Tuffy Conn, Russ Bailey and Alf Cobb.


Akron's star was future hall of famer Fritz Pollard, the first black quarterback and coach in professional football.


The Pros took the American Professional Football Association by storm, outscoring their opponents 151-7 while compiling an undefeated record of eight wins and three ties in 1920. Most impressively, the Akron Pros recorded 10-0 and 7-0 victories over the Canton Bulldogs, whose player-coach, Jim Thorpe, was the league's first president.


When the season ended, though, no champion was crowned. League organizers hadn't thought that far ahead. Voting on a title was part of the unfinished business at the 1921 meeting in the Portage Hotel.


First, there were other matters to address.


Team representatives elected Joe Carr of the Columbus Panhandles as president, Morgan P. O'Brien of the Decatur Staleys as vice president and Carl Storck of the Dayton Triangles as secretary-treasurer.


Next up were a few changes in regulations.


''A stringent rule regarding the eligibility of college players was made which will bar any team from the association playing college men who have not completed their college course and are still in school,'' the Akron Evening Times reported May 2, 1921. ''Any team found guilty of violating this rule will be 'kicked' out of the association and the other teams will refuse to play said team.''


The teams adopted ''ironclad rules'' prohibiting players ''from jumping from one team to another,'' and pledged ''to reduce the salaries of players.''


Finally, the representatives voted on which team should win the league's first title. The Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co., a sporting goods manufacturer in Cincinnati, furnished a trophy for the victor.


Although the Buffalo All-Americans and Decatur Staleys made a case for the award, the honor went to the Akron Pros.


Former Penn State star Timmy Bryant presented the trophy to the Pros' Nied and Ranney.


''The Akron professional team was officially awarded the world's championship which was won last fall,'' the Evening Times reported. ''A silver loving cup, emblematic of the world's championship donated by the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co., was also presented to the local team.''


The Pros didn't officially celebrate until the fall season.


In October, the Elks Club of Akron sponsored ''a grand homecoming celebration for the world's champions'' and invited the Pros to a banquet in the hall at Exchange and Main streets. Well, most of them were invited.


African-American players Pollard and Paul Robeson, the future singing star, were saluted at a separate banquet by the Akron Merchants Association of Colored Business Men.


''Today Akron's fan population seemed thoroughly aroused to the fact that they have a championship team, shall we say unbeatable?'' the Beacon Journal reported. ''To all intent and purposes, the fans seem determined to show their appreciation to the players and the team that is winning fame and is advertising the city.''


Alas, the 1921 season ended poorly for Akron. The Pros mustered only a third-place finish. The Staleys, soon to move to Chicago and be renamed the Bears, were voted world champions in January 1922.


Later that year, the American Professional Football Association changed its name to the National Football League.


So what happened to the first championship trophy in NFL history? We can only guess.


Established as a revolving award, the Brunswick cup wasn't intended to become permanent property until a team won three titles. However, the cup was discontinued after the Pros received it, and long forgotten by the time the team folded in 1926.


Co-owner Ranney (1889-1970), who lived on Bailey Road in Cuyahoga Falls, ran for public office in the 1930s. He was city engineer in Cuyahoga Falls and Kent, and was elected Summit County engineer. Ranney retired to Florida in 1953, where he died in Daytona at age 81.


Co-owner Nied (1894-1955), who lived on South College Street, operated a cigar store in the six-story Hamilton Building at Main and Mill streets. It was a gathering place for athletes and fans, and filled with sports memorabilia and photos.


The building was demolished in 1929 to make room for the 28-story building now known as FirstMerit Tower. Nied reopened the cigar store in the new building, but closed out his interests in 1947, selling to drugstore owner William J. Balaun.


Nied retired to St. Petersburg, Fla., where he died at age 61.


Did either man keep the trophy? Sell it? Throw it away?


We might never know.


Aside from its description as a silver loving cup, the Brunswick-Balke-Collender trophy remains a mysterious object. The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton doesn't have any photos of it.


We can assume the trophy — if it exists — is engraved with the names of the company and team, along with league initials APFA and maybe the year 1920.


Come on, Akron.


Have you seen it?


Check your attic and cellar.

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