PA Football and Bert Bell

By Andrew Malkasian

The suburbs of Philadelphia certainly aren’t a hotbed of Steelers fandom necessarily. Yet, our mutual ambition for celebrating the Steelers from the other side of the state is less absurd than some would think. As far as I’m concerned, the Steelers and Eastern Pennsylvania, and by extension the Eagles, have much more in common that we’re prone to think.

When you enter the Hall of Busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame the first face you see is that of Philadelphia’s own, Bert Bell. While Bell’s name isn’t as recognizable as that of some of the other NFL founders like George Halas, Paul Brown, and George Marshall, he served as the second, but first consequential, NFL commissioner. Moreover, he, along with Art Rooney, was the owner and co-owner of both the Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers (née Pirates) and he’s a singular figure who connects two of the league’s most storied franchises in the league’s most important state.

Inaugurated in 1933, more than a decade after the National Football League, the Eagles and the Steelers went on to embody the NFL and the professional game better than any of their predecessors. Yes, the Bears, Packers, and Cardinals are older and therefore have a longer chronology, but it’s the Steelers and Eagles, and particularly the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, that represent the history of Pro-Football more than any other locality.

Philadelphia and Pittsburgh’s role in early America are parallel to their roles in early professional football: vital. The culture, spirit, and feel of both cities couldn’t be more different, but their zeal for football is unparalleled and steeped in an unrivaled history.

The City of Brotherly Love has a penchant for making history and it’s not limited to Political or National history. First, Philadelphia is home to the oldest continually used football stadium in the country. Franklin Field on the Campus of the University of Pennsylvania has seen National Championships along with NFL championships, not to mention the game’s greatest players from ten decades of service. Moreover, the city was home to the first radio and television broadcast of the sport thusly transforming a college tradition into a national pastime. So, when Merrill Reese exclaims, “Touchdown” on WIP on fall afternoons, he’s continuing a tradition eighty years in the making.

Pittsburgh’s influence on the history of the sport precedes the Steelers dynasty of the 1970s, but certainly doesn’t exclude it. The first ever professional football team and professional football league were founded in Pittsburgh as well as the original incarnation of the National Football League. Although met with limited success, professional football originated in western Pennsylvania.

While the two cities are ostensibly rivals, it was in 1943 when Art Rooney and Bert Bell combined their two teams to create the Phil-Pitt Steagles whose 5-4-1 record mollified an emerging rivalry and helped perpetuate their individual teams into post-war success. While the combining of two-teams was not unique during Word War II, the Steagles ensured a football season in Pennsylvania was to be had, regardless of the circumstances. Football in Pennsylvania isn’t a passing tradition or just an annual rite. Instead, football is Pennsylvania and vice versa. While stadiums, teams, and football firsts would be enough, lest we forget that Pennsylvania is home to 27 Pro-Football Hall of Famers including names as familiar as Namath, Unitas, Ditka, and Montana. So, when you’re talking about the history of the sport, the all-time greats, or cathedrals of the gridiron, you’re necessarily talking about Pennsylvania.

New Jersey may have invented the game, but football was perfected here. And nothing embodies that example better than these two teams from the opposite sides of a great state. When it seems like this game can be taken too seriously from time-to-time, you’d be right. After all, Bert Bell died at a Steelers-Eagles game at Franklin Field in 1959, just the way he wanted it. So, maybe it’s not so crazy to think the suburbs of Philadelphia can be passionate Steelers fans as anyone in the state.

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