Pottsville Maroons memorabilia in the Schuylkill County Historical Society.
The fight for an NFL championship enters its ninth decade - and it's starting to fade.
Justin Klugh / Philly.com Photos by Stephanie Aaronson / Philly.com
Friday, Dec. 4, 2015
Necho Allen woke up, and the world was on fire.
The hunter had been snoozing in the woods of Pennsylvania, which before 1800 was an even more desolate, intimidating place for a nap. Alone in the dark, Allen had lit a campfire and drifted off to sleep, arousing hours later to discover he had inadvertently ignited a nearby mountain.
It was odd. The mountains in this region weren’t normally on fire. It seemed that hundreds of millions of years before Allen’s nap in 1790, when the continents were still sorting out their positions, there had been a fair amount of chaos beneath the earth’s surface. In the area that wound up east of Appalachia, the coal was squeezed, and creased until it was denser, purer, and more jagged than any other coal on the planet.
It eventually would be known as “anthracite coal,” and Allen had discovered a ton of it; he had also discovered that anthracite is a tough coal to burn -- but even tougher to put out.
A man named John Pott stepped in and bought the land with the intention of gutting its precious resources. His doing so led to the founding of the town of Pottsville, which would graduate to a borough in 1828. Residents and industry slowly filled the town – including a donation from Andrew Carnegie for a free library -- and by the 1920s, with the mountains no longer on fire, the people of Pottsville reflected American society at the time through the filter of a rural Pennsylvania coal town.
A rainy day dampens Progress Street in Pottsville.
Outside on a patch of hard Pottsville earth, a squad of men called the Pottsville Eleven channeled their more violent instincts into the sport of football. In 1924, they were purchased for $1,500 and renamed the “Maroons,” becoming part of what was known as the Anthracite League. It had five teams and lasted one season, with rosters filled out by some of the region’s rougher types. On a trip to Shenandoah, the Maroons were advised to get on the floor of their train car to avoid a hail of gunfire.
A program from the fateful 1925 NFL championship.
The Maroons went on to a 12-1-1 season, receiving their sole loss from the NFL’s Rochester Jeffersons, the only pro team to respond to challenges they’d issued upon going undefeated. The following year, they became part of the NFL, beating the Chicago Cardinals, 21-7, on Dec. 6, 1925 for the league championship in Chicago's Comiskey Park, an event that will see its 90th anniversary this year.
Unfortunately, the trophy didn’t stay in Pottsville for more than a week.
The fledgling NFL thought it needed to prove its legitimacy by going toe-to-toe with college football, so a game had been scheduled between whichever team had the NFL’s best record by season’s end and an All-Star squad of recent Notre Dame alumni. The Frankford Yellow Jackets had figured to be the professional representation, but after being overtaken in the standings by the Maroons, they lost the honor and remained somewhat bitter about it.
The stalwart Howard "Fungy" Lebengood, posing here with his Maroons teammates, never wanted to talk about the lost championship with his son.
Pottsville played in a small high school stadium at the time, but wanted a larger venue for the marquee match-up with the Irish, so the game was shifted to Shibe Park in Philadelphia – within what was considered Frankford’s territory. Pottsville beat Notre Dame 9-7, but because the game had been played on the Yellow Jackets’ turf, Frankford complained to the league.
“Season was over, but they lined the Cardinals up to play two more games. One was a high school team.”
Pottsville said they had received permission from the league to use Shibe Park, but NFL commissioner Joseph Carr said he had warned them multiple times of the potential fallout. Nonetheless, the NFL suspended the Maroons and ripped the championship out of their hands, an aggressive move over what was at best an ambiguous rule at the time – Lebengood suggests that the NFL had it out for pro teams from smaller towns, wanting their franchises to spawn in larger metropolitan areas. The only way they could remove Pottsville’s trophy was if the 9-2 Cardinals had secured more victories than the 10-2 Maroons during the regular season, which they hadn’t (Pottsville had beaten them 21-7).
“Pottsville had…” Lebengood pauses, trying to remember.
“Ten wins,” his grandson reminds him quietly.
“One more… or two more than the Cardinals,” he continues. “The only way they could take the championship away - season was over, but they lined the Cardinals up to play two more games.” He laughs. “One was a high school team.”
Following the easy wins, the league tried to give the championship to the Cardinals, but sports good merchant and Cardinals owner Chris O’Brien didn’t want it, calling it a “bogus title.”
Pottsville Maroons memorabilia at the Schuylkill County Historical Society.
Though eventually the Cardinals’ two bonus wins at the end of the season were labeled illegitimate, the trophy still floated in championship limbo for years, until Charles “Blue Shirt Charlie” Bidwill took over the Cardinals in 1933 and the team started claiming any championship up for grabs. He gladly took on the Maroons’ trophy, and history now says that on that early December day, the Chicago Cardinals were league champs.
More than eight decades later in 2008, ESPN writer David Fleming put the story into a book, Breaker Boys: The NFL’s Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 NFL Championship. Despite attempts to have history rewritten, Pottsville, generations after the controversy, was still without closure, as Fleming described:
“At book signings in Pottsville, readers have presented me with paintings of the team, old photos, baked goods, lottery tickets, prayer cards and pictures of their kids serving in Iraq. Many of them simply break down while trying to explain the magnitude of the Maroons and their stolen title.”
Things have grown quiet in recent years, as Maroons supporters have been forced to face the grim reality that sometimes, the good guys lose. But like the coal they played on, the Pottsvillians have remained tough to burn -- and even tougher to snuff out.
The Maroons' legacy is preserved by an admirable archive.
In a sleepy Reading suburb, two old women are out for an autumn walk. One spots a car parked on the side of the road, foreign to her daily saunter around the block.
“Excuse me,” she calls to the driver. “You’ll need to move that or the mailman won’t be able to get in.”
My car is parked between two mailboxes, well out of the way of obscuring either. But I moved anyway, not wanting any trouble. Still, she and her silent friend stop a bit further down the sidewalk, intent on figuring out just what is going on here.
“Are you a Jehovah’s Witness?” she demands, her hands cupped around her mouth.
There remains no shortage of Maroons artifacts at the Schuylkill County Historical Society.
I tell her no. In his front yard, Matt Zappacosta has come out to smoke a cigarette. He witnesses the exchange and laughs.
“Yeah,” he says. “That’s kind of the neighborhood.”
Zappacosta’s grandfather, Jack Lebengood, greets us in the living room. Now 77, Lebengood was not even born when his father, Howard “Fungy” Lebengood, was the halfback and punter for the 1925 NFL-champion Pottsville Maroons, having played for the team since 1923. When Fungy was 33, he punted a ball in practice that sailed into the stands and brained a woman, knocking her unconscious.
“The end of the story is, that’s my mother,” Jack Lebengood says with a wistful grin.
He proudly shows off the framed Maroons poster that only he and a few select others related to the team have received. Under the team photo are two singularly framed individuals, one of whom is his father in all of his bruised, broken glory; this was an age in which the helmets seemed to make brain trauma even more dangerous.
Leather helmets used at the time actually caused more head injuries than they prevented, Jack Lebengood theorizes.
“They didn’t even wear helmets,” Lebengood says. “Well, they did wear helmets. But they were pieces of leather. And if you ever played football with a leather helmet – I did, and it’s not fun, I’ll tell you that. If your head dropped either way, it felt like it was gonna break off they were so heavy. If they had concussions, they didn’t know it. It was nasty up there. They were a tough bunch of guys.”
Some players took on jobs selling beer and cigarettes to make a livable wage, while some were miners living in the town.
“Most of the players were from small, obscure schools you’ve never even heard of,” Lebengood explains. “They came from Villanova, Bucknell; Jack Ernst, the [Maroons] quarterback, was from Lafayette. My father was from Pottsville, went to Villanova, was an electrical engineer, got caught playing college and playing professional, so he had to give up college football, and he played professional.”
Thomas B. Drogalis, Executive Director of the Schuylkill County Historical Society, shows off an image of Maroons quarterback Jack Ernst.
Nobody was rolling in cash, but football paid a different bill.
“It was the glory,” Lebengood says. “Or it was guys who wanted to be kids again when they were starting to be adults. But they were good.”
Lebengood has seen his father, mother, and brother pass away and has written off any further chances to correct the NFL history books. Those who know the story are disappearing, leaving it to generations even further removed to pick up the ball. But Zappacosta has made some moves, generating a petition to get the NFL to reverse the 1925 result and attempting to keep the Maroons in the conversation whenever possible.
It is an uphill battle on uneven ground, as Lebengood, a former member of the committee whose goal was to return the championship from the Cardinals to the Maroons, has lost a lot of hope after several gut-wrenching denials.
“We thought it was gonna happen when Breaker Boys was written,” Lebengood says. “It’s [been] so many years since it occurred, so many teams have changed hands. Nobody cares about it anymore. Except the people of little Pottsville.”
“Do I wish it would happen? Yes. In my heart, I do. But I’ve pretty much written it off. The owners don’t care. It doesn’t mean anything. Most of them weren’t even born then.”
“Do I wish it would happen? Yes. In my heart, I do. But I’ve pretty much written it off.”
“Everybody in the town knows who the Maroons are. Even people my age,” Zappacosta insists.
Maroons supporters are running out of energy and time as memories of their team begin to fade behind the decades; the players all have died, the last to pass on being the team’s water boy about 10 years ago. Even the number of the Maroons’ children is dwindling, keeping up a cycle that characterizes Pottsville and a thousand small American towns just like it.
“Pottsville’s a town that, you’re born there, you grew up there, and you die there,” Lebengood says. “And they’re all dead.”
The Maroons posing at a 1960 reunion. Howard Lebengood is back row, fourth from the left.
No one wanted to discuss the stolen 1925 championship less than Howard Lebengood himself; he remained tight-lipped on the issue when he could. But any family trips back to the scene of the crime inevitably led to the reopening of the wound.
“We took the train from Reading up to Pottsville,” Lebengood remembers. “We’d always go to lunch at the Necho Allen Hotel, and we would always talk about the Pottsville Maroons. That’s the most I ever heard about them. Everybody would talk to my father.”
Howard’s silence on the game did little to quell his son’s question about it. Eventually, Jack’s questions were redirected from his father to the Bidwills, the family with unflinching control of the Cardinals franchise since 1933.
An old game-used football on display at the Schuylkill County Historical Society.
“Those guys are businessmen,” Lebengood growls. “There’s nobody that knows a damn thing about early football.”
Charlie Bidwill Sr. was a Loyola University alum and friend of Al Capone with a dream: to win an NFL championship and the Kentucky Derby. He failed on both counts and died of pneumonia in 1947 – the year before his Cardinals finally did manage to win an NFL title with a “Million Dollar Backfield” that he had assembled himself.
Bidwill’s wife, Violet, inherited the team, and passed it along to her son, Bill Jr. He, too, had big dreams for his franchise -- demanding a new stadium from the team’s new city of St. Louis and leaving town for Phoenix upon being denied.
“Somehow,” St. Louis mayor Vincent Schoemehl had muttered sarcastically as the Cardinals pulled out of town, “the people of the city will manage to struggle through with successful lives if we don’t have a football franchise.”
The team’s move to Arizona did little to help Bidwill’s mood, and he remained uncharitable when approached by advocates of Pottsville over the years.
Encased in gold, the boot that kicked the 1925 NFL championship's winning field goal sits in a display case.
One of the most high-profile pushes came in 2003, when Ed Rendell, Steelers owner Dan Rooney and Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie went to the NFL on Pottsville’s behalf. In the end, Bidwill, somehow a member of the three-man council who would make a ruling on the issue, persuaded the league to not even listen to the committee’s argument. The vote went 30-2 in favor of the owners shoving their fingers in their ears.
The Pottsville committee had to vote on whether to accept the NFL’s consolation prize: a token trophy, acknowledging that the team had existed, but with no recognition of the 1925 season at all. The group took one final vote and came back to the NFL with its answer: No thanks.
Souvenirs sold in the Schuylkill County Historical Society's gift shop reference the region's distinct Anthracite coal.
Confidence was now shattered. Rendell was furious, rattling off a letter to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, calling the team owners “cowardly barons” who lacked “cojones.”
Lebengood was one of the three members of the Maroons committee who had voted to accept the trophy. “I would have taken it just to have something for the people of Pottsville,” he says, “but the people of Pottsville spoke and they didn’t want it.”
“Stubborn old Pennsyltuckians,” Zappacosta grumbles.
The result stung Lebengood and the other two committee members who had sided with him. “Some of those guys put a whole lot of time and effort into it, but they were not ready to compromise,” he says. “The committee was hard-nosed – ‘we’re either gonna get what we want, or nothing.’ ”
But the inevitable march of time, combined with two failed attempts, has left the Pottsville Maroons weary. The committee disbanded after the 2003 debacle, and the memories are hanging on for dear life, with none who lived them still around.
“The only people who’d celebrate would be Pottsville,” Lebengood says. “And that’s unfortunate.”
In 2009, at 77 years old and from the comfort of his easy chair, Howard Lebengood watched the Steelers hold off a late Cardinals push for a 27-23 victory in Super Bowl XLIII, keeping intact a curse supposedly hexing the Cardinals for their mistreatment of the Maroons. He called to his wife, the woman he’d kicked in the head with a football decades before, for a glass of water. By the time she had brought it to him, he was dead.
A historical marker indicates the former site of Minersville Park, the Maroons home playing field, which is now a shopping center.
The human connections to the team have faded, and the field where the Maroons practiced and played, Minersville Park, is now a supermarket, a salon, and a Subway. The team’s legacy seems to live on in a cabinet of files at the Schuylkill County Historical Society and a series of signs posted throughout the county, relating the legends that unfolded on sacred ground.
The Maroons Bar in Pottsville, currently closed.
Sitting in the rain, the Maroons Bar haunts the corner of Centre Street and Nichols Street. The doors are locked, the windows are sealed, and, possibly most prominent, its namesake hasn’t existed for 87 years. The stools haven’t been warmed by Maroons fans since this past January, when the bar was abruptly shuttered after some extensive remodeling the previous October.
But as the Maroons’ 1925 championship approached its 90th anniversary, Tom Drogalis, an Executive Director of the SCHS, asked if I’d heard the news – that the bar had been purchased by the owners of Roma Pizza on West Market Street, and may once again become a hub for locals to lament the NFL’s cruel past while watching its bumbling future unfold.
Plans for the bar remain ambiguous, but it seems to once again have a future. The Maroons themselves don’t need protests and appeals to live on, they need a small town in coal country to continue to remember their franchise with pride no league mandate or member of the Bidwill family can take away. They need the people of Pottsville to stay as difficult to snuff out as the coal beneath their feet.
Though a 1925 trophy would also be nice.
In his sitting room, Jack Lebengood twists a ring off his finger; a maroon jewel sitting in its center surrounded by engravings on either side. “1925 NFL champions,” it reads.
“Greatest thing to ever happen to Pottsville,” he says, squeezing the ring back on his finger. “It wasn’t a big town then. It’s not a big town now. But it was history.”