Chances are if you're a local pro football fan, your loyalties run 115 miles east to Cleveland, where the Browns still hold sway, or 58 miles north to the perpetually-rebuilding Detroit Lions.
The only problem with that is Cleveland and Detroit have yet to make it to a Super Bowl — two of the last few remaining NFL franchises to do so.
What many local NFL fans don't realize is that for a short time in the 1920s, Toledo had an NFL franchise. The Toledo Maroons, some 90-odd years ago, played in what is considered the modern era of the NFL, along with the Canton Bulldogs and Massillon Tigers. Of course, it was long before the first Super Bowl was played.
The Maroons were formed in much the same way of the other early professional football teams in the Midwest around the turn of the century — as a local semi-pro team when playing football for money was still largely looked down upon. Pro football was considered a sideshow attraction to the already-revered football aristocracy of Ivy League powerhouses Harvard, Brown, and Princeton.
In 1902, the Toledo Athletic Association football club, the earliest incarnation of the Maroons, first strapped on their helmets.
The Maroons were founded by Joe Dailey and Arthur W. Gratop, who was born at 899 Rogers Street in East Toledo and lived at 875 Rogers after his marriage. It was Gratop who would nurture the Maroons into an NFL franchise.
Toledo Blade writer John Grigsby on July 2, 1961 wrote, “The Maroons started out as a sandlot football team among a neighborhood group of East Side youngsters, but under young Gratop’s guidance as player and manager it soon became a nationally known professional grid squad.” Gratop, 70 when Grigsby’s article was published, had just retired as Toledo’s welfare director.
During that era, even Toledo-area fans most-often opted for the more-sophisticated games of the burgeoning Ohio State Buckeyes and University of Michigan Wolverines, over the then-freewheeling, at times haphazard trade plied by professionals.
Yet, the local TAA gridders played on, thumbing their mashed noses at convention and college football purists. In 1906, they formed a second team called the Maroons as a sort of farm team or junior varsity squad for area teenagers who had also caught the football bug, in hopes that they would one day go on to star for the senior team.
Other early city youth teams included the Broadway Tigers, Riverside, the Wolverines, and the Overlands. The Maroons were the east side representative playing in a city-wide league.
“They were boys, all about 16 or so, who played together near East Side Central School. Young Gratop was center and manager in those days of three downs, five yards for a first down and a rule that the ball carrier wasn’t stopped until he yelled ‘down,’” Grigsby wrote.
“Interest in the team grew and soon players were recruited from a wide area to play the Sunday afternoon games for $25 and $50 each. Some name talent was brought in such as Ray Eichenlaub of Notre Dame to receive $75 a game,” Grigsby continued.
Ohio League to NFL
By 1909 the Maroons consisted mostly of adults. These rugged young Toledo-area gridders would start heading out of town to play numerous amateur and semi-pro clubs across the region.
The cutline below a photo in The Blade featuring the 1911 team gave names of Maroon players as Ray Bryan (a Blade proofreader in 1961), the late Louis Kruse and John Schimmel, Gratop, the late Clyde Chappel, Joseph Schimmel, the late Rudy Lutz, Walter Matthews, Alvin Schmuhl, Louis Trout, Hugh Goodsite, the late Leslie West, James Baxter, the late Robert Inglis, Walter Pfann, A. Gideon Speaker, and the late Milton McGuire.
By 1915, from a league roster of some of the most rough-and-tumble pioneering professional football teams outside of Toledo, including the Dayton Gym Cadets, the Columbus Panhandles, and the Cincinnati Celts, the TAA, now officially the Maroons, waged some of its earliest gridiron battles for an Ohio pro championship.
“Mr. Gratop leased Armory Park and directed the construction of a fence and bleachers to accommodate the crowds for the professional games against out-of-town teams, a regular feature until World War I,” Grigsby wrote. Grigsby added that Gratop then served 13 months in France during his WWI service.
Throughout those lean years, T-Town's gridders scratched, clawed, bit, bled, and pretty much beat their own bodies to every imaginable shade of black-and-blue essentially for the pure love of the game. In early 20th Century pro ball, pay was still little to none.
In 1920 when the American Professional Football Association was formed, the Maroons chose to remain independent and continued to forge their way in the old Ohio League. Finally in 1922, Toledo relented and joined the APFA, renamed the NFL, going a respectable 5-2-2 in their maiden season and finishing fourth of 11 teams.
The Maroons played games at minor league ballparks Swayne Field and Armory Park off of Monroe Street and Detroit Avenue. Eventually, they had to quit playing at Armory Park because of complaints about the cleats tearing up the turf.
They were coached by Guil Falcon, a one-time second-team All-APFA gridder for the Chicago Tigers in 1920, whom during his short time at the reigns in Toledo would also fill in at guard, quarterback, fullback, and halfback. He was probably most known for his stint with the Akron Pros in 1925 because he had the opportunity to play with the great Fritz Pollard, a future NFL hall-of-famer who became the fledgling league's first African-American coach in 1921, one year after he helped the Akron club win the NFL's first championship in 1920.
The Toledo roster was chock full of off-the-wall personalities and homegrown characters that could've been scripted right out of a movie about the roaring 20's, including Rat Watson, a 5-foot-10, 181 pound running back.
Also starring for the Maroons were Herb and Russ Stein, a pair of iron-men offensive linemen born and raised in Warren, Ohio who went on to muscle their ways to consensus all-American honors at the University of Pittsburgh and Washington & Jefferson College before teaming up for Toledo in 1922, and later the Pottsville (Pa.) Maroons in '25. That year, the Steins led Pottsville to an NFL championship.
The Maroons also had Duncan "Dunc" Annan, a product of Chicago, who made his professional debut in '20 with his hometown Tigers as a running back. Annan played for a total of six years, for six different teams (Chicago, Toledo, the Hammond (Ind.) Pros twice; the Akron Pros; and the Akron Indians), scoring six touchdowns in each season. At least he was consistent.
There was also a rogue gallery of tough customers with equally tough nicknames like Hippo (Gozdowski), Steamer (Horning), Tex (Kelly) and Truck (Myers), all of whom sound as if they would've just as soon beat you up in the mud, clean you up, and then afterwards taken you out for shots of whiskey and belly laughs at a local speakeasy to ease the pain.
Yet in 1923, the celebratory flow around Toledo would dry up, as would the city's only-ever NFL franchise after the Maroons, which fall to 3-3-2, finished 10th in the league.
Further, what would make matters worse, and ultimately help sound the death knell for the team, was its opposition that year, and how it fared against each team it faced. NFL historians suggest Toledo purposely scheduled a weak slate of games for '23 to perhaps equal or improve upon their respectable showing in their inaugural season.
Judging by the following results from '23, the historians could very well be right: a 7-7 tie at the Racine Legion (4-4, 9th); 7-0 win over the Oorang Indians (1-10, 18th); 6-3 win over the Dayton Triangles (1-6-1, 16th); 3-0 loss to the Columbus Tigers (5-4-1, 8th); 16-0 loss on the road to the Columbus Tigers; 12-6 win at the Rochester Jeffersons (0-4-0, 19th); 3-3 tie at the Buffalo All-Americans (5-4-3, 8th); and a 28-0 loss at the Canton Bulldogs (11-0-1, first).
Following that last game against the two-time NFL-champion Bulldogs ('22, '23), the Maroons would fold for good, citing poor attendance. The team moved to Kenosha, Wisconsin for 1924, where they're said to have gone 0-4-1, never to be heard from again after that campaign.