If baseball is American’s pastime, football is America’s sport. It’s certainly the most popular. And the most profitable. The National Football League is a multi-billion dollar industry whose championship game is one of the most-watched television events every year.
Of the 100 million-plus viewers who tuned in to this past weekend’s Super Bowl, very few likely know the history of the NFL’s short-lived team: the Tonawanda Kardex.
That mouthful of a name came from Tonawanda, the upstate New York town the team called home—just north of Buffalo, on the banks of the Niagara River—and American Kardex, a local office furniture company that sponsored them.
“The Kardex came from the All-Tonawanda team,” says Ken Crippen, former executive director of the Professional Football Researchers Association. Like many teams back then, Crippen says, the Kardex began as a city team made up of Tonawanda’s best players, culled from local amateur or semi-pro athletic groups and former college stars (the college game was vastly more popular, and would remain so for several decades).
Other than their brief (and extremely poor) showing, there’s not much to the Kardex to remember. “They’re pretty much a footnote in history. A glimpse of how the game was played.”
Led by the team’s founder, coach, and halfback, Walter “Tam” Rose, a Tonawanda native who was a star player in college, the team was fairly successful in its first few years. In its 1920 season, it managed an impressive nine wins and just one loss.
The next year, the team joined the NFL (then called the American Professional Football Association), probably hoping to repeat its success and have the opportunity to play bigger teams in bigger cities with bigger paying crowds. The Buffalo News noted that the team would play all of its games on the road—”touring to the big cities, where the dough lies.”
On November 6, 1921, before an audience of about 2,700 in Rochester, New York’s Bay Street Park, the Tonawanda Kardex made their big NFL debut. Their opponent was the Rochester Jeffersons, a team they’d defeated twice the year before.
It did not go well for the Kardex.
“JEFFERSONS TROUNCE TONAWANDA, 45 TO 0,” the News reported the next day. Rochester halfback Benny “The Purple Streak” Boynton threw two touchdowns and rushed for another. He also kicked a field goal and all of the Jeffersons’ extra points and, according to the News, “made a number of spectacular runs.” As for the Kardex? “Tonawanda offered its strongest resistance in the third and first periods,” the News noted. The third quarter would be the only one where the Kardex were able to keep the Jeffersons from scoring.
That was the Kardex’s first game. It was also their last. They either couldn’t find another opponent that season or, after the beating they took from the Jeffersons, didn’t want to.
“They really couldn’t compete,” Crippen says. “They got spanked pretty bad.”
The Kardex folded with an all-time NFL record of 0-1. With that, they became the shortest-lived team in NFL history.
WHEN THE KARDEX JOINED the NFL, the league was in its infancy, founded just the year before. It was an attempt to formalize the burgeoning sport under one ruleset, with one champion, as baseball had done. Fourteen teams, many of them from Ohio, participated in the first season. Two still remain today: the Arizona Cardinals (né the Chicago Cardinals) and the Chicago Bears (né the Decatur Staleys). In the Kardex’s season, the league had 21 teams, including the Green Bay Packers.
But the vast majority of the NFL’s first teams’ histories were short like the Kardex—if not to quite that extreme.
“This was typical, teams just came and went,” says Chris Willis, head of NFL Films’ research library and author of several books about the NFL’s early days. “Mainly why some of those teams didn’t survive in those early days was because it cost money to form a team, pay the players. If you’re hosting the game, you’re paying for publicity, you’re paying for the referees, you’re paying for the security.”
Teams earned that money back from paying fans, but if the event had a lower attendance than expected—if it rained, say—a team could be ruined. And with competition from nearby bigger cities (for Tonawanda, that would have been Rochester and Buffalo), it was tough for small-town teams to gain the following they needed to stay afloat.
The Kardex avoided some of this by being a traveling team, but even then money was probably tight. American Kardex agreed to sponsor them in exchange for team naming rights (before that, the team was called the Lumbermen or the Lumberjacks), but that only covered the equipment. It’s doubtful American Kardex would have continued to support the team beyond that, even if they played well. Most team sponsorships—the Staleys and the Packers were also named after sponsoring companies—only lasted a few years.
“It gave [companies] some publicity but it wasn’t going to make any money,” Willis says. “A lot of times, those companies eventually went away and then the athletes and the coaches and the manager wanted to keep it going because they loved the sport.”
And so, team names like the Duluth Kelleys (sponsor: Kelley-Duluth Hardware Store), the Oorang Indians (Oorang Dog Kennels) and the Staleys (A. E. Staley Manufacturing, which made corn starch) ceased to be. The Packers (Indian Packing Company) name stayed, but the Packing Company’s involvement with the team ended when the first season did.
It’s not the same game these days—figuratively and literally. What began as a kicking and running game in the Kardex’s day has become increasingly passing-oriented, focused around the quarterback. The Kardex’s quarterback (who would not have thrown all or even any of the team’s passes—that job often fell to the fullback or halfback) was such a non-entity that we don’t even know his full name. In Ken Crippen’s article about the team, he’s listed simply as “Cassidy.”
Today’s NFL teams aren’t in any danger of closing up shop due to money problems, either. They’re worth an average of $1.17 billion each, bringing in revenue of $286 million a year, according to Forbes. (And all, except the Detroit Lions, are profitable.) At the top of the list is the Dallas Cowboys, which took in $539 million in 2012—and that team isn’t even very good. If the Indian Packing Company existed today, it’s very doubtful it could even afford to sponsor the Packers.
That doesn’t mean sponsorships aren’t there, of course; corporations have found effective ways to publicize their brand. While the NFL forbids putting advertisements on uniforms (unlike, say, the English Premiere League, whose uniforms are starting to resemble NASCAR cars) it does allow teams to put ad patches on practice jerseys. And while you won’t see a company in a team name, all but four of them have sold stadium-naming rights to corporations for anywhere from $1.2 million to $19 million a year. The Patriots did it first with Schaefer Stadium in 1971, but it wasn’t until the mid- to late-’90s that other teams started to follow. The Louisiana Superdome is now the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. And the Dallas Cowboys don’t play in Cowboys Stadium anymore—it’s now AT&T stadium.
Last year, Nike paid the NFL a reported $1.1 billion to be the sole provider of its teams’ uniforms for five years. That’s a lot of money, but Nike should make it all back—analysts estimate the deal will bring hundreds of millions in revenue annually. The 1920 Chicago Cardinals played in used uniforms from a local college. Want to buy your own official Arizona Cardinals jersey, just like what the pros wear? That’ll be $250. American Kardex may not have figured out how to make sponsoring the team’s equipment profitable, but that’s certainly not the case anymore.
And then, of course, there are those Super Bowl commercials. Famously pricey—$4 million per 30-second spot this year, even though one recent study suggested that the majority of those advertisements don’t help sales. They will increase visibility (providing the commercial is sufficiently clever) and that, for some companies, is worth every penny.
THERE’S NOT MUCH LEFT of the Tonawanda Kardex today. According to Total Football II, two Kardex players would go on to play for other NFL teams—though only for a few games, and neither of those teams exists today. Tam Rose stayed in Tonawanda for the rest of his life, teaching physical education at Tonawanda High School. It’s a safe bet he taught more than a few of his students how to play the game. The Historical Society of the Tonawandas has a decent-sized file on the team, but it’s mostly news clippings. No team photos, and no records of what their uniforms or logo (if they even had one) may have looked like. The one on the team’s Wikipedia page is a fake.
American Kardex still exists, though, after several name and ownership changes, it’s not quite so American anymore—it’s based in Switzerland. The company was very pleased (!) to see its brand promoted on 60 Minutes recently—an “ordinary-looking file cabinet” that holds some of the National Security Agency’s most important records with the Kardex Remstar logo prominently featured. It does not appear to sponsor any sports club.
Other than their brief (and extremely poor) showing, there’s not much to the Kardex to remember. “They’re pretty much a footnote in history,” Crippen says. “A glimpse of how the game was played, how tough it was for teams to survive back then.”
“Nobody in the ’20s or even the ’30s and ’40s could think of how the sport has grown, and the Kardex are part of that,” Willis says. “I don’t think any of these teams who only played one or two games should be forgotten because it’s part of the history. If it wasn’t for these teams or the small towns or these owners or these players, maybe the game doesn’t even reach where it is now.”