With NFL owners set to meet in Philadelphia next week, ESPN has obtained an angry, passionate 2003 letter sent to former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue from former Philadelphia mayor and current Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell in reference to the NFL's treatment of the 1925 Pottsville Maroons.
In the candid letter Rendell calls the NFL owners "cowardly barons" and suggests that the vast majority of owners lack "cojones."
The Maroons were one of the most dominant, influential and controversial teams in NFL history. Their 82-year-old saga is the focus of my recently released book "Breaker Boys: The NFL's Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship" (ESPN Books). The book includes a passage on the town's 2003 petition to the NFL but does not include Rendell's correspondence to the NFL, which was only recently uncovered.
In the letter, dated Dec. 19, 2003, Rendell, a fervent football fan who moonlights as a TV analyst for the Eagles, begins: "I do not intend to have any more communications with the cowardly barons that run the National Football League, including their extremely well paid leader, until they relent and grant the gallant Pottsville Maroons what is rightfully theirs."
Rendell crafted the letter after the NFL owners failed to recognize the Maroons as the rightful 1925 NFL champions -- a controversy the Journal of Sports History has called "one of the greatest injustices in NFL history." In 1925 Pottsville, a small coal-mining town 90 miles northwest of Philadelphia, did the unthinkable and dominated the NFL in its inaugural season. At the time the Philadelphia Inquirer called the Maroons "The Perfect Football Machine."
Rendell's letter continues, "However, since [Eagles owner] Jeff Lurie and [Steelers owner] Dan Rooney were the only two NFL owners with cojones, I am taking care of their problem.
"I am closing with the wish that every NFL franchise except for the Eagles and the Steelers lose large quantities of money."
Contacted Friday, a representative for Rendell said the governor did not wish to comment on the letter.
Besides Rendell, Rooney and Lurie, the Maroons have counted among their supporters Bears founder George Halas, Hall of Fame running back Red Grange and former Redskins owner George Preston Marshall. In this instance, Rendell's use of smashmouth politics is a reflection of both his occasionally over-the-top support of pro football in Pennsylvania and in particular, the proud, but often neglected, legacy of coal region football and its impact on the NFL.
On Dec. 6, 1925, the Pottsville Maroons beat the runner-up Chicago Cardinals at Comiskey Park 21-7 in what was widely believed to be the NFL championship game. At the time, the NFL was struggling to survive while college football was king. Pottsville then played the Notre Dame Four Horsemen in an exhibition game in Philadelphia. Experts believed the fledgling NFL was still decades away from competing with college football. But on a last-second field goal the Maroons helped legitimize the NFL by beating Notre Dame 9-7.
Before the game the Frankford Yellow Jackets, the team that would later become the Eagles, protested to the NFL saying the Maroons were violating their "territory." (The Maroons had beaten the Yellow Jackets, 49-0, to earn the right to play Notre Dame at Shibe Park, later Connie Mack Stadium.) Although no territory rule was ever produced and the Maroons had two affidavits from men who witnessed the phone conversation in which the Maroons' owner was granted permission to play the game from the league, the NFL upheld the protest and suspended the Maroons, making them ineligible for the championship they had earned on the field.
For 82 years the town of Pottsville has been fighting a David and Goliath battle with the NFL to get its title back. "It's one thing not to give the team the title it won and deserves," says Pottsville Area High School football coach Kevin Keating, the son and grandson of coal miners. "But there's no excuse for the way the NFL has treated this town. It wasn't necessary. It's beneath a league that prides itself on class and professionalism. The NFL should have more respect for the men who played the game, the men who paved the way and for the fans who helped make it what it is today."
At the end of the 1925 season the league offered the championship to the Cardinals, but their owner refused to accept what he called a "bogus" title. The Cardinals were in the midst of their own scandal. Rather than cancel their last game against the Milwaukee Badgers, the Cards coerced several Chicago high school players into playing for the Badgers. As a result, the 1925 NFL championship was never officially awarded at the time. It was only after the Bidwill family bought the Cardinals in 1933 that the franchise began to claim the 1925 title as its own. Both Pottsville mayor John Reiley and Rooney say current Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill used his influence behind the scenes in 2003 to squash the Maroons' petition to share the 1925 title with the Cardinals.
On Oct. 16, 2007 a petition asking the NFL to proclaim the Pottsville Maroons the true 1925 NFL champions was posted on Petitiononline. After three days the petition had more than 5,500 signatures.
Reiley said that the renewed interest in the Maroons, and the potential for a movie based on the book, to be directed by Gavin O'Connor, who also directed "Miracle," has given the town's cause new hope.
"Justice for the Pottsville Maroons!!!" vowed Rendell at the end of his letter to Tagliabue.
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and the author of the memoir "Noah's Rainbow." His most recent book, "Breaker Boys: The NFL's Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship,", published by ESPN Books, has been optioned as a movie. The Flem File will run each Thursday during the NFL season.