Commentary

Pottsville, Pa. and Cardinals each claim rights to 1925 NFL title

The Cardinals have one NFL playoff win since 1947. Some think their run of bad luck stems from a controversial league title "stolen" years ago, David Fleming writes.

Originally Published: January 30, 2008
By David Fleming | ESPN The Magazine

voodoo dollPhotography and Voodoo doll by Holly LindemArizona is host to another Super Bowl, but its NFL franchise hasn't sniffed a league title in years. Are the Cardinals cursed after netting a "bogus" title years ago?

Neil Rackers' kick was doomed before it even left his foot.

It was Nov. 25, Week 12 of the 2007 season, eight minutes into overtime.

Seconds earlier, the Arizona Cardinals seemingly had beaten the San Francisco 49ers when Rackers blasted the ball through the uprights from 27 yards.

For the briefest of moments, Arizona was 6­5 and one game out of first in the NFC West. Then came a delay-of-game penalty, which negated the field goal and backed the Cardinals up five yards. Naturally, on Rackersı second try, the ball elevated wildly off his foot, hooking wide left. One possession later, Kurt Warner fumbled in the end zone to hand the 49ers their first win since summer. Later, Arizona would finish one game out of the playoffs.

For long-suffering Cardinals fans, the OT collapse was the latest blow in a six-decade string of inexplicable bad luck. The league practically legislates parity, yet the Cardinals have one playoff win since 1947. There have been freak injuries, first-round flops and so much inner turmoil that it reduced Denny Green to mumbling gibberish. (They are who we thought they were!)

Perhaps cruelest of all, in a few short days Arizona is host to the Super Bowl for the first time in 12 years, highlighting the fact that the Cardinals haven't come anywhere close to, you know, playing in the biggest game of all.

And to think all this destruction has been the work of some resolute folks from a small mountain town in Pennsylvania, 2,300 miles away.

"They stole our championship same as if they came and robbed us of the trophy," says 92-year-old Nick Barbetta. A widower with a fondness for plaid slacks, Barbetta talks about his favorite team, the 1925 Pottsville Maroons, as if they were still playing. And like all Maroons supporters -- a group that once boasted Bears founder George Halas and now includes Steelers owner Dan Rooney and Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie -- Barbetta believes his team was robbed of the 1925 NFL championship.

He's also convinced that Arizona owner Bill Bidwill and his family have been working since the 1960s to squash Pottsville's hopes of reclaiming its title. That's why, every Sunday, he gleefully tracks the Cardinals' latest buffoonery from the musty parlor of his home in the coal region of eastern Pennsylvania.

Until that title is returned, Barbetta says, the Cardinals will be doomed by a curse folks in Pottsville hand down from generation to generation. "We cursed 'em with the oldest, strongest curse in sports."

Loaded with hardscrabble miners and high-priced college All-Americas, the 1925 Maroons did the unthinkable during their first season in the fledgling National Football League: They dominated. And on Dec. 6, 1925, the 9-2 Maroons traveled to Comiskey Park and beat the 9-1-1 Chicago Cardinals 21-7 in what was widely regarded as the NFL championship game. An exhibition was then set up in Philadelphia between the Maroons and an all-star team featuring Notre Dameıs legendary Four Horsemen and other former collegians.

At a time when amateur ball was still king, Pottsville won 9-7 on a last-second field goal. The shocking upset helped legitimize the NFL. It also destroyed the team that made it all possible.

Before agreeing to the game, the Maroons received permission from the NFL to take on the Notre Dame all-star team at 33,000-seat Shibe Park, which was three times as big as their own digs. But Philly's Frankford Yellow Jackets, which Pottsville had beaten 49-0 in a regular-season matchup, claimed the Notre Dame game infringed upon their turf.

Even though the NFL's rules on territorial rights were unclear at the time, the league backtracked and suspended the Maroons, effectively stripping them of their championship. The league also tried to name the Cardinals champs, but Chicago owner Chris O'Brien refused to accept what he called a "bogus" title.

Alas, when the Bidwill family bought the Cardinals in 1932, it claimed the title as its own. Then in 1963, after Maroons fans petitioned the NFL to get their championship back, Cardinals president Charles "Stormy" Bidwill Jr. (current owner Bill's dad) wrote a letter to sports writer Red Smith saying, essentially, that his family had no intention of honoring the wishes of some hick town.

Four decades passed before the issue was formally brought up again, at the 2003 owners meeting in Philly. There, Rooney, Lurie, Pottsville mayor John D. W. Reiley and Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell offered a solution that had then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue's blessing: Let the Cards and the Maroons share the title.

But, according to Rooney and Reiley, a Bidwill interfered again. Bill Bidwill, who served on a three-man committee that studied the disputed title, convinced his fellow owners to squash Pottsville's petition. They did in a 30-2 vote. (Bidwill turned down The Mag's interview requests.)

Afterward, Rendell called the owners "cowardly barons." Added Rooney: "What's been done to this town and this team. . . it needs to be fixed."

They're trying. Since the October release of my book "Breaker Boys: The NFLıs Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship," the Maroons have been outselling Harry Potter in Schuylkill County.

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.

On Dec. 10, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives unanimously approved House Resolution 533, honoring the team and demanding that the NFL re-examine the issue. Two days later, President Bush sent ESPN a handwritten note saying he had found the history of the Maroons "illuminating."

Besides the leader of the free world, Maroons supporters include more than 10,000 fans who have signed an online petition.

Volunteers in Pottsville created breakerboys1925.com to enlist support for their cause. And in the buildup to Super Bowl XLII, the Maroons established an alliance with an unlikely group. Some Cardinals fans realized that both groups lack the same thing (a world title) for the same reason (Bidwill). These enlightened Zona backers have discussed raising money for a replica trophy to be presented to Pottsville.

All of which is nice, says Barbetta, but he still insists Pottsville won't lift the curse until the town's superfans get the real 1925 title back. Maybe that sounds a little harsh. But the town is granting Bidwill a karmic opportunity. Not only can the owner give Maroons fans the championship they want, he can give his own team's fans something even better.

The hope of winning their own.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His latest book, "Breaker Boys: The NFL's Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship,", published by ESPN Books, has been optioned as a movie. In addition, he is the author of the memoir "Noah's Rainbow."