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Canton and Green Bay: A tale of two cities linked together in football history

Canton gave birth to professional football. Green Bay helped it grow up.

LeRoy Butler’s exhibit locker at the Pro Football Hall of Fame on August 4, 2022
Kris Burke, Acme Packing Company

As a fan of the Green Bay Packers, you think you know NFL history.

After all, the history of the Packers is the history of the NFL right? Both have been in existence almost the exact same amount of time (the Packers are actually just over a year older) and the Green Bay dynasty of the 1960s coincided with the beginning of the rise of the National Football League to the prominence it enjoys today.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Canton, Ohio.

Canton is the birthplace of professional football so it naturally made sense to build the hall of fame there. The NFL is naturally front and center across 99% of the museum but it is the Pro Football Hall of Fame, not the NFL Hall of Fame. That’s why there are also small sections dedicated to the USFL (both iterations). It is also home to the Black College Football Hall of Fame. When you visit the facility, you learn about football, not just the NFL.

On September 17, 1920 the American Professional Football Association was born when a group of men met in Canton. The APFA was renamed the National Football League in 1922 and Jim Thorpe was named the first president while he was still a player. Thorpe was the biggest star of his time across multiple sports and was president of the NFL at the same time. Imagine seeing Tom Brady or LeBron James leading the NFL or NBA today. It just couldn’t happen.

If you’re a Packers fan, that might sound a little familiar to you and that’s because it’s very similar to how your favorite team was created on August 11, 1919. Curly Lambeau founded the Packers while still playing AND coaching for them. This is where Canton and Green Bay intertwine and they really can’t be separated even more than a century later. Imagine in this situation Tom Brady owning, coaching, and playing quarterback. The game is much more complicated now but that makes Lambeau and Thorpe’s feats no less remarkable.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame has often been called a shrine to professional football. Green Bay and Lambeau Field have often been described the same way. While the Packers’ stadium is home to a team-specific hall of fame, it is steeped in football history and NFL history runs directly through Green Bay in the 1960s thanks to the Vince Lombardi-led dynasty. The Packers also have 28 members enshrined in Canton -- including LeRoy Butler, who will formally be inducted today.

It was during the Lombardi era in Green Bay that the Super Bowl was born, and the Packers won the first two. The NFL was gaining in popularity nationally as just three years after the Packers won Super Bowl II, the league merged with the upstart American Football League and the modern day NFL (with National and American Football Conferences) was born.

In other words, Canton gave birth to professional football and Green Bay raised it.

Since the Packers’ dynasty of the 1960s, the game has flourished. Football, and especially the NFL, are not without their warts but one needs to look no further than TV ratings to see the stranglehold football has on America. Thursday’s Hall of Fame Game, a preseason game with minimal stars seeing the field, drew over 5 million viewers. That’s more than the average of the 2022 Stanley Cup Final.

Don’t let misguided naysayers or “boycotts” fool you. The game is not dying. It’s thriving.

It’s tough to think of the NFL’s humble beginnings considering the empire it is today. It is unlikely that anyone present on that fateful day nearly 102 years ago saw what the NFL would become in both financial growth as well as its place in American culture, but thankfully that initial meeting in Canton started the ball rolling on something truly special.

The same can be said for the Packers, who truly are unique among professional sports teams as the only franchise to remain publicly owned. Who knew what Lambeau started alongside George Whitney Calhoun would become the special team and place it is today? The Packers are one of the league’s premier franchises, despite being without a deep-pocketed owner. You just don’t see stories like this in our modern sports landscape anymore.

That is what truly makes both Green Bay and Canton so very special. They hearken back to a simpler, purer time when all that mattered was the game. No one had to worry about pleasing sponsors or network presentations and just let football speak for itself.

Unfortunately that is an era long since past but as long as these two cities endure, that era won’t fade away.

It will endure forevermore.