Getting reacquainted with Rochester's trailblazing NFL team
In September 1920, the Rochester media eagerly awaited the debut of the city's fully professional football team, the Jeffersons. Owned and managed by Leo Lyons, the Jeffs were charter members of the American Professional Football Association, which was renamed the National Football League two years later.
"Some of the best teams in the country will be brought to Rochester," stated the Democrat and Chronicle on September 5, 1920, "and the sporting element which has been dormant for several years will be given a chance to revive.
"Manager Lyons has obtained strong financial backing for the team," the paper added, "and he says that this city will be represented by an eleven that will set a new mark in the matter of playing talent."
Five years later, however, the Jeffersons folded after several seasons of dismal play on the field and a sea of red ink off of it. A team that had been crucial in the creation of the NFL faded into obscurity. Today, the Jeffs are at best a footnote in Rochester sports lore, forgotten relics relegated to history's dustbin.
"It was so long ago," says Ken Crippen, a member of the Professional Football Researchers Association. "The Jeffersons really weren't able to compete on a national level, so today probably few people would know about them."
John Steffenhagen, Leo Lyons' great-grandson, first learned about the Jeffersons as a young boy. In his youth Steffenhagen would visit Lyons' home in Pittsford, and he would marvel at the football memorabilia and mementos his great-grandfather had accumulated over the years. "His downstairs was like the Hall of Fame," Steffenhagen says.
Steffenhagen remembers being at his great-grandfather's home when Vince Lombardi was visiting; Lyons was good friends with the legendary Green Bay coach, as well as with George Halas and Art Rooney, two of pro football's pioneers and greatest figures.
The more Steffenhagen learned about the Rochester Jeffersons, the more he wanted to let football fans know about the trailblazing team. He notes that the Jeffs predated storied franchises like the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears, both of whom made trips to the FlourCity. "Those teams played here in Rochester," Steffenhagen says, "and no one knows about it."
The Jeffersons had deep roots in Rochester; the Jeffs started out as a successful amateur team that won the New YorkState championship in 1917 and played against Jim Thorpe's Canton Bulldogs.
Lyons joined the Jeffersons as a 16-year-old, playing end at first but gradually assuming more and more of the business responsibilities of the team. He printed tickets, scheduled opponents, kept the books, recruited talent, publicized games, and took photographs.
When the APFA (the NFL's precursor) was forming in 1920, Lyons made sure he got in on the ground floor and turned his team into a fully professional unit, which in itself was a huge achievement. "Not too many sandlot teams get to the NFL," says Steffenhagen.
At first the professional Jeffs experienced modest success, but Lyons soon realized that if his team were to compete against the other NFL squads, he would need to import talent from outside the Rochester area.
But that, ironically, turned out to be the Jeffs' downfall. Rochester football fans were fiercely loyal to their homegrown stars, and as the Jeffersons retained fewer and fewer local players, Rochesterians lost interest in the team and refused to attend games.
It also didn't help that, despite the services of numerous big-name players, the Jeffersons were simply pitiful on the field. By the end of the 1925 season, the Jeffs' cumulative record in the NFL stood at an unbelievably dismal 2-26-2. Lyons had no choice but to fold the team before the 1926 season.
"(A)mong the league's foremost lessons in its first half-dozen years was that Rochester was a pro football wasteland," wrote the PFRA's Bob Carroll in a 1981 article titled, "The Town That Hated Pro Football.
"Of course, many small cities failed to make it in the NFL," Carroll added. "Rochester was special. The Jeffersons were a terrible team, all right, but they failed to draw flies precisely BECAUSE they had some big-name stars"
But, Steffenhagen says, that failure shouldn't take away from the fact that Lyons and the Jeffersons helped launch the NFL by forming western New York's first pro team. Because of that, Steffenhagen has dedicated himself to gathering information about his great-grandfather and the Jeffersons. "I've spent years doing it," he says.
Steffenhagen eventually connected with Crippen, the head of the PFRA's western New York committee. Crippen was already conducting research on the Buffalo Bills and other aspects of the region's pro football history when he learned about the Jeffersons, and he immediately became captivated by the team.
As a result, Crippen, with Steffenhagen's help, is writing a book about the team, and the two have joined forces to create www.rochesterjeffersons.com, a website that eventually will include records, scores, rosters, player biographies, photos, videos, and articles.
For Crippen, the effort is about chronicling the crucial history of a trailblazing football team. For Steffenhagen, it's about honoring his ancestor, Leo Lyons.
"He was ahead of his time," the great-grandson says with a smile. "He was someone who dedicated his whole life to the NFL, but he's never gotten the recognition for it."