Quirky Research
FootballNFLFirst score of every NFL season

First score of every NFL season

At some point on Thursday, one of the Bears or Packers will score the first points of the NFL’s 100th season.[1]  [Update: the Bears’ Eddy Pineiro kicked a 38-yard field goal.]  But who scored the first points of its 75th?  Or 50th?  Or 1st?

The American Professional Football Association[2] was founded in 1920, bringing together ten[3] of the existing independent pro football teams into a single league with a common set of rules.  However, much like today’s college football, scheduling was left up to the individual teams, and APFA teams were permitted to play non-members, with those games counting towards the league standings.

The first score ever*?

On September 26, 1920, only one game involving an APFA member was played; the Rock Island Independents versus the non-APFA St. Paul Ideals.  The game, scheduled for 3 p.m. Rock Island, Ill., time,[4] kicked off five minutes later, and proved to be as competitive as a typical FBS v. FCS game.

Rock Island returned the opening kickoff to its own 20 and steadily marched down the field.  Ten plays and four minutes later, on 1st and goal from the St. Paul 10, Rock Island halfback Eddie Novak ran through left tackle for the first score in APFA/NFL history.

Or was it?  Many would question the idea that a game involving a non-NFL member should count towards such a historic first, so the question thus becomes “Who scored the first points in a game between NFL teams?”  On the following Sunday (October 3), two such games were played: the Columbus Panhandles at the Dayton Triangles and the Muncie Flyers[5] at Rock Island.

Commercial radio and television may not have existed in 1920, but the technology to provide and the interest in near-instantaneous nationwide scoring updates definitely did.  Times Square, October 9, 1920.

Sidebar: Does anybody really know what time it is?[6]

Before we can answer which game had the first score, we must determine when the games kicked off.  For the last 50 years of NFL history, kickoff times have been relatively simple; 1 p.m. Eastern,[7] 4 (or 4:15) p.m. Eastern, or an exclusive primetime broadcast.  But from 1920-1969, national broadcasts generally were not a concern, and afternoon kickoff times were largely locally determined and varied widely.

The Dayton game was scheduled for a 2:30 p.m. local start and Rock Island 3:00, but the answer is not as simple as saying that the Dayton game kicked off 30 minutes earlier.

Rock Island is and always has been in the Central Time Zone (UTC-6) since time zones were established in 1883.[8] Dayton is now in the Eastern Time Zone (UTC-5), but in 1920 was on Central time.[9]  So no difference there.

Daylight Saving Time adds another complication.  DST, which shifts summer time one hour ahead, was universally adopted throughout the United States in 1918 during World War I and continued into 1919.  However, starting with 1920, the decision to adopt Daylight Saving Time (as well as the days in which DST would apply) was left up to individual states and usually in turn up to local municipalities.[10] Neither Illinois nor Ohio had statewide DST, nor did the city of Rock Island.  However, Dayton observed DST in 1920 through Halloween, making 2:30 there equivalent to 1:30 in Rock Island.  Therefore, the Dayton-Columbus game started an hour and a half earlier than the Rock Island-Muncie game, and was the first all-member kickoff in NFL history.[11]

Lastly, we must determine when the scores actually took place. Did Dayton or Columbus score within 90 minutes[12] of the opening kickoff, or did they go scoreless, allowing Rock Island or Muncie the chance to potentially score first?

Even today, gamebooks and play-by-plays do not make reference to the time of day in which game events happened (opening kickoff excepted).  Scoreboard clock times are useful, but not determinative; incomplete passes, changes of possession, and other events will stop the game clock but not the clock clock.  The best way we can estimate the time of day at which a score occurred is to take the scheduled kickoff time, add a certain number of seconds per play or minutes  per quarter, and add a certain number of seconds per stoppage.[13]  Scoreboard clock times are helpful, however; if a score happened at the 7:30 mark of the first quarter, a good first guess is that the score happened halfway to whatever the typical Earth-minutes-per-quarter estimate is.

Unfortunately, available recaps from the pre-gamebook era vary widely.  The Rock Island Argus and Green Bay Press-Gazette provided full play-by-play recaps of Independents and Packers games, while the Chicago Cardinals were lucky to get a few paragraphs in local papers.

End sidebar

Back to the opening games of 1920.  Neither Dayton nor Columbus scored in the first half,[14] so we can estimate at least an hour of clock time elapsed.[15] In the 3rd quarter, on something other than the opening possession, Dayton began a sustained drive.  After a series of runs had taken the Triangles to the Panhandles’ 7, Dayton fullback Lou Partlow took the ball in for a touchdown.

Meanwhile, at exactly 3:04 pm Rock Island time (thanks again, Argus), the Independents kicked off to the Flyers.  After a three-and-out, Muncie prepared to punt from their own 35.  Ken Huffine’s attempt was blocked by Ed Shaw, the bouncing ball was recovered by Rock Island’s Arnie Wyman, and Wyman took it in for a touchdown after just three minutes of play.

So who scored first, Dayton or Rock Island?  Our best guess, given the relatively short gametimes from the 1920s, is that Dayton did (A kickoff 90 minutes earlier – ~60 minutes for the first half – halftime – maybe 20 minutes for the score).  However, we can’t rule out that the Dayton kickoff was delayed by a few minutes, or that something caused the quarters to run a little long, or that halftime was extended, or that the score came deeper into the 3rd quarter than the relatively skimpy available recaps suggest.  Therefore, we list them both in the table below, with Dayton’s marked “likely” and Rock Island’s marked “possible.”

We then repeated the above process for each of the other 99 NFL seasons.[16]  Enjoy. 

First score of every NFL season, 1920-2020

  • Lg: APFA (1920-21) was renamed NFL in 1922, AAFC (1946-49), AFL (1960-69)
  • Symbols:
    • confirmed first score or the only game scheduled that day
    • likely first score of season
    • split decision — no clear consensus
    • possible, but not likely
  • Links (to Pro Football Reference)
    • boxscore
    • scoring player
    • passer

Ben Austro contributed to this post.

  1. [1]Or not — Quirky Research would be greatly amused by the first 0-0 game since 1943.
  2. [2]Renamed the National Football League in 1922.
  3. [3]Four more teams would join the APFA during the year.
  4. [4]So, more on this later …
  5. [5]Muncie, though a member in good standing, did not play another game during the 1920 APFA season.
  6. [6]Does anybody really care?
  7. [7]Some Central Time Zone teams played early-slot home games at 2 p.m. Eastern throughout the 1970s, as did the Baltimore Colts through 1983, but they were the exceptions.
  8. [8]All historic time zone and Daylight Saving Time information is from Doris Chase Doane’s incredibly comprehensive Time Changes in the U.S.A., https://archive.org/details/time-changes-in-usa-1966/page/n2, possibly astrology’s greatest contribution to society.
  9. [9]Ohio slowly shifted to the Eastern Time Zone, with Cleveland in 1914, Dayton and many other major cities in 1926, Cincinnati in 1927, and the rest of the state in 1936.  Most other states have not shifted from their original time zones.
  10. [10]Most of this ended when Congress passed the Uniform Time Act of 1966, but continued to be a cause of confusion in Indiana for 40 years after that. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_in_Indiana
  11. [11]There is a plaque in Dayton’s Triangle Park commemorating this fact. https://goo.gl/maps/SHJQoTCBsSbSkPqC7
  12. [12]Earth time, not scoreboard time.
  13. [13]Games in the 1920s ran somewhere around the 2-hour range; games today are closer to 3.  30 minutes per quarter and 40 seconds per play is a decent estimate for pre-TV football.  For example, from 1927: “hostilities” at 2:00, departure at 4:15.Hostilities at 2. Departure at 4:15.
  14. [14]Dayton ended the first half with a series of plunges “in the shadow of the Panhandles goal,” but time ran out before 3rd and goal.  Bad clock management has always existed in the NFL.
  15. [15]The game was played with 12½-minute quarters instead of the usual 15, so maybe shave off 5 minutes here.
  16. [16]Obviously, this was a lot easier for the years that opened with an exclusive primetime game.

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