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Was the first pro football halftime show used as a way to sell dogs?

April 25, 2012|By Brian Cronin
  • A historical marker commemorating the Oorang Indians.
A historical marker commemorating the Oorang Indians. ( )

FOOTBALL URBAN LEGEND: The first pro football halftime show was designed as a way to sell dogs.

Today, halftime shows are a consistent part of any NFL game, with the Super Bowl halftime show routinely being the most lavish example. However, in the early days of pro football, halftime shows were non-existent. The players would go into the locker rooms and that was it. Even in college football, halftime shows by the 1920s were a rarity. This changed with the introduction of a new football team in 1922 that was designed all around one very important function...selling dogs.

Walter Lingo was born in the small village of LaRue, Ohio, in 1900. Before he was a teenager, Lingo had bred his first litter of puppies. He became one of the top breeders in the United States, specializing in Airedale terriers. Lingo bred larger Airedales (nearly twice the size of their British brethren) that he dubbed "King Oorang." "Oorang" is not a word in any Native American language that I know of, but my guess would be that Lingo came up with a name that sounded like it could be a Native American word. You see, LaRue stands on what was once a Wyandot village (the Wyandot are sometimes called the Huron) and Lingo felt an affinity for Native Americans. In 1919, he befriended one of the most famous Native Americans in the world, Jim Thorpe, then known as one of the greatest athletes in the world. Thorpe at this point in time had been playing pro football for a number of years, mainly for the Canton Bulldogs, who were a year away from being a founding member of the American Professional Football Assn. (APFA), which re-named itself the National Football League (NFL) in 1922.

In 1921, Lingo invited Thorpe and a friend of Thorpe's, Pete Calac (who was a star athlete at the Carlisle Indian School along with Thorpe) on a hunting trip. During the trip, the trio formalized plans for the creation of a pro football team. The point of the franchise was to advertise Lingo's terriers. Therefore, to properly draw in crowds, Lingo's plan was to essentially combine a pro football team with a traveling Wild West show. He had Thorpe recruit an entire team made up of Native American football players. The team was dubbed the Oorang Indians, in honor of Lingo's terriers and his Native American players. They joined the NFL for the 1922 season.

All the players would not only play on the team, but they would work at Lingo's dog kennels in Ohio. Since LaRue did not even have a football field, the Indians were mostly a traveling squad. By this point, Lingo's dog kennel had expanded into a large mail-order business, selling dogs for over $100 apiece (an exorbitant amount of money at the time. To put it into perspective, note that the franchise fee for an NFL team was just $100). So the Indians worked as a traveling advertisement for his mail-order business. It was only at Thorpe's insistence that the men be given an occasional break that Lingo agreed to have the occasional "home" game (since LaRue did not have a field, they had to play in nearby Marion, Ohio).

As I noted before, Lingo's idea was to combine the football games with Wild West shows, and that is just what an Oorang Indians game would be for visitors. There would be pre-game festivities but most importantly, a halftime show where the players (Thorpe included) would do tricks with the dogs. Thorpe's daughter Grace, though, recalled that Thorpe was a more than willing participant. "But it was a unique marriage. (Lingo) wanted to promote his dogs. And Dad -- in addition to being a great athlete -- was a great lover of dogs. My mother told me one time that his favorite hunting dog was killed in a hunting accident and Dad cried over it. He loved his dogs." There wouldn't just be dog tricks, as there would also be traditional Wild West demonstrations (native dances, etc.) and Thorpe would do drop kicking exhibitions.

The Indians were not a particularly good team (their record was 4-16 in their two seasons in the NFL), most likely because the players knew that they were not there to play football but rather to advertise dogs (the fact that Thorpe mostly coached rather than played and Calac rarely played either due to injuries suffered fighting in World War I didn't help). The players would stay up to all hours of the night partying on the road. Leon Boutwell, a Chippewa who played some quarterback for the Indians, recalled, "White people had this misconception about Indians. They thought we were all wild men, even though almost all of us had been to college and were generally more civilized than they were. Well, it was a dandy excuse to raise hell and get away with it when the mood struck us. Since we were Indians, we could get away with things the white men couldn't. Don't think we didn't take advantage of it."

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