American Football Database


William Heffelfinger

Heffelfinger at Yale
Date of birth: (1867-12-20)December 20, 1867
Place of birth: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Date of death: April 2, 1954(1954-04-02) (aged 86)
Place of death: Blessing, Texas
Career information
Position(s): Guard
Career highlights and awards
College Football Hall of Fame, 1951

William Walter Heffelfinger (December 20, 1867 – April 2, 1954) was an American football player and coach. He is considered the first athlete to play American football professionally, having been paid to play in 1892.[1]

Early life

Heffelfinger was born in 1867 in the then-small city of Minneapolis. William's father was Major Christopher B. Heffelfinger and his mother was Mary Ellen Totton. Both his parents were born in Pennsylvania. Maj. Heffelfinger came by riverboat to Minneapolis in 1857, joined the Union Army at the outset of the Civil War, was wounded at Gettysburg, and after the war started the family shoe manufacturing business.[2] During William's lifetime, the Heffelfinger family rose to prominence in Minneapolis.[2][3][4]

As a boy, William Heffelfinger was nicknamed "Pudge". He played baseball and football in high school. Occasionally, during his junior and senior years of high school he also played baseball, as a catcher, and football, as a halfback, for the University of Minnesota.[5]

Playing career


Heffelfinger, a three-time All-American, played for Walter Camp at Yale College in 1888, 1889, 1890, and 1891.[1]

Originally Heffelfinger had planned to attend the University of Minnesota, but in May of his senior year in high school a local Yale alumnus who recognized his athletic talent convinced him to play for Yale instead, and tutored him so he could pass the entrance exam.[6] On Heffelfinger's first day of freshman practice in 1888, the captain of the varsity team, "Pa" Corbin, spotted him on the field and gave him a position on the varsity line.[6] According to Corbin, during Heffelfinger's first year, in spite of his skill, the freshman from the Midwest was not sufficiently ferocious for the Yale style of play until Howard Knapp, one of the graduate coaches, motivated him by an unusual method:

The freshman Heffelfinger was 6 feet 3 inches in height, weighed 210 pounds and looked like the most demure, gentle, self-effacing individual that could be imagined. His usual posture was head bowed, shoulders stopped, eyes to the ground, with no idea whatever of his marvelous power and nature-given ability to strike terror in his opponents.

Knapp did everything possible by word and deed to arouse Heff so that he would give all he had in him for the good of the Yale team. Finally, at his wits end, Howard decided he would try the sight of blood to stir up Heff's dormant bellicose spirit.

He wrote Heff, with pen dipped in blood which be had obtained from a slaughter house, one of the sharpest, strongest of letters, using every reasonable form of expression to get Heff out of his lethargy. Heff, not knowing the nature of the gore, certainly must have been stirred, for the week after receiving the letter he played the best game of the season against Princeton.

Heff found himself that day and from then on was a terror to his opponents.

The 1888 Yale team was not only undefeated and untied, but unscored upon, with a season scoring record of 698 to 0.[7]

During Heffelfinger's four years playing for Yale under Camp, the team only lost two games. His teammates included, besides Pa Corbin: Alonzo Stagg, Charley Gill, Billy Rhodes, Lee "Bum" McClung and George Washington Woodruff. Heffelfinger felt that the greatest of these teams was the undefeated 1891 team he played on his senior year, which he described as "one of the best balanced teams I ever saw."[8]

Heffelfinger's athletic activities at Yale were not limited to football: he lettered in three other sports: rowing, baseball and track,[8] and won the university heavyweight boxing championship.[9]

First professional football player

After leaving Yale, Heffelfinger played amateur football for the Chicago Athletic Association (for which he was compensated with "double expenses", as was a common practice at the time). He was widely considered the best player at the time. Meanwhile, two Pittsburgh teams, the Allegheny Athletic Association (nicknamed the 3As) and the Pittsburgh Athletic Club had a heated rivalry and both were looking for an advantage in their upcoming game. Pittsburgh A.C. offered him $250 to play for them in the game, but he felt the amount was not enough to jeopardize his amateur status. The 3As doubled the amount and on the day of the game, Heffelfinger and two of his Chicago teammates were playing for the 3As. The game was played at Recreation Park, which was located on Pittsburgh's north shore. The spot is marked by a historic marker.[10]

Although the payment for Heffelfinger's play was not published or admitted at the time, his presence set off quite a controversy as Pittsburgh A.C. protested the presence of the Chicago Athletic Association players in their line-up. Allegheny retaliated with the fact that Pittsburgh had imported players as well. The game ended in a 4–0 Allegheny win. Heffelfinger scored the game's only touchdown on a recovered fumble. A touchdown was only worth four points at the time.[1][11]

In the 1960s a man known only as "Nelson Ross" walked into the office of Art Rooney, the president of the Pittsburgh Steelers of the National Football League. After a brief discussion, the man gave Rooney a typed, 49-page manuscript about the early history of pro football. Ross' examination of Pittsburgh newspapers indicated that the first pro American football player actually was Pudge Heffelfinger, an all-American guard from Yale, who was hired to play for Allegheny on November 12, 1892 for $500 ($12.2 thousand in 2018 dollars[12]). The Pro Football Hall of Fame soon discovered a page torn from an 1892 account ledger prepared by Allegheny manager, O. D. Thompson, that included the line item: "Game performance bonus to W. Heffelfinger for playing (cash) $500."[13] Though the payment was not verified until the acquisition of an Allegheny Athletic Association expense ledger from the day by the Pro Football Hall of Fame, this fee established Heffelfinger as being the first professional American football player on record.[14]

The next week, Allegheny paid former Princeton end Ben "Sport" Donnelly $250 to play alongside Pudge against Washington & Jefferson College. Despite having two pros in their line-up, the Allegheny would go on to lose the game, 8–0.[15]

Coaching career


Heffelfinger took his first head football coaching job with the University of California, Berkeley for the 1893 football season and was the third person to be assigned to the post. His team achieved a record of 5 wins, 1 loss, and 1 tie.[16]


Heffelfinger was the third head football coach for Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and he held that position for the 1894 season. His overall coaching record at Lehigh was 5 wins and 9 losses.[16]


Heffelfinger also coached the University of Minnesota football team in 1895. He led the team to a 7–3 record in his only season there.[16] Highlights included victories over rivals University of Wisconsin–Madison and University of Chicago, outscoring their opponents 136 to 58 for the season.[17]

Later life

Heffelfinger married Grace Harriet Pierce in 1901. The couple remained married until his death in 1954.[18] After his official coaching career ended, Heffelfinger immersed himself in the business world in Minneapolis. He joined the family shoe manufacturing business. The business suffered heavily in the Panic of 1907,[19] and was forced into bankruptcy in 1910, as were Heffelfinger and his father.[20]

After the failure of the manufacturing business, Heffelfinger had an active career in real estate,[9] including major commercial deals.[21] In his real estate work, Heffelfinger is credited with important contributions to the early development of the upper Nicollet Avenue area, with organizing the company which built the 1910 Physicians and Surgeons building, and with bringing the Butler Brothers to Minneapolis.[9]

Heffelfinger was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1904 and 1908.[9] He first won elective office in 1924, running against more experienced politicians and easily capturing a seat on the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners.[9][22] During his first election campaign Heffelfinger competed energetically, and compared politics to football, telling a reporter he would reduce taxes "if I make a touchdown in this political game, which I'll admit is tougher than football, a whole lot."[23] Heffelfinger continued to serve on the Hennepin County Board for 24 years, including 4 years as board chairman.[9] During Prohibition Heffelfinger ran twice as a "wet" in the Republican primary for Minnesota's 5th congressional district losing both times to prohibitionist and former Lieutenant Governor William I. Nolan.[9][24]

Throughout his life, Heffelfinger, maintained a high level of involvement with football.[9] After his professional coaching career ended, he continued for decades to make yearly trips to New Haven to assist the coaching staff.[8] Into his 50s, Heffelfinger not only coached the Yalies from the sideline, but scrimmaged with them on the field, showing remarkable toughness.[8][9] He also played competitively in charity and exhibition games against much younger men, playing his last game at age 65.[9] From 1935 to 1950, Heffelfinger edited Heffelfinger's Football Facts, a yearly booklet featuring history, rules, statistics, and professional and college schedules for the upcoming season.[25]

Head coaching record

Year Team Overall
California Golden Bears (Independent) (1893)
1893 California 5–1–1
California: 5–1–1
Lehigh Brown and White (Independent) (1894)
1894 Lehigh 5–9
Lehigh: 5–9
Minnesota Golden Gophers (Independent) (1895)
1895 Minnesota 7–3
Minnesota: 7–3
Total: 17–13–1
Indicates BCS bowl, Bowl Alliance or Bowl Coalition game.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Names, Larry D (1987). "The Myth". In Scott, Greg. The History of the Green Bay Packers: The Lambeau Years. 1. Angel Press of WI. pp. 24–25. ISBN 0-939995-00-X.
  2. 2.0 2.1 ""Major Heffelfinger, Pioneer and Veteran, Succumbs at Home"". Minneapolis Morning Tribune. November 8, 1915.
  3. ""F.T.,'Chief Heffelfinger,' Honored by Banco Directors"". The Minneapolis Star. December 23, 1948.
  4. ""Heffelfinger discusses Grandfather's Legacy, Ryder Cup"". September 30, 2016. Retrieved March 19, 2017.
  5. ""Pudge Heffelfinger" Dies in Texas at 86"". The Minneapolis Star. April 3, 1954.
  6. 6.0 6.1 ""William Walter "Pudge" Heffelfinger"". Retrieved March 21, 2017.
  7. "Heffelfinger, 86, Yale Star, is Dead. All-American Blocking Guard of 1889–91 Was Legendary Figure of Ivy Gridiron". New York Times. April 3, 1954.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 Barton, George A. (May 13, 1923). "Pudge Heffelfinger Great Guard". Minneapolis Sunday Tribune.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 9.6 9.7 9.8 9.9 "Heffelfinger, All-Time Grid Great, Is Dead". Minneapolis Morning Tribune. April 3, 1954.
  10. "First Professional Football Game Historical Marker". Retrieved November 12, 2014.
  11. "History: Pro Football's Birth Certificate". Retrieved November 12, 2014.
  12. Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–2008. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Retrieved December 7, 2010.
  13. "NFL History by Decade, 1869–1910". Retrieved November 12, 2014.
  14. "History: Birth of Pro Football". February 7, 2010. Retrieved November 12, 2012.
  15. PFRA Research. "Five Hundred Reasons". Retrieved November 12, 2014. Originally published in Carroll and Braunwart, Pro Football, from AAA to '03: The Origin and Development of Professional Football in Western Pennsylvania, 1890–1903 (1991) from PFRA.
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 Grasso, John (2013). Historical Dictionary of Football. Scarecrow Press. p. 175. ISBN 978-0-8108-7857-0.
  17. DeLassus, David. "Coaching Records Game by Game: Heffelfinger, 1895". Retrieved November 12, 2014.
  18. Holley, Joe (February 3, 2007). "Football's first pro player called South Texas home". Houston Chronicle. Retrieved November 12, 2018.
  19. "'Pudge,' of Yale, 'Downed.'". Washington Herald. April 17, 1910.
  20. "North Star Bankruptcy Involves Many Creditors". Minneapolis Sunday Tribune. May 15, 1910.
  21. "McDonald Block is Sold to Investor of Montana". Minneapolis Morning Tribune. September 8, 1911.
  22. "Broderick, Heffelfinger, Ferrin Win Hennepin County Board Contests". Minneapolis Daily Star. November 6, 1924.
  23. Armstrong, Gail (June 12, 1924). "'Pudge' Bucks Toughest Game". Minnesota Daily Star.
  24. "Two State Races Still Undecided". Minneapolis Tribune. June 18, 1930.
  25. "William Walter "Pudge" Heffelfinger First Professional Football Player". Retrieved March 21, 2017.

External links