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A new film highlights Ohio’s historic football firsts

Young men huddle together wearing old-fashioned gold helmets in football uniforms.
Triangle Park Movie
"Triangle Park" takes audiences back to the early 20th century to explore the beginnings of professional football.

Playgrounds and picnic tables dot Triangle Park in Dayton. The unassuming green space is similar to any number of parks in the city and across Ohio: a field of trees, a gravel path, plenty of grass to play on. But Triangle Park played a key role in America’s most popular sport.

In 1920, the Ohio site was home to the first-ever NFL game. A new documentary “Triangle Park” tells the story of the historic face-off between the Dayton Triangles and the Columbus Panhandles. It’s just one of many football firsts that the state can take pride in, said filmmaker Allen Farst.

“Ohio was really the epicenter of [professional football],” Farst said.

Farst’s documentary captures what that first football game would have looked like, with the help of stories from the descendants of past players. Farst, a Dayton native, explores Ohio’s football roots across the state, including in Canton, where the NFL was founded.

Ohio’s football firsts

In the early 20th century, Ohio was a hotbed for football, with more teams than any other state. There were no Bengals or Browns; instead the state was home to teams like the Canton Bulldogs, the Massillon Tigers, the Toledo Maroons and the Akron Professionals.

Ohio’s railways were an advantage for attracting teams to play in the state. But, Farst said, at that point, the games were largely unstructured.

“It was kind of like, ‘Hey, who could meet up, who could play? It was for the love of the game,” Farst said.

That changed in 1920 when ten teams met in Canton to found the American Professional Football League, which two years later would be renamed the National Football League. Farst recreates these meetings in his film, and the celebrations at a local Canton bar, Bender’s Tavern, that still exists today.

“We wanted to reenact that moment of them coming together there and coming in and what that might have looked like,” he said.

The film reenacts scenes like the first NFL touchdown carried out by Triangles’ running back Lou Partlow. It also honors the first league presidents like Jim Thorpe, the Canton Bulldogs star player and inaugural leader, and Joe Carr, a manager for the Columbus Panhandles who went on to run the NFL in 1922.

A lasting legacy

Despite the story being over a century old, Farst said the inaugural game can be a source of pride for Ohio football fans.

“We obviously know Neil Armstrong was the first guy on the moon, but this is also one of those seminal moments that you want your communities to know,” he said.

His film will debut nationally on Wednesday in all 32 cities with NFL teams. He said it could be a good opportunity to promote more tourism to sites like the Dayton Triangles locker room, which sits in Carillon Park today.

“You can go in there and walk in that locker room, the same locker room, the same treasure, if you will, that the players did 103 years ago. So I think it's pretty special that you can still see something like that,” he said.

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.