Rochester might not always stick with it, but Rochester tends to be there at the start of several news trend or great ideas. The grand beginnings of Rochester’s past extend to the NFL, with a team called the Rochester Jeffersons and an ambitious leader by the name of Leo Lyons. The Rochester Jeffersons played in the National Football League from 1920 (at its inception) to 1925. They were there right at the beginning but they weren’t very good.
The Rochester Jeffersons began as a club team of teenagers playing amateur football at least as early as 1898. The team was named The Jeffersons because their “home-field” was on Jefferson Avenue. The “Jeffs” played other area amateur teams, their biggest rivalry being the Rochester Scalpers, who they always played on Thanksgiving Day for a good crowd. In 1908, at the age of 16, Leo Lyons joined the team and became the catalyst for taking the team to the next level. By the time Lyons was 18, he was managing, financing and promoting the Jeffersons full-time.
By 1917, the Jeffersons were growing tired of their semi-pro competition in the area. They began to look for bigger and better opponents, including Jim Thorpe’s team the Canton Bulldogs. The Jeffersons lost badly against Thorpe’s team (41-0) but the audacity of the stunt, of challenging such a team gave the Jeffersons notoriety and they were able to recruit better players and play more teams around the country.
It may even be true that the balls it took to challenge the Canton Bulldogs led the inception of the American Professional Football Association (later changed to the National Football League). At the 1920 meeting that founded the organization and the roaster of teams for the league Lyons and the Jeffersons were included. This made the Jeffersons a charter member of the organization and the NFL considers Lyons a co-founder.
Lyons ran the Jeffersons pretty singlehandedly. He owned the team, managed the team, served as photographer, doctor, counselor, financier, game-booker, agent and scout (He recruited one of pro-football’s first black players, Henry McDonald). Leo Lyons wanted the Jeffersons to be a success.
The character of Rochester to like its own proved to be a problem for the Jeffersons in the fledgling years of professional football. Rochesterians were more interested in the local boys playing “sand-lot” football than in professional players that were recruited. The local, semi-pro teams drew much larger crowds than the Jeffersons, meaning that they weren’t making it on ticket sales. Also contributing to a lack of sales and fans was the fact that they just weren’t good enough. The players that they had recruited made them too skilled to compete against the “sand-lot teams”, but during the five seasons that the Jeffersons played in the NFL, they won only two games. In 1925, the last season the Jeffersons existed as a team, Lyons attempted to sign Red Grange to the team as a last ditch effort. Grange wound up on the Chicago Bears instead. By this point, the team was out of money and so was Lyons, having dumped all of his own money into it, his house was even foreclosed on.
The team folded officially in 1928, though they hadn’t played a season since 1925. Lyons dedication to the Jeffersons and professional football did not pay off for the team, his bank account or the city of Rochester in terms of having a big name team around, but Lyons was valued as a part of the NFL. He was eventually named honorary historian. He had quite a collection of memorabilia from the early days of the league and was instrumental in founding the Football Hall of Fame. Apparently the founding of the Green Bay Packers was forever a thorn in his side, because Green Bay was so much smaller than Rochester, Lyons felt that the Jeffersons deserved the success that Green Bay found.
When Leo Lyons died in 1978, Halas, who owned the Bears was quoted as saying, “I have always regarded Leo as a friend. I’ve known him for more than 50 years and in all those years he always did what was best for the league. His loyalty to the NFL never wavered, even after his team left the league.”
If things had been a little different, maybe Rochester could have had a big name team to call its own in the NFL, but at least we can claim a founding member of the NFL and one of the first teams to ever play in the league. The Jeffersons were there at the start of professional football, they just didn’t make it very long.