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When you enjoy watching Dolly Parton’s performance at halftime of the Dallas Cowboys’ Thanksgiving Day game on Thursday, close your eyes and try to imagine her singing highlights of her new ‘Rockstar” album in a halftime show here in Rochester.

What, you ask? How could that ever happen?

Hear us out.

The answer involves a lot of woulda/coulda/shouldas, first and foremost that most Rochesterians would not support professional football games one century ago in a city that was a hotbed of local semipro teams, which had drawn sizable crowds dating back to the late 19th century.

An action photo from the Rochester Jeffersons game against the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds in New York on Nov. 11, 1925. New York won 13-0 in the Jeffersons final season in the NFL.

Let’s travel back to the very first Thanksgiving Day on which National Football League games were played – Nov. 25, 1920 — in the league's inaugural seaon. Among the host cities for the holiday slate of six professional football games was Rochester, where the league’s Rochester Jeffersons lost to the non-league All-Tonawanda Lumberjacks, by the score of 14-3.

“What promises to be one of the hardest fought games of the season will be staged at Baseball Park at 2:45 o’clock this afternoon when Leo Lyons’ Jeffersons face the All-Tonawanda eleven,” a D&C article on Thanksgiving morning read.

Now, this was not the league nor the sport that you see on your televisions today. Indeed, television was still decades away, and the nation’s first commercial radio station had only gone on the air earlier in November 1920.

Leo Lyons of the Rochester Jeffersons in 1916.

The NFL, which for its first two seasons was known as the APFA (for American Professional Football Association), only got started that season following a meeting of interested parties at an automobile dealership in Canton, Ohio. Among the persons seeking to make the league work was Rochester’s Leo Lyons, who had a lifelong fascination with pro football and worked tirelessly to support it.

Lyons had gotten involved playing for and eventually running the Jeffersons around 1908 when they were a semipro team on which players were paid by the game. The young man began to put his stamp on the team about a decade after the team was founded in the very late 1890s.

Rochester had a strong Thanksgiving Day football tradition

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An image of the 1919 New York State Championship game program. The Rochester Jeffersons hosted the Buffalo Prospects in a game played in a snowstorm in front of some 4,000 fans. It ended in a 0-0 tie. This game occurred one year before the Jeffersons joined the NFL.

Thanksgiving Day football was a bit of a tradition in the early 20th century in cities like Rochester; historians believe the semipro version of the Jeffersons played at least eight games over the years on the holiday. Numerous college teams including the University of Rochester also hosted games on Thanksgiving.

One of the better-known such games occurred in a Rochester snowstorm on Thanksgiving Day 1919, the Jeffersons' last year as a semipro team before helping found the NFL in 1920. Rochester tied Buffalo 0-0 before 4,000 fans in a match for the New York state league championship. (Buffalo would go on to claim that state championship when it defeated Rochester shortly thereafter on a day with presumably better weather.)

Interest in the Rochester Jeffersons waned after they joined NFL

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In all those years of semipro ball, the Jeffersons' roster was dominated by local players, and Rochester fans adored the team. But once the Jeffs, as they were known, went professional, a need arose to stock the team with better players from elsewhere. Alas, Lyons’ salesmanship was no match for the parochial nature of Rochester fans' sports interests, and attendance actually went down once the team was a part of the NFL.

"The fans revolted," said Lyons' great-grandson John Steffenhagen of Fairport, who is co-writing with Jeff Miller a book due out in 2025 about the Rochester Jeffersons. "Rochester was a close-knit community, and they just wanted to see their players, their kids."

Indeed, Rochesterians’ lack of interest in professional football is reflected in the page layout choices of the Democrat and Chronicle’s editors for the newspaper’s Thanksgiving Day edition 103 years ago.

The preview story for the Jeffersons’ 1920 Thanksgiving Day game is all of three paragraphs, supplemented by a listing of each team’s starters that does not include players’ first names.

The story appears on Page 27, featured lower and less prominently than a.) a preview of the University of Rochester football game happening that same day against Hobart College and b.) a story about a basketball game between the Buffalo Lincolns and the Rochester Centrals (“It was great!” the writer tells D&C readers) and c.) a story previewing high school basketball games between East High and Canandaigua and between West High and Brockport.

Leo Lyons of the Rochester Jeffersons riding in the 1971 Football Hall of Fame parade.

The news coverage also highlighted a reality of professional football in its primitive state: Players came and went nearly at will, not always tied to just one team. Indeed, many would come from the college ranks, showing up to be paid for maybe just one game.

Was it easy for team owners like Lyons to find and keep players?

Wrote the D&C on Nov. 25, 1920; “Lou Usher, who has played a few games for the Jeffs this season, is through with football for the rest of his life; so he declares in a telegram received by Lyons last evening. Hence he will not be seen in the line-up of the Rochester eleven this afternoon.”

Guess not.

It simply was a different era, Steffenhagen says. Team members played both offense and defense, the running game was pre-eminent (no Josh Allens in the league then) and the sport was brutal, with poorly designed cleats held on to shoes by nails often resulting in cuts to players as the games wore on, he said.

In the Nov. 26, 1920, edition of the D&C, the Rochester-Tonawanda game story headline is in smaller type than the headline about the UR-Hobart game.

This Nov. 26, 1920, Democrat and Chronicle sports story details the Rochester Jeffersons' Thanksgiving Day loss to a team from Tonawanda, 14-3. The match was one of six inaugural Thanksgiving games in the National Football League's first season.

“’Red’ Quigley’s muff of a punt, with three Tonawanda men on him, and a fluke forward pass enabled the All-Tonawanda football eleven to triumph over Leo Lyons’s Jeffersons at Baseball Park yesterday afternoon, 14 to 3," begins the story. "In a mixture of mud and snow, the teams battled on even terms for the greater part of the game, and it was only the breaks that gave the contest to the Niagara county outfit.”

The presence of a college player gave the Jeffs a boost, but not enough to win.

“The Jeffersons were armed with another player yesterday afternoon, Tandy, formerly with the Syracuse University eleven. Tandy put up an exhibition at end that outshone any seen on a Rochester gridiron this season, but, despite this aid, the Jeffs were unable to summon enough power to go over the line for a touchdown.”

There is no mention of any halftime entertainment, but the fans’ anger at officials’ calls in the game provided its own excitement.

“There was considerable kicking over the decisions of the referee and the umpire, both teams “squawking” and the fans clamoring from start to finish. Several times the umpire ruled the ball out of bounds some yards from where the player went out, and then the fun would start."

The box score shows that Rochester took a first-quarter lead on a field goal, the team’s only points of the game. Tonawanda managed touchdowns in the second quarter and the fourth quarter. Interestingly, the box score notes each quarter ran for 12 minutes, shorter than the present-day NFL time of 15 minutes per quarter.

Four seasons without a win finished Rochester Jeffersons' run in NFL

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Artifacts from the Rochester Jeffersons football team, including these vintage cleats, that once were on display at the Strong Museum of Play.

Rochester would wind up playing six seasons in the new NFL. It was a struggle. Fans wanted teams with local players, but those players were outmatched against those from other NFL teams from places like Chicago and Akron. The Jeffersons would often play non-league opponents, which was allowed in the infant NFL. In that era, the league didn't really keep standings or have formal playoffs to crown a champion.

Lyons tried all sorts of promotional efforts, including children's days and discounted tickets, but Rochester fans mostly stayed away, said Miller, the football historian co-writing a Jeffersons book with Steffenhagen. It did not help that the Jeffs did not win a game after the 1921 season, losing every match in 1922, 1923, 1924 and 1925.

Ouch.

The Jeffs did play and host one more Thanksgiving Day game, losing to fellow NFL team the Buffalo All-Americans 21-0 in 1922.

A Dec. 1, 1922, Democrat and Chronicle article detailing what occurred in the Rochester Jeffersons' second, and final, Thanksgiving Day game while a member of the National Football League. Rochester lost to fellow NFL team Buffalo, 21-0.

Rochester Jeffersons fans had a rowdy reputation

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Lyons would write notes about many of the team's games, and he noted in his writings on the 1922 Thanksgiving game that there were drunks on the field, Miller said in an interview.

Apparently, city police had to go on the field and stop one person with a gun. A player tackled a fan on the field. A dismayed Lyons indicated in his notes that such shenanigans by fans looked bad for the league.

"His primary concern was always for how the NFL was growing and its image with the public," Miller said. "He loved the National Football League; he wanted it to succeed. He knew this type of behavior was not good for the league. More than losing, more than money, it was how the city of Rochester looked to the league, and how the league looked to the fans" that mattered most to Lyons.

D&C "Whatever Happened To..." columnist Alan Morrell described the team' eventual demise this way in a story a several years ago:

"Lyons said in a 1975 Democrat and Chronicle story that the average home attendance was about 1,200, which wasn’t nearly enough to pay the bills. The Jeffersons played all of their 1925 games on the road. When the season ended, so too did the Jeffersons."

So on Thanksgiving Day 2023, one century after the Jeffersons played with pride if not necessarily success, we are left only with what-ifs.

What if Rochester fans had taken to pro football, what if Lyons had been able to put more fans in the stands, what if the Jeffersons could have held on another decade or so? In that case, then the team would have been around when the Detroit Lions established a Thanksgiving Day game tradition in 1934 that persists to the present day.

What if Rochester had been more like Green Bay, Wisconsin, a working-class, smaller city that found a way to support and sustain its NFL team over the decades?L Then the Jeffersons might have been around when the Dallas Cowboys established a Thanksgiving Day game tradition beginning in 1966 that persists to the present day.

Who knows? Maybe Leo Lyons, who remained involved with the NFL and served as a de facto league historian until his death in the 1970s, would have found a way to establish a Thanksgiving Day tradition in Rochester, if his beloved Jeffs had not folded. In which case, perhaps, Dolly Parton might have showed up here for halftime of a Thanksgiving Day 2023 game in Rochester instead of Dallas.

WIth apologies to Ernest Hemingway, yes, isn't it pretty to think so?

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