Richmond “Pro” Football
Pro football in Richmond dates back to the 1930’s, when the Richmond Rebels were part of the fabled Dixie Pro Football League, sometimes called the third of the three majors.
Farrar: Commentator Brooks Smith is rediscovering Richmond’s sports history, and, Brooks, today with the Superbowl just around the corner, why don’t we talk about professional football in Richmond. Now, a lot of people are gonna be surprised to hear that Richmond does have a history of professional football, mostly at what we might call the minor league level. Tell us about that, first of all.
Smith: Well, we do indeed have football history here in Richmond. Pro football dates back to the 1930’s, when we had the Richmond Rebels, part of what was then the fabled Dixie Pro Football League, sometimes called the third of the three major football leagues. Dixie Pro was formed in 1936, I think our team started around 1937, it was suspended during World War II and then revived right after the war. Our Rebels at that time, amazingly, were affiliated with last year’s Superbowl champions, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Farrar: Well, now that’s interesting. I understand in the early days of the National Football League, it modeled itself after professional baseball in many ways, including borrowing team names and colors and so forth. But, also, they had something of a farm system, similar to what major league baseball has today.
Smith: That’s exactly right. Until the NFL disbanded the farm team when they took the form of professional football, we did have these farm clubs. As I mentioned, the Pittsburg Steelers were one of our first professional affiliations. More recently, in the 60’s, we became the Richmond Roadrunners, as part of the Atlantic Coast League, and at that time we were affiliated with this year’s Superbowl contender, the New Orleans Saints.
Farrar: And, there was also a time when actual major league, if we can use that term, football games were played in Richmond. You were telling me about an AFL game during the existence of that league.
Smith: Yeah, there are some great stories here. Back in August of 1968, for the season opener, the Jets played the Patriots right here at City Stadium in Richmond, featuring a hobbled Joe Namath playing for, at that time, the Boston Patriots. Also played a couple of interesting exhibition games along the way. In 1950 one of our coaches came from the Chicago Bears system and managed to set up an exhibition game between the Richmond Rebels and the Chicago Bears. And we were trounced. 47-14 was the eventual score, but that’s no surprise. What was surprising to me was the paper reported that it was close until the last few minutes.
Farrar: I wonder if the first string was playing for the Bears for most of that game. Another thing that a lot of us who have been in Richmond for a while have forgotten about: at one time there was a serious effort to bring an NFL franchise to Richmond.
Smith: That’s exactly right. We are a big market without a big team. In 1973 we almost got an NFL team of our own, and to me it marks an interesting historical artifact of regional cooperation. The cities and the surrounding counties got together to do a feasibility study on our stadium and its capacity to support professional football. About a decade later we were also in contention for a Canadian football league team when the Baltimore Stallions were looking for a new home. Alas, neither of those came to pass. We do, though, have what many consider to be pro football still in the city today. We have, not one but two, indoor football teams, both of whom are debuting this year.
Farrar: Really, two?
Smith: We have the Richmond Raiders of the AIFA league, who will be playing a the Coliseum starting in March, and then we have the Richmond Revolution, in the IFL League. IFL is actually headquartered right here in Richmond, and they’ll be playing at the Arthur Ashe Center, also beginning in March.
Ferrar: Well, those are some things that a lot of us have either forgotten about or never knew in Richmond sports history. So, thanks for bringing us up to date on Richmond’s professional football history.