John Steffenhagen pulls up his sweater sleeve to reveal an enormous tattoo on the underside of his meaty left forearm. In red and black ink, we see a drawing of a leather football helmet and a ball with the word “Jeffs” written in script.
“My doctor looked at it quickly and thought it said, “Jello,” ’’ Steffenhagen says, grinning ear-to-ear. “That’s OK. I got it about six years ago to be a conversation starter, and it continues to serve its purpose. It gives me a chance to tell what I think is a pretty neat story.”
Wearing his heart on his sleeve and his love for Rochester’s long-gone National Football League team on his skin, Steffenhagen passionately tells the tale of the franchise that played a role in the formation of the most successful sports league in U.S. history. That he would crusade on their behalf nearly a century later is all relative because his beloved, late great-grandfather, Leo Lyons, played for, coached and owned the Jeffs, which is short for Jeffersons because the team played many of its home games at Edgerton Park, off Jefferson Avenue on the city’s west side.
Lyons believed so fervently in the future of the Jeffs and professional football that he worked two jobs and risked personal bankruptcy to keep the team afloat. Along with football icons Jim Thorpe and George Halas, he helped launch the NFL at a meeting inside a Canton, Ohio automobile showroom in 1920.
“As a young man, Leo talked about how one day pro football would become as popular as baseball,’’ says Steffenhagen, a 52-year-old postal worker who, when he’s not delivering stories about the Jeffs, makes a living delivering mail door-to-door to Webster residents. “People scoffed at such an idea back in the day, thought Leo was crazy. But look what happened? Football is now more popular than baseball. So, Leo proved to be a visionary.”
He was a man ahead of his time.
And a man who wound up getting lost in the mists of time.
Lyons has largely been forgotten, even in his hometown. And, so, too, have the Jeffersons, who folded in 1925 after just six seasons because of a lack of fan support and revenue, which contributed to a combined 0-21-2 record in their final four seasons.
“I still run into people who think I’m pulling their leg when I tell them Rochester once had an NFL team,’’ Steffenhagen says. “I admit I’m biased because he’s my grandfather, but I think it’s important that we remember Leo’s role, and how he helped lay the foundation for the NFL.”
Last week, Steffenhagen took his campaign to Canton, and made his case to Pro Football Hall of Fame President David Baker that the museum should do something to recognize Lyons and the other men who created the NFL. To his pleasant surprise, Steffenhagen was told that next year — in celebration of the league’s centennial — the Hall will unveil an exhibit dedicated to the NFL’s founders.
Steffenhagen also is making strides closer to home. Next Wednesday, the Strong Museum of Play will unveil an exhibit featuring artifacts from the Jeffs and Buffalo Bills — a then-and-now presentation. One of the mannequins will be adorned in a red Jeffs jersey and original, padded football pants, while another mannequin will be wearing a jersey from current Bills quarterback Josh Allen. The exhibit also will showcase a leather football helmet from Lyons’ era, as well as some old cleats and a copy of the 1920 certificate that stated the Jeffersons were a charter member of the American Professional Football Association, which would officially change its name to the National Football League two years later.
While observing the exhibit come together, Steffenhagen couldn’t help but think of his many childhood visits to his great-grandfather’s home in Pittsford. He recounted how the basement was like a mini-Pro Football Hall of Fame, its walls festooned with photographs of legends such as Thorpe, Red Grange and Vince Lombardi. There also was a trophy recognizing the Jeffersons as the 1916 New York State pro football champions.
“My mom told me that when I was baby, Leo would carry me around the room and tell me stories, and that I loved running my hands over that trophy, which is shaped like a football,’’ he said. “To show how things have come full circle for me, that trophy is one of the items that will be displayed in the Strong exhibit.”
Despite his great-grandfather’s ties to the NFL, Steffenhagen didn’t grow up a football fan. He was much more interested in auto racing, and that was understandable because his dad was a NASCAR driver who competed in modified stock car races throughout Western New York.
“It really wasn’t until the advent of the internet that I began taking more of an interest in what my grandfather had accomplished,’’ Steffenhagen said. “The more searches I conducted, the more I realized what a pioneer he was.”
And that pioneering went beyond helping the NFL take flight.
“Around 1910, the Jeffs played a game against a team featuring an African-American running back named Henry McDonald, and Leo couldn’t help but notice how poorly McDonald was treated by his teammates, even though he clearly was the best player on the field,’’ Steffenhagen says. “McDonald would score a touchdown, and his teammates would totally ignore him because of the color of his skin. After the game, Leo went up to him, and said, ‘If you play with us, I guarantee you won’t be treated that way.’ ‘’
McDonald took him up on his offer and became one of the first African Americans to play pro football. Steffenhagen recently discovered that story and many others by combing through one of Lyons’ personal journals. When the Jeffs joined the NFL, Lyons did his best to field a competitive team by signing several former college stars, including Joe Alexander, a two-time All-American at Syracuse, who later would go on to coach the New York Giants and become a doctor. Unfortunately, as historian Bob Carroll documented in a story titled, “The Town That Hated Pro Football,” Rochesterians failed to support the team because it featured few local players.
“Leo tried to tell people here that in order to compete with the best professional teams, you can’t have Joey So-and-So from East High at quarterback,’’ Steffenhagen says. “But the fans didn’t care. They wanted local players, so they stopped going to games. Leo did his best to make a go of it. He almost went broke. He couldn’t afford to pay the talented players necessary to compete, and the team went belly-up.”
In his post-Jefferson years, Lyons maintained strong ties to fellow pioneers like Halas. He was invited to the owners’ meetings and began assuming the unofficial role of league historian. He also became a driving force behind the creation of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1960. At Halas’ induction, the Chicago Bears owner paid homage to Lyons, saying the league was built on the shoulders of people like him.
Steffenhagen is doing his best to remind people of his great grandfather’s place in football history. The exhibit at Strong is a start, but he would like to see a permanent display somewhere. (I’ve been lobbying for two decades about the need for a Rochester sports museum — the old firehouse at Frontier Field makes the most sense — and Lyons and the Jeffs would merit prominent play.) A historical marker near the Egerton Park field where the Jeffs played the majority of their home games also would be appropriate.
“There’s still work to be done, but we’re getting there,’’ says Steffenhagen, who is halfway through writing a book about Lyons. “We’ve had some encouraging developments lately. We’ve got some momentum.”
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.