There are late nights and early mornings when John Steffenhagen becomes so immersed in his research that he loses track of time while venturing back in time. Like the other day when he was on his computer until just before the sun rose, fact-checking a story his great grandfather Leo Lyons had written in his journal about the time in the early 1920s when a National Football League game involving the Rochester Jeffersons was interrupted by a huge snowball fight that broke out in the stands. Lo and behold, some dogged research on newspapers.com revealed the story was true, though Lyons’ account was more colorful and detailed.
On another occasion, Steffenhagen became enthralled with a journal entry about Lyons’ close friendship with Henry McDonald, one of the NFL’s pioneering Black players whom Leo signed to play running back for the Jeffersons. His great grandfather wrote about a game in which an opposing player shouted an epithet at McDonald. Lyons told the bigot, “the next time you say that will be the last time.” The slur was repeated, and Lyons “turned around, smashed him in the face and broke his nose.”
And there was still another time when Steffenhagen marveled over his great grandfather’s prescient drawing of a shield that decades later would be adopted by the NFL — a league Lyons helped Jim Thorpe and George Halas co-found, and a league Lyons predicted would one day replace Major League Baseball as America’s most popular sport.
“There’s just so many fascinating tales about him,” said Steffenhagen, a gentle, offensive-tackle-sized man who delivers mail in Webster when he’s not delivering stories about his famous forebearer. “I’ve been in my glory reading that journal and corroborating what he’s written.”
Lyons’ diary had been stashed there in those boxes of artifacts, photos and clippings Steffenhagen had inherited from his great grandfather 41 years ago. But it wasn’t discovered until earlier this year — by sheer happenstance — when he was transferring some of the stuff to plastic bins, and yellowed sheets from the 100-page notebook broke loose from the deteriorating binding and fluttered to the floor. When Steffenhagen began reading the pencil jottings from many moons ago, he couldn’t help but feel as if he discovered a sunken treasure filled with gold doubloons. The journal has provided greater insight into the role Lyons played in launching the NFL in 1920. It reveals how the former player, coach and owner of one of the league’s charter teams, not only made history, but also chronicled, collected and preserved it.
“It’s incredible the people he friended and the things he did,” Steffenhagen said. “He was like Forrest Gump.”
The journal, along with the letters, post cards, memos and audio files from the likes of Halas, Thorpe, Art Rooney and Pete Rozelle, have turbo-charged Steffenhagen’s efforts to ensure his great grandfather receives his just historical due.
“Leo devotes 10 pages to that meeting in Canton (Ohio) on Sept. 17, 1920 when he and the other founding fathers met to form what became known as the NFL,” Steffenhagen said. “When you read them, it’s like you are at that meeting. He even mentions how they had to hide the beer they had there in Ralph Hay’s automobile showroom because this was during the time of Prohibition. From what I can gather, they were fortunate because Hay was friends with the cop on duty that day.”
We also learn the extremes Lyons went to keep the Jeffersons afloat. He even mortgaged his house in hopes of signing Red Grange, a transcendent University of Illinois running back who was the biggest college star in the land. Unbeknownst to Lyons, the Galloping Ghost already had accepted Halas’ offer to suit up for the Chicago Bears. After that last-ditch effort failed, Lyons knew the Jeffersons were toast. They wound up folding in 1925 because of a lack of fan support and revenue, which contributed to a combined 0-21-2 record in their final four seasons.
Feeling sorry for his friend, Halas paid for Lyons to come to the Windy City and learn about the burgeoning paint store business at the Hockaday Paint Company. Lyons took him up on the offer. A few years later, he returned to Rochester, and with Halas’ backing, opened up one of America’s first super paint stores. Though Lyons became wealthy through that venture, pro football remained his biggest passion, and Halas and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney made sure their friend stay involved. They visited him often at his home in Rochester and invited him to the annual league meetings. Lyons cherished their friendship, and continued to collect and chronicle league history. Over time, he assumed the role of unofficial NFL historian, and became a driving force behind the building of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton in 1960.
“Leo kept bugging the owners and commissioners,” Steffenhagen recalled. “He’d tell them, ‘Baseball has Cooperstown; we have nothing.’ Before it was built in Canton, he’d say the Pro Football Hall was stored in boxes at his paint store.”
Lyons gave many of the artifacts, photographs and papers he had accumulated through the years to the Hall of Fame, but others he passed onto Steffenhagen. Among the items now stored in a climate-controlled, out-of-state vault is the oldest known game-used NFL football, the Jeffersons’ official team charter and the cleats worn by McDonald. These family and football heirlooms would fetch seven figures in auction, which is why Steffenhagen has wisely placed them elsewhere for safe keeping.
In addition to collectors from as far away as China, Steffenhagen has heard from one of Oprah Winfrey’s representatives, as well as producers from ESPN about the possibility of films and documentaries. That makes him feel good because it means the story of his great grandfather may finally be told to a wide audience.
There is one other thing he would love to see come of all this, and it involves that shrine in Canton that Lyons helped get built. Steffenhagen hopes Lyons’ contributions as a co-founder and historian someday will be acknowledged with a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He had been nominated several times in the 1960s and early ’70s, and Halas paid homage to him during his Hall induction speech, saying “the league was built on the shoulders of people like Leo.” But after Lyons died in 1976 at age 84, the nominations ceased and he disappeared into the mists of time. Given some of the new findings about the vital role he played in helping launch the NFL, his ahead-of-its-time views on diversity and inclusion, and everything he did to preserve pro football’s history and push for the building of the Hall, his candidacy deserves to be revisited.
In the meantime, Steffenhagen will continue his research. For the longest time, he didn’t think twice about his great grandfather’s old New York state license plates that read: “NFL 1.” But he recently discovered they were given to Lyons by former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle in 1967. Steffenhagen also unearthed an old newspaper story about how Lyons convinced Rooney to bring the Steelers to old Aquinas Stadium in 1953 for an exhibition game against the Baltimore Colts, which raised several thousand dollars for local charities.
“It’s crazy,” Steffenhagen said, shaking his head in amazement. “Seems like every time I go through stuff, I find out something new about him and the NFL.”
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.