Old Team Tuesday: The Tonawanda Kardex

Old Team Tuesday will be a weekly feature taking a look at former teams that have gone by the wayside. The first edition of this segment takes a look at one of the quirkiest stories in Western New York football history.

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For most Buffalo football fans, 1921 is next to meaningless. The few and far between who can rattle off facts about the Staley Swindle will know that was the season that George Halas stole the league title from the Buffalo All-Americans, the pre-eminent professional gridiron team in Western New York. However, fewer and much further between will also be able to say that in 1921 – for one day – Buffalo had two NFL teams.

--- Early beginnings ---

The New York Pro Football League was formed in the early 1900s, and in 1916, was joined by the All-Tonawanda All-Stars. Led by Syracuse legend and Tonawanda native Tam Rose, the team posted a 9-7 victory over the Rochester Jeffersons to claim the 1917 league championship. After suspending operations due to World War I and the global flu pandemic in 1918, they returned to the field in 1919 as the Tonawanda Lumberjacks, only to lose to the Buffalo Prospects in what is widely considered to be the first postseason tournament in professional football history.

Walter "Tam" Rose was inducted into the Tonawanda High School Athletic Wall of Fame in 1996.

The 1920 season was the team’s most impressive to that point. They lost just one game while winning anywhere from seven to nine (records on this are inconsistent). Two of their wins came at the expense of the Jeffersons, who had left the NYPFL to form the American Professional Football Association, which had absorbed the best pro teams from various regional leagues to now be considered the premier football body in the United States.

The success of the Tonawanda side brought with it new aspirations that they too could compete in the APFA. In 1921, James Rand, Jr., owner of American Kardex, footed the bill for the $50 franchise fee to join the league. To get the most out of his sponsorship, the team’s name was changed to the Tonawanda Kardex.

--- Setting the stage ---

Unlike today’s NFL, teams in 1921 set their own schedules to accommodate their needs. As such, the Kardex opened their fall slate with a road matchup against the Syracuse Pros at Star Park on October 9. Weather played a major factor throughout the game, which wound up as a 0-0 tie.

Realizing Tonawanda’s high school field would be unsuitable to host games, Rose scheduled the team’s next game to be played at Aluminum Park in Niagara Falls. Tonawanda’s population sat near 10,000 at the start of the 1920s, and was less than a third the size of Green Bay, the next-smallest city with a team in the league in 1921. Niagara Falls, meanwhile, had 50,000-plus residents, and the proximity to still attract Tonawandans to the stadium for the meeting.


A feature in the Niagara Falls Gazette announced Rose's crew was coming to Niagara Falls.

On October 16, the independent Cleveland Panthers made the trip to the grid by the gorge. The Kardex sent them back to Ohio with a 9-7 loss as the team prepared to make back-to-back trips east to Rochester. However, after their meeting with the Rochester Scalpers on October 30 was cancelled, the Kardex entered November with a meek 1-0-1 record.

Following week six of the 1921 season, Tonawanda’s neighbors in Buffalo had started 5-0 and were due to host the 2-1 Cleveland Indians at Canisius College the following Sunday. Team records ranged from the 6-0 Akron Pros to the 0-6 Columbus Panhandles. While they still needed several more games against league opponents, the Kardex held a mark that put them in a decent spot to compete for the championship.

--- Eastbound and beatdown ---

The Rochester Jeffersons – Tonawanda’s old rivals from the NYPFL – were the opponent for the team’s APFA debut. The Jeffs had stumbled to an 0-3 start and were looking for a little home cooking to turn their season around.

The Baseball Park at Bay Street was the site of the matchup on November 6. The venue seated 8,000 and the local baseball team often had overflow crowds exceeding 16,000. However, less than 3,000 fans were in attendance for the game that day. Those who did come out were certainly thrilled at the result, a 45-0 win for the hometown Jeffs. Benny Boynton filled out the box score for Rochester, passing for two touchdowns, rushing for a third, and kicking six extra points and a field goal for a total of 27 individual points.


University of Maryland standout Andy Fletcher appeared in the Kardex sole league game.

--- Football footnotes ---

It wasn’t supposed to be the end for Tonawanda, but for reasons unknown, the team failed to play another game against an APFA squad. Their highly-anticipated crosstown meeting with the Buffalo All-Americans on November 23 was cancelled, and Buffalo wound up battling the Decatur Staleys in a Thanksgiving title game on November 24.

Decatur's own paper declared the game on November 24, 1921 the title game, despite the chaos that ensued. 

All-Tonawanda football continued to pop up in local newspapers for several years, although more for promotional and information purposes rather than reports of game results.

A 1928 newspaper article about the Tonawanda eleven doubled as a plea for donations and community support.

--- Long-lasting legacies ---

The following season, the league changed its name to the NFL but by then Tam Rose had left the team and Tonawanda no longer could afford to play in the NFL. Yet they didn’t leave the game completely. Reverting back to the old All-Tonawanda moniker, their home opener in 1922 was slated for September 24. They arranged more home games against Rochester, Cleveland, and Syracuse, with Bill Kibler set to pick up where Rose had left off.

The Kardex have the distinct honor of being the only franchise in NFL history to play a single game. They are one of three to never score a single point in their existence (the others being the 0-2 New York Brickley Giants and the 0-3 Muncie Flyers).

In 1920, the Lumberjacks’ meeting with the Jeffs fell on Thanksgiving and is a historic part of an annual tradition featuring NFL teams on Thanksgiving Thursday. Although Tonawanda wasn’t a league member yet, Rochester was a founding member of the APFA, and the contest is therefore considered to be one of the first six Thanksgiving Day games in league history.

The North Tonawanda City Schools use the Lumberjack as their school mascot.

A North Tonawanda player (left) shakes off a tackle from a rival on Tonawanda.

--- Sensations and clarifications ---

So, technically Buffalo didn’t have two NFL teams. An APFA team represented Buffalo and another represented Tonawanda. And in the 1920s, Tonawanda was actually considered to be more closely identified with Niagara Falls, not Buffalo. However, with the way Western New York has evolved in the last century, Tonawanda (and to many extents Niagara Falls) is now considered a Buffalo suburb.

The 1921 season opener against Syracuse is debated among historians, who claim Syracuse was actually the 22nd team in the league that season. They had lined up several meetings with APFA teams like Rochester, Buffalo, and of course Tonawanda. However, no NFL records seem to indicate that Syracuse was officially awarded a place in the league, and as such the league’s data shows only one official game for the Kardex – on November 6, 1921.

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