Super Bowl LVI: Irish roots entwined in football in LA and Cincinnati

Posted By: February 14, 2022


Updated / Sunday, 13 Feb 2022 09:11


By Samuel Kingston

RTÉ Sport Journalist

Tonight’s Super Bowl sees the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams lock horns to become NFL champions. Neither city would spring to mind as being “typically“ Irish  American, yet the origins of professional football in both owe a lot to the involvement of team owners with Irish heritage.

While the Bengals are the top team in Cincinnati these days, the first professional team in the city was the Cincinnati Celts. Cincinnati is a city more known for German and Dutch heritage, but the Irish were a strong presence in the city as well.

The Cincinnati Celts was formed as a semi-professional team by John ‘Mel’ Doherty in 1910 while he was still in his teens. The team was linked to the Celts Athletic Club established in 1907 which was also involved in baseball and athletics.

The squad was formed mainly from college students and young players drawn together by their love of the still-emerging sport of American football. In this era, college football was dominant, but small-town teams and amateur/semi-pro teams were starting to gain notice.

A highlight of their semi-pro days was a shock victory over Pine Village in 1916, a small-town team that was undefeated in 12 seasons and one of the top teams in Indiana. The Celts were a traveling team with no home ground playing in the Ohio League but never won a championship.

The Ohio League was an informal and loose championship structure and among the other, competing teams were the Youngstown Patricians, who were connected to an Irish community Catholic church, and the Ironton Tanks, a team formed by the amalgamation of Irish Town Rags, and Lombards in the town of Ironton.

The cradle of professional football was Ohio, with the state being central to development of the professional game. The black and yellow-clad Celts were one of the teams that made the transition from the Ohio League to professional football, joining the American Professional Football Association (APFA) in 1921, but they didn’t last very long as they were totally out of their depth and faced financial problems as well.

They played just four games, all of them on the road and winning just one before returning to the Ohio League. The APFA evolved into the NFL the following year, with Irish American Joseph Carr in charge of the league.

Key players in Celts history were Frank McCormick, George Roudebush, Walt Schupp, Ken Crawford, and Frank ‘Trader’ Lane, but the main man for the Celts was Doherty, who remained as a player and coach throughout their existence. Little is known about Doherty, but outside of football he was regarded as one of the great bandleaders in the Cincinnati area at that time and he was only in his mid-40s when he passed.

Ohio is a football-mad state and the celebrations if Cincinnati win will be wild. Facing the Bengals are the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams were originally based in the Ohio city of Cleveland but moved west because of a key figure in their history – Dan Reeves.

Reeves was born in New York City, the son of Irish immigrants. His father and uncle had progressed from being fruit peddlers to owning a chain of grocery stores that were purchased by Safeway Stores in 1941 for a substantial sum.

At just 29, Reeves and business partner Robert Levy purchased the Cleveland Rams, with Reeves becoming sole owner in 1943. The franchise was formed in 1936 and wasn’t enjoying much success on or off the field. Under Reeves, they started to see success, and with new general manager Charles “Chile” Walsh and coach Aldo Donelli the Rams won the 1945 NFL Championship in their own stadium in very icy conditions.

That victory was the last home game the Rams played in cold Cleveland, with the team moving to the warmer climes of southern California. Reeves was keen to get out of Cleveland with the arrival of the Cleveland Browns in the All-American Football League.

The Browns, co-owned by newspaper and taxi magnate Arthur ‘Mickey’ McBride and Paul Brown, had much deeper resources than the Rams and Reeves feared that he wouldn’t be able to compete. The Browns would become one of the dominant teams of the AAFL and would later merge into the NFL.

The Rams became the first major league team to locate out west, with the San Francisco 49ers starting in 1949 and baseball’s move west, led by Irish American Walter O’Malley, taking place in the late 1950s. Initially Reeves required some financial assistance from investors, including Levy, but in time the move proved a resounding success, with the Rams winning their second NFL Championship in 1951 by defeating the Cleveland Browns at their home stadium, the LA Memorial Coliseum.

Reeves was a forward-thinking man who brought African American players back into the NFL after a 13-year absence, saw the benefit of full-time scouts, recognized the importance of connecting football with young fans, and sensed the importance of television. He unfortunately died from cancer at 58.

Today the Rams are owned by Stan Kroenke, who is better known on this side of the pond for his involvement with Arsenal. The Rams have two NFL titles from the pre-Super Bowl days and were based in St Louis for 21 seasons between 1995 and 2015.

In 1999, as the St Louis Rams, they won their first and only Super Bowl. They returned to LA in 2016 and are hoping to clinch their second Super Bowl by winning on home turf at SoFi Stadium, the field they share with the Los Angeles Chargers.

The Bengals are looking to upset that party by winning their first ever title, with their recent rise led by quarterback and Ohio native Joe Burrow. It promises to be an intriguing contest between two cities where Irish involvement helped kickstar the sport.

Samuel Kingston is a historian from Clonakilty who is currently researching a book on the Irish impact on sports around the world.