Was The First NFL Halftime Show Just Designed as a Way to Sell Dogs?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about football and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the football urban legends featured so far.

FOOTBALL URBAN LEGEND: The first professional football halftime show was designed as a way to sell dogs.

Today, halftime shows are a consistent part of any National Football League game with the Super Bowl halftime show routinely being the most lavish example of the year. However, in the early days of professional football, halftime shows were non-existent. The players would go into the locker rooms and that was it. Even in college football, halftime shows by the 1920s were a rarity. This changed with the introduction of a brand-new football team in 1922 that was designed all around one very important function…selling dogs.

Read on to learn more about the short-lived (but eventful) history of the Oorang Indians, the first professional football team to have a halftime show.

Walter Lingo was born in the small village of LaRue, Ohio in 1900. Before he was even a teenager, Lingo had bred his first litter of puppies. He became one of the top breeders in the United States, specializing in Airedale terriers. Lingo bred larger Airedales (nearly twice the size of their British brethren) that he dubbed “King Oorang.”

I do not believe “Oorang” is a word in any Native American language, but rather I believe Lingo came up with a name that sounded like it could be a Native American word. You see, LaRue stands on what was once a Wyandot village (the Wyandot are sometimes called the Huron) and Lingo felt an affinity for Native Americans. In 1919, he befriended one of the most famous Native Americans in the world, Jim Thorpe, then known as one of the greatest athletes in the world. Thorpe at this point in time had been playing professional football for a number of years, mainly for the Canton Bulldogs, who were a year away from being a founding member of the American Professional Football Association (APFA), which re-named itself the National Football League (NFL) in 1922.

In 1921, Lingo invited Thorpe and a friend of Thorpe’s, Pete Calac (who was a star athlete at the Carlisle Indian School along with Thorpe) on a hunting trip. During the trip, the trio formalized plans for the creation of a professional football team. The point of the franchise was to advertise Lingo’s terriers.

Therefore, to properly draw in crowds, Lingo’s plan was to essentially combine a professional football team with a traveling Wild West show. He had Thorpe recruit an entire team made up of Native American football players. The team was dubbed the Oorang Indians, in honor of Lingo’s terriers and his Native American players.

They joined the NFL for the 1922 season.

All the players would not only play on the team, but they would work at Lingo’s dog kennels in Ohio. Since LaRue did not even have a football field, the Indians were mostly a traveling squad. By this point in time, Lingo’s dog kennel had expanded into a large mail order business, selling dogs for over $100 apiece (an exorbitant amount of money at the time. To put it into perspective, note that the franchise fee for an NFL team was just $100). So the Indians worked as a traveling advertisement for his mail order business. It was only at Thorpe’s insistence that the men be given an occasional break that Lingo agreed to have the occasional “home” game (since LaRue did not have a field, they had to play in nearby Marion, Ohio).

As I noted before, Lingo’s idea was to combine the football games with Wild West shows, and that is just what an Oorang Indians game would be for visitors. There would be pre-game festivities but most importantly, a half-time show where the players (Thorpe included) would do tricks with the dogs. Thorpe’s daughter Grace, though, recalled that Thorpe was a more than willing participant. “But it was a unique marriage. (Lingo) wanted to promote his dogs. And Dad — in addition to being a great athlete — was a great lover of dogs. My mother told me one time that his favorite hunting dog was killed in a hunting accident and Dad cried over it. He loved his dogs.” There wouldn’t just be dog tricks, as there would also be traditional Wild West demonstrations (native dances, etc.) and Thorpe would do drop kicking exhibitions.

The Indians were not a particularly good team (their record was 4-16 in their two seasons in the NFL), most likely because the players knew that they were not there to play football but rather to advertise dogs (the fact that Thorpe mostly coached rather than played and Calac rarely played either due to injuries suffered fighting in World War I didn’t help). The players would stay up to all hours of the night partying on the road. Leon Boutwell, a Chippewa who played some quarterback for the Indians, recalled, “White people had this misconception about Indians. They thought we were all wild men, even though almost all of us had been to college and were generally more civilized than they were. Well, it was a dandy excuse to raise hell and get away with it when the mood struck us. Since we were Indians, we could get away with things the white men couldn’t. Don’t think we didn’t take advantage of it.”

After two seasons, the novelty of the halftime shows had worn off and the football sure wasn’t keeping any one in attendance, so Lingo disbanded the team after the 1923 season. The Great Depression hit the terrier business hard (Lingo claimed to have to have put nearly 300 puppies to sleep in 1929), but Lingo’s kennel stayed in business until his death in 1966. Two players on the Indians, Thorpe and Joe Guyon (who did not join the team until mid-way through the first season) are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The legend, therefore, is…

STATUS: True

Thanks to Sam Borowski for a great article on the Oorang Indians he did for the Lakota Times a ways back and thanks to reader David Semenske for suggesting I feature this story.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is [email protected]

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