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They’re called the what, Part 2

Posted by Chase Stuart on August 14, 2008

On Tuesday, I looked at how the AFC franchises got their nicknames. The comments provided great information on some things I missed, and hopefully the local fans can provide inside info again today. Let's take a look at the NFC.

Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys entered the NFL in 1960 while the Oilers entered the AFL, giving Texas a pair of professional football teams. An earlier franchise had been called the Dallas Texans, but it folded after a year. Dallas nicknames in professional sports haven't been very original -- you've got the Rangers, Stars, Mavericks, and Cowboys. But before settling on 'Cowboys', the NFL franchise first picked Steers and then Rangers as the team nickname. Somehow I don't think the Dallas Steers cheerleaders would have been very popular.

New York Giants: New York, like Pittsburgh, took the same team name that the popular baseball team used. While the New York baseball Giants went to San Francisco, the New York football Giants remained in New York. So how did the baseball team get their name? For two seasons, they operated as the New York Gothams. According to the San Francisco Giants website, the change to Giants occurred midway through the 1885 season. "On June 3, after a rousing extra-innings victory over Philadelphia, manager Jim Mutrie was so overcome with emotion that he supposedly blurted out a description of his team that immediately became the franchise's new nickname. He called them his Giants."

Philadelphia Eagles: Philadelphia has the 76ers, so you might think the choice of the nickname Eagle was to honor the nation's history, too. (The bald eagle has been the on the Seal of the President of the United States since 1782). But the Eagles are actually named after the Blue Eagle, not the Bald one. The Blue Eagle was the symbol of the National Industrial Recovery Act, which was part of FDR's New Deal. The Act was passed in 1933, the year the Eagles franchise was formed. Just two years later, a Supreme Court case invalidated the act, but the Eagles have kept the nickname ever since.

Washington Redskins: Unlike, say, the Colts, it's not immediately obvious that the Redskins in Washington are out of place. But the nickname didn't come from the nation's capital -- this franchise originated in Boston. From 1933-1936, they were known as the Boston Redskins. Founded in 1932, they started out as the Boston Braves. Despite the similarities, neither nickname was born out of any great tribal history in Boston. Like the New York Giants, the football team was named the Braves because one of the baseball teams in town was named the Boston Braves. The baseball team chose the name because the owner was a member of New York City's Tammany Hall, which used an Indian Chief as the symbol. The football team switched from Braves to Redskins as they moved from Braves Field to Fenway Park, and apparently named the team after the new football coach, William "Lone Star" Dietz, who claimed to be Native American.

Chicago Bears: Along with one other franchise, the Bears are tied for being the oldest current franchise in the league. Playing their first season as the the Decatur Staleys (Decatur is about three hours south of Chicago) in 1920, the Bears changed their name in 1922. When the Bears moved into Wrigley Field, George Halas picked a name that was similar to Major League's Baseball's Cubs. Bears was an obvious choice. But how did the Cubs settle on that nickname? According to their website, "In 1902, noting the youth movement lead by new manager Frank Selee, a local newspaper penned the nickname Cubs for the first time. The moniker prevailed over time and was officially adopted by the club in 1907." After taking the name Cubs, Halas picked a darker version of the colors of his alma mater (University of Illinois) to adorn his new Bears.

Detroit Lions: Founded a decade after the Bears, the Portsmouth Spartans changed their name to the Detroit Lions in 1934. Portsmouth, Ohio, about five hours south of Detroit, Michigan, was unable to hold a team during the depression as they played in the NFL's smallest city. Like the Bears, the Detroit football team chose a nickname that played off the popularity of the baseball team. Major League Baseball had the Tigers, so the NFL would get the Lions. In 1921, an expansion team was given to Detroit and was named the Tigers, but they folded after one season.

Green Bay Packers: Some team names are obvious, and some have ambiguous origins. The Packers' origin isn't very satisfying, but it's very clear. And if you're not from Green Bay, I doubt you know how they got the name. In 1919, when Curly Lambeau and George Calhoun founded the team, they were paid $500 for uniforms in exchange for giving the rights to the team name. That sum was paid by Lambeau's employer, the Indian Packing Company. The next year the Acme Packing Company bought the IPC, and chose to keep the team nickname. For a season, the Packers even wore the logo "Acme Packers" on their uniform. Note: This wasn't too unusual for that era; the aforementioned Decatur Staleys were named after the Staley Starch Company, the sponsor of the football team.

Minnesota Vikings: Unlike the rest of the NFC North, the Vikings didn't enter the NFL until 1960. Minneapolis is the center of Scandinavian-American culture, and Vikings was chosen to honor that history. 1960 was a big sports year for the city for two other reasons -- it was the last year before the Lakers moved to Los Angeles and the last year Minneapolis didn't have the Twins. Those nicknames represented two of the other most famous features of the city. Let's just be glad Minnesota wasn't given an expansion team in the mid'-90s, as the Minnesota Malls would have had the backing of some solid alliteration.

Atlanta Falcons: A relatively young franchise, Atlanta entered the NFL in 1966. That same season, baseball's Milwaukee Braves relocated to Atlanta. The NBA's St. Louis Hawks would move to Atlanta just three years after that, making Atlanta a hotbed of professional sports activity in the late '60s. (And in 1972, an expansion hockey team called the Flames was placed in Atlanta, but they moved to Calgary in 1981. According to Wikipedia, Flames was chosen "after the fire resulting from the March to the Sea in the American Civil War by General William Tecumseh Sherman, in which Atlanta was nearly destroyed.") But of the three teams, only the NFL's squad was an expansion team that got to select its own nickname. More from Wikipedia: "the name Falcons was suggested by Julia Elliott, a high school teacher from Griffin, Georgia who won a contest in 1965. Though 40 other contestants had also suggested the name, Elliott wrote in an essay, 'The falcon is proud and dignified, with great courage and fight. It never drops its prey. It's deadly and has a great sporting tradition.' Among the many suggested names were the Knights, Bombers, Rebels, Crackers, Thrashers, Lancers, Firebirds, Fireballs and Thunderbirds." So yes, we were oh so close to seeing Mike Vick, star of the Atlanta Rebels.

Carolina Panthers While Cleveland and Jacksonville both considered naming their teams the 'Panthers', Carolina was the franchise that ended up taking the name. The Pro Football Hall of Fame credits owner Jerry Richardson's son with the name, as he "felt that there should be some 'synergy' between the name and the team colors" of black, blue and silver. Trivia note: The Panther logo is designed to resemble the border between North and South Carolina.

New Orleans Saints: The Saints nickname has a little more history to it. While a fan contest officially selected the name, 'Saints' has at least three ties to New Orleans. One, the franchise was awarded to New Orleans on November 1st, 1966 -- All Saints Day. Two, New Orleans is famous for its jazz music -- after all, the NBA's Utah Jazz started off as the New Orleans Jazz. The team name was partially chosen to embrace the famous song 'When the Saints Go Marching In." Third, New Orleans has a significant Catholic population, and the name may have been particularly appealing to the religious fans. Two more Saints tidbits. The colors -- black and gold -- were chosen because they symbolized the oil industry (often referred to as black gold) that had made the owner and the city very wealthy. Lastly, the logo -- the fleur-de-lis -- is a royal French emblem, a nod to the significant ties to French culture in Louisiana.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: A fan contest was used to name the Bucs team, so why was Buccaneers chosen? Wikipedia cites the "Gasparilla Pirate Festival", which is held every year in Tampa, Florida, involves pirates, and apparently, is a big deal there.

Arizona Cardinals: Finally, we get to what started this wacky string of posts. Why is the Arizona football team named the Cardinals? Before being the Arizona Cardinals, they were the Phoenix Cardinals. Before that, the St. Louis Cardinals. But before that, they were the Chicago Cardinals, and along with the Bears, the Cardinals are the oldest franchise in the NFL. Ok, so why was the Chicago football team named the Cardinals? The team was founded in the 19th century, as the Racine Normals, because Normal Park was located on Racine Avenue in Chicago. The team used old uniforms from the University of Chicago. The Chicago athletic colors, then and now, are maroon and white. But these faded uniforms didn't look maroon, and some observers called them faded red. Team owner Chris O'Brien countered that "they weren't faded red; they were Cardinal Red." The team then changed their name to the Racine Cardinals. The team name was later changed to Chicago, to better represent the city.

With the AFL forming in 1960, St. Louis was a popular destination for a new team. Already competing with the powerful Bears, the Bidwells decided to move to St. Louis to capture that market. Of course, at the time St. Louis already had a team called the Cardinals -- the professional baseball team. Locally, the teams were referred to as the St. Louis baseball Cardinals and the St. Louis football Cardinals, much like the Giants of New York. In the late '80s, after a falling out with the city, the Bidwells moved west to Phoenix.

Saint Louis Rams: Like the Cardinals, many remember that the team relocated (in this case, from Los Angeles), but how many know that they originated in another city? The Rams were founded in Cleveland in 1936, where the owner and general manager chose to name the team after the Fordham Rams. Believe it or not, Fordham actually had a pretty good football team in the mid-30s, and they had a pretty good offensive guard, too -- Vince Lombardi. Throughout all the team's moves, they've kept the Rams moniker.

San Francisco 49ers: San Francisco had a basketball team and has a baseball team, but neither team started in San Francisco. So the city has only had one chance to name a team, and not surprisingly, they named the football franchise after the men of the 1849 gold rush.

Seattle Seahawks: One of the newer franchises, the Seahawks entered the NFL in 1976. The NBA's Supersonics were named after Seattle won the contract rights to develop the first American supersonic transporter. Major League Baseball awarded Seattle a second baseball team in 1977, and they were named the Mariners to reflect the marine culture of the city. The first baseball team, the Pilots, were similarly named, in commemoration of the city's maritime and aviation history. The Seahawks nickname was chosen in another fan contest, of course, and is another word for osprey. I'm not sure whether osprey are really popular in the Pacific Northwest, but less than one percent of the over 20,000 fan entries chose the nickname Seahawks.