On a clear, yet cool, late fall day a clock was counting down the final seconds to a game of football. After a goal line stand, the Legionnaires made a desperate drive to tie or win. Unfortunately, they only made it to the opponent’s 40-yard line, forcing them to take a field goal. The center lined up and snapped the football to the holder. The ball sailed off the kicker’s foot, spiraled upwards in a high, almost perfect arc, and sailed through the uprights. As time expired the players and the almost 7,000 fans witnessed not only a 3-3 tie between the Green Bay Packers and the Racine Legion, but also the beginning of professional football in Wisconsin.
Led by star running back Hank Gillo, the Racine Legion Legionnaires battled the Green Bay Packers on December 4, 1921 at Borchert Field, or Athletic Park, in Milwaukee for the Wisconsin state championship. The game was highly anticipated by the residents of Racine and over 100 cars formed a caravan as boosters drove to watch the game. Because of injuries and the high expectations surrounding the game, both teams added a number of college athletes to their rosters, an illegal move which would cause Green Bay to temporarily lose their status as an NFL team, only to be reinstated before the start of the 1922 season. Due to the Legionnaires’ performance against the Packers, the National Football League awarded the Racine team a franchise for the 1922 season.
National Football League and Racine
Professional football today is a term synonymous with huge athletes, massive stadiums, and money. Strange as it seems, and unknown to many, Racine was once home to a National Football League team, decades before the professional sport resembled anything remotely similar to what is broadcast on television every Sunday in the fall today. Instead of scoreboards and huge stadiums packed with fans, professional football was played in open fields and spectators stood to watch the game. Money was collected by passing a hat through the crowd and there were no multi-million dollar contracts. Yet in the early 1920’s, professional football became a growing sensation in many cities in the Midwest, and Racine was no exception.
By the 1920’s organized football had been in existence in Racine for almost three decades. In 1894, two prominent citizens of Racine, William Mitchell Lewis of the Mitchell Auto Company and William Horlick Jr. of Horlick’s Malted Milk Company created the Racine Athletic Association football club. The games were played at an old athletic park in West Racine and were lively, colorful events that often featured buglers and horses at the entrances.
Racine American Legion Legionnaires
The city, schools, and businesses formed teams, and organized football became a part of Racine’s culture. In 1916, Battery C of the 121st Field Artillery Regiment of the 32nd Red Arrow Division fielded a team, many of whom, after the close of World War II, would go on to join the American Legion Post 76 and create Racine’s first professional football team.
With the help of sponsor William Horlick Jr. the Racine American Legion professional team was formed and in 1921 played their first season as an organized team against competition from throughout the state of Wisconsin, including games against Milwaukee, Green Bay, as well as the Decatur, Illinois Staleys, a team that would soon relocate to Chicago and change their name to the Bears.
In the 1921 season, the Legionnaires would win five games, tie three, and lose only one. Over their four years of existence, the Legionnaires engaged in a heated rivalry with the Packers in which they went 3-3-2.