February 15, 2019 | Feature
family history and football
A week before the Super Bowl, my dad called me and said he had a great story for me to write. My dad often pitches me story ideas, but this one was a little more personal than usual. My dad thought, after talking to his dad, that I should write about my great-grandfather and his brother, both of whom played for an NFL team in Providence before the Great Depression.
I knew in the back of my mind that my great-grandfather had played for the NFL, but I had no idea that he had played in Providence; I didn’t even know the city ever had a football team. Could there really have been a New England champion besides my beloved Pats?
If you are from New England, you know that the Patriots are more than just a football team to many locals. Even if you’re not, their notoriety and Rob Gronkowski’s Tide commercials have made the team a household name.
And if you know me, you know I’m a Patriots fan and quite unapologetic about it. In my house my dad is always watching “the game,” and my mom and I are usually watching with him.
Since 2001, the Patriots have won six Super Bowls, and with a winning streak like that, how could you not watch? Although New England as a whole has been able to claim six rings in the last two decades, everyone from this area knows that residents of Massachusetts, particularly Boston (a.k.a. Titletown), gain the most pride (and the most excuses to day-drink) from the championship machine.
Where did the Pats celebrate their big win? Not College Hill’s Thayer Street, but Boston’s Boylston Street. It’s true that Warwick’s T.F. Green is the official airport of the Pats and that Rhode Island has tried to have a larger role in the franchise in the past. In the 1990s, before a winning streak started that many would call a miracle (and New Yorkers would call a pain in the ass), Providence’s infamous Mayor Buddy Cianci tried to coerce Pats owner Robert Kraft to build a field near Providence Place Mall. In 1997, the Baltimore Sun reported that former RI Governor Lincoln Almond called Kraft about a possible site change for the team. The coercion didn’t work. Instead, thousands of Rhode Islanders have to flock to Massachusetts every year to get their football fixes.
However, 90 years ago, it was actually the other way around.
There was once a team called the Providence Steam Roller, sometimes called The Roller, The Steamroller, or even The Steamrollers. Winning a championship a mere nine years after the founding of the National Football League, the Rollers weren’t exactly a modern franchise; take, for example, Coach Jimmy Conzelman, who also moonlit as the team’s quarterback. They played in a stadium called the Cycledrome, on North Main Street, near the Pawtucket-Providence line, according to the team’s official programs (archived in Rhode Island Historical Society’s library).
Although the team only played professionally for six years, they became world champions in 1928. In those early days of American football, the NFL was small, and the Rollers didn’t have a lot of in-league competition. But the Rollers still played against some familiar faces, like the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants. Other rivals have faded into the past, like the Rollers themselves. According to The Pro Football Archives, in the 1928 season, the team had eight wins, one loss and two ties. In the NFL today, there’s no such thing as a tie, but then again, back then there was no such thing as a “Super Bowl” or even a championship game. In 1928, the team with the best season record won the league.
In the ’28 season, the Rollers faced off against the Frankford Yellow Jackets several times, and the Jackets would claim the team’s only loss that year. The Rollers also went up against a football team called the New York Yankees (not to be confused with the baseball team of the same name) who played at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.
Documentation on the Rollers is everywhere, including in the archives of the Providence Journal and in the personal collections of Peter Laudi (who was a partial owner of the Rollers), which are kept at the Rhode Island Historical Society.
After looking into my family’s “scoop,” I was excited to find some familiar names in the archives. Throughout the Rollers’ 1928 programs, two names show up on the starting lineup almost every week: Bill and Jack Cronin, my great-grandfather and his brother.
Jack was a leftback and Bill backed him up, like any big brother would, as his fullback. Jack was number five on the field, while Bill was number nine (my own favorite number).
I first heard about the brothers, especially Bill, when I was about five years old. My great-grandfather was a legend, the first in a long line of men whom I deeply respect. Pictures of him, most of the time posing on a sports field, adorn the walls of my grandparents’ den. As I dug into the story and looked through old newspaper coverage of the games, more pictures appeared. Dark-haired, broadly built, with a square-jawed face, Bill Sr. looked just like my dad.
In the Rollers’ era, football was very different. Teddy Roosevelt had tried to ban the sport in its early days, but even after surviving that initial trial, professional football struggled to gain popularity. College football was very popular, which might explain why the NFL thrived in Providence (which only had Brown’s football team) but was non-existent in Boston (full of Harvard and Boston College football players).
College or professional, to Bill and Jack—BC alums who had done both—it didn’t matter. Football was much more than the games they played.
Although Bill would only stay on the team until 1929, and Jack until 1930, football (and sports in general) would remain a large part of their lives. When their pro careers ended, Jack stayed in Providence to teach and coach football, baseball, and hockey at La Salle Academy, a Catholic high school in Providence. Bill moved back to their hometown of Hingham, ultimately coaching the same three sports at both the Hingham High School and Thayer Academy in Braintree. Both men were highly regarded Hall of Famers at their respective institutions. They started recreational groups, gave back to their communities, and helped kids go pro. For a while, they lived pretty wonderful, mirrored lives. But while Jack would live to be 90, Bill would only live to 54.
In ’56, my great-grandfather died of an unexpected heart attack when my grandfather was only a junior in high school.
Prior to his father’s death, as a three-sport athlete with a three-sport coach for a father, my grandfather, Bill Jr., in many ways lived his early life alongside Bill Sr. “I went to all the high school practices, football practices, baseball practices, and hockey…from the time I was two or three. I was with my father every day, virtually every day,” my Papa told me over the phone one night. “Talk about having a close relationship. I mean, I only had 17 years with my father, but I probably spent more time with my father than most parents spend in a lifetime with their kids.”
When his father wasn’t coaching, he was writing columns in the Patriot Ledger about football and scouting for college teams, including the Brown University team in the 1940s.
Using his own money, Bill Sr. would take kids to meet coaches and help them map out colleges and careers. He wasn’t just focused on the kids going pro—he started several recreational programs, including one of the first for girls in Hingham. After Bill Sr. died, a field was dedicated to him in Hingham, the largest baseball field in town. He was active in the community from 1919 to 1956, and “had a presence all those years,” according to my grandfather.
Back in Providence, Jack had been giving back too. His obituary in 1993, titled “Jack Cronin never failed to do the right thing,” chronicled his life as a coach and included the legacy of coaches and players at the college and pro level that he left behind. And even after his death, La Salle players still wore John “Jack” Patrick Cronin’s initials on their jerseys.
“The story of the two brothers in the NFL is really something. What they both achieved in their lives after that and what they did was more remarkable,” my grandfather told me.
Something in that statement really rang true to me. Sure, I am proud that I have pro footballers in my family tree—it is kind of cool. But what I’m more proud of is the sense that they were so much more than that; they left a lot in their wake. In the course of their lives, they inspired joy.
I think that’s why many of us love sports stories. The players give their all, and they give us joy. They are our champions because they exceed our expectations and are larger than life. What astonishes me is that Jack and Bill really were those champions on and off the field.
Learning about their story makes me feel a deeper connection to a sport I already loved for its wins and its triumphs, something I always watch with my dad.
I wonder a lot about what my great-grandfather would have thought about the Pats today and the state of professional football in general. The sport has certainly changed a lot since my great-grandfather played. Although football players did not achieve then the celebrity status that figures like Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski achieve now, I really like to think that, beyond football, Bill and Jack are legends in their own right.
As a little kid, visiting my dad’s hometown, I remember feeling a sense of pride seeing my last name on the field’s sign and knowing of the legacy my relative left decades before. The field and its name are the story of a man who happened to be an incredible athlete and who also used his success to support the community he loved. That’s a story that outlasts records and championships.
“I’m extremely proud of that field and what it represents,” my grandfather said. So am I.