In the fall of 1938, in the midst of the Great Depression, LIFE magazine published a feature on professional football titled, “Beefy Bruisers Make It Rival College Game.” In those years, the biggest sports in the land were baseball, boxing, horse racing and college football; the National Football League barely registered on most sports fans’ radar. But it was making strides, and LIFE noticed.
In that October ’38 article, for instance, the magazine told its readers that, “because it is tough and sensational, professional football draws increasing thousands of spectators away from college games.”
Last year attendance jumped 25% over 1936, and its annual income rose to be more than $1,000,000. Today it is becoming as much a part of the U.S. world of sport as professional baseball.
Pro football is almost a different game from college football. Its players are all experts, and they make almost no mistakes. Most pro teams use little deception in offense but rely on straight power plays and quick-opening drives through the center of the line. Almost half the plays are forward passes, sometimes cleverly mixed with spread formations and wide end runs.
The faces [in this gallery] belong to some of the champion Washington Redskins. Their bulldog jaws, shattered noses, bull necks are characteristic of pro footballers everywhere. All of them won their fame in colleges, large or small, before they were discovered by pro league scouts, brought up to play for Washington, New York or Chicago. Most of them have businesses or part-year jobs. During the season they may get as much as $15,000 for playing eleven games.
Fifteen thousand bucks might not sound like much compared to the salaries paid to today’s NFL players, but it was roughly ten times the average American salary in 1938, when unemployment was pushing 20 percent. Few of the names or faces of the guys in this gallery are famous today—but even back then, when pro football was almost an afterthought among sports fans, the players were well-paid and, in their own way, they were stars.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.