September 4, 2014 7:00 AM EDT

This year’s football season kicks off with the Sept. 4 game between the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers. For decades, professional football teams faced off across the country, but they were largely ignored by TIME. It wasn’t until 1954 that a professional player landed on the cover of the publication (31 years after the magazine’s founding and decades after professional football leagues first formed).

The first football player to appear on the cover of TIME was Red Grange, in 1925. Back then, even though the NFL existed, football was largely a college affair. Grange, the most famous player of the time, was a halfback for the University of Illinois. He would go on to play professionally, but his fame came as an amateur. For decades, that “college first, professional second” ranking continued. In 1934, the magazine had to use the Rose Bowl as a reference point so that readers would understand the importance of the NFL championship. By 1940, thanks in part to celebrities like Grange deciding to keep playing after college, things had begun to change: a writer noted with astonishment that the New York Giants no longer had to give away free tickets to get people to come to games.

And then, in 1954, Bobby Layne of the Detroit Lions became the first-ever professional football player to appear on the cover of TIME magazine, for a cover story declaring that the pros had finally come out on top:

In the decades to follow, that declaration would hold true, as famous names from Joe Namath to Joe Montana followed in Layne’s footsteps.

Time subscribers: read the full 1954 story about the growth of the NFL here, in TIME’s archives.

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com.

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