Louisville resident and cast member Matt Lucas.

Bold Beginnings

Writer / Gavin LaPaille

A new documentary will tell the story of the National Football League’s beginnings, showcasing the untold story of the league’s inaugural game more than a century ago.

Named for the stadium in which the game took place, “Triangle Park” features many prominent NFL and media figures, and interviews with descendants of the two participating teams’ rosters, the Dayton Triangles and the Columbus Panhandles – two of the NFL’s original 14 teams.

One of those featured is Louisville resident Matt Lucas, the great-grandson of the Panhandles’ Phil Nesser. Lucas had six relatives participate in the NFL’s first game, which took place in Dayton on October 3, 1920, with the Triangles defeating the Panhandles 14-0. He is excited to see the story told in “Triangle Park.”

“The documentary really came together when the creator and the director of the film, Allen Farst, ran into a couple of folks in Dayton,” Lucas said. “He talked to a couple of descendants and heard the story, but he’d never researched it. Allen started digging into the game, and researched how pro football was in 1900 or so until the first NFL game.”

“Triangle Park” documentary filming.

Lucas, a former University of Kentucky football player in the 1980s, is interviewed in the documentary and plays a couple of roles during reenactment scenes, including the portrayal of Ted Nesser, his great-uncle and the Panhandles’ coach. Lucas met Farst, an American director known for his work with sports, music and documentary films, at a Nesser family reunion, and gradually grew more involved with the project.

Farst had interest in the Nessers due to their prominence during the time period and the significant roles they played in the NFL’s inaugural game. Known as the “first family” of professional football, the Nessers have the most combined years and the most pro championships of any family in NFL history. The Panhandles were built around the Nesser brothers for nearly two decades, leading a team known as one of the generation’s best. A plaque recognizing the family’s accomplishments is displayed in Canton, Ohio, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“The Nessers were six brothers who played pro football from the 1900s to 1926,” Lucas said. “They were the best and the biggest name in professional football at that time and were on the Columbus team. They would work on the railroad all day and then play in these area games. They would hop a ride on the railroad and played the majority of their games on the road, being the attraction for other cities.”

The film is narrated by sports broadcaster Michele Tafoya, and features other big names from past and present NFL history including Chris Collinsworth, Eric Dickerson, Joe Buck and Tony Dungy, among others. The film debuted at AMC Theaters in all 32 NFL host cities the day before Thanksgiving, and “Triangle Park” will eventually be available to stream on Amazon Prime and Apple TV+.

“It really started out as a small documentary and has grown into national prominence,” Lucas said. “Things kept being added and added. It’s a who’s who of Hall of Famers and media personalities. You name it, they’re in it. The film started out as a local story and has grown into this giant thing that a lot of people wanted to get involved with.”

In addition to the football aspect of the documentary, “Triangle Park” will highlight other aspects of the time period, including prohibition and women earning the right to vote. The film illustrates how different life was for the first NFL players compared to what it is today, when equipment and pay were not nearly up to par with current times.

“My family worked on the railroad, and one of the biggest stories in this film is they show up and are ready to kick off this game, and no one had a whistle,” Lucas said. “Since we worked in the railroad, we had a whistle. They had to use a railroad whistle to play the game. There are all these intermingling stories about how this was a changing of the guard because there was a new crop of players coming along. A lot of them had known each other a very long time, so you had all this drama and competing towns. The film touches on the social issues, football issues and political issues, and how the game brought all this together.”

In keeping with the family tradition, Lucas has spent much of his life around athletics. In addition to playing football at UK, Lucas has worked in the athletic departments at the University of Evansville, Virginia Tech and Eastern Michigan University, and also was a field tester for Nike. All his life, Lucas was told about his family’s historic connections to pro football, and frequently made trips to Canton and to Triangle Park, which is now home to youth baseball fields, when he was younger. Lucas said he knows there are many like him who have a huge interest in football, and believes the film will have wide appeal to those who make it their routine to watch games each week.

“It’s the passion to know how and why we got where we are,” Lucas said. “We are a football-loving country and it is our passion. No other country on earth understands it like we do. There isn’t one sport that demands as much physically and mentally, and is as interdependent on each other as football is. Nothing works in football unless 11 people work together in complete unison. People will want to see this.”

While the NFL is currently a huge enterprise, its beginnings were not as promising, as the league struggled in its early years. “Triangle Park” shows some of the origin story of the league that many know and love today.

“We want many people to see it and be inspired by the story – to see where the NFL started and a lot of businessmen from Columbus and Dayton pulled together all these people to form this league,” Lucas said. “Starting from very humble beginnings to now being the elite sports league on this planet is nothing short of phenomenal. The first NFL headquarters was in Columbus. The first commissioner was Joe Carr and he was the manager of the Panhandles. He knew we could make this league a long-standing, viable organization that people wanted to see.”

Lucas said he is very excited to see the story of the NFL’s first game – and his family’s large role in it – reach a wider audience, and connect with others who also have strong connections to the inaugural game.

“The most enjoyable part is simply to watch a story that was untold now become a real story,” Lucas said. “There’s only one first game, and only two teams that played in that game. Somebody had to have a lot of guts and determination and faith to go against the establishment. To see my family involved and know what they went through to play a game they absolutely loved is great. It’s nice to see a group of people bound together for something they believe in. Those are the greatest stories. It’s awesome to see how the NFL has matured and how my family has been part of that.”

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