By Jim Dunne
Professional football in Norwich? Well, not exactly, but 60 years ago this fall, “semi-pro” football was founded in Norwich by the men who played it. The Norwich “Y Giants” played on Sunday afternoons from 1947 through 1951, challenging semi-pro teams from Sidney, Vestal, Syracuse, Utica, and other central New York towns.
The year 1947 was part of a different era. Although professional football was played on Sundays, no one had a TV to watch it. The local semi-pro teams drew large crowds, anxious to see more of the boys who had starred for the high school teams a few years before. Founded by men who had served in World War II and who had returned still in good condition (in more ways than one), the teams were joined by college men and boys just out of high school.
“Semi-pro” was a term used to differentiate this local brand of football from high school football. Sometimes the players were paid, but the real motivation for most of them was to extend their youth, playing a game that they loved. They surmounted many obstacles in order to field a team that would draw the crowds necessary to finance equipment, uniforms, game officials, and insurance.
In Norwich, the man who provided the leadership in many roles was John Kelly. Kelly had been the captain of the championship NHS team of 1943, which would have been undefeated except for a season-ending 7–6 loss to the cadets of the Manlius School, a team that consisted mostly of high school graduates who were preparing for a college career. Like many boys who were anxious to serve their country, Kelly left high school in January of his senior year to enlist in the Navy. When he returned two years later, he entered Syracuse U. to play football. He became the starting fullback on the Syracuse freshman team, but left school after a year.