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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.”
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.