The Providence Steam Roller formed in 1916 as a semi-pro football team,1 owned and managed by Charles Coppen, James Dooley, and Peter Laudati.2 The franchise joined the NFL in 1925, playing in the Cycledrome, a 10,000-seat bicycle racing stadium.3 The venue had a wooden racetrack bordering the football field which cut into the end zones, making them only 5 yards rather than the standard 10.4 Fans were charged from $1 to $2 for game tickets.5 Those who couldn’t attend a game paid 50 cents to hear the game announced at theaters and parks.6

The franchise had a small, dedicated team with a handful of star players. James Conzelman doubled as quarterback and coach with a $292 per game salary.9 These large salaries called for cost-saving measures; each player was issued “one jersey and expected to make it last the entire season.”10 Many players did not have their own housing and instead lived with Pearce Johnson (a team founder) and his mother, who “kept the players under her roof well-fed.”11 Owner Pete Laudati’s wife also served meals for the players.12

The Providence Steam Roller playing home at the Cycledrome.

The franchise won the 1928 National Championship,13 but unlike today, players didn’t enjoy a bonus check.14 Instead, they celebrated with “a victory banquet at the Biltmore Hotel.”15 The entire team was in attendance, as well as city and state officials. 200 fans joined the celebration, paying a modest fee to attend (and increase profits).16

However, the year after their Championship success saw the beginning of the Great Depression. Several players left to pursue more profitable jobs. Among them were Curly Oden, who joined a Boston insurance company, and Gus Sonnenberg, who left football to pursue wrestling after winning a world heavyweight championship.17 The result was a 4-6-2 record in 1929, causing “fans who kept turnstiles spinning during the previous season [to stay] away in droves.”18

Pro Football program of a game between the Providence Steam Roller and the Green Bay Packers.

Nevertheless, the Steam Rollers secured an NFL first–a game hosted at night under floodlights.19 This was just days after the October 1929 stock market crash. Due to heavy flooding in the Cycledrome, the game against the Chicago Cardinals was moved to Kinsley Park so as not to lose revenue.20 The Steam Roller lost, but were satisfied that 6,000 fans attended after a season of low attendance.21 In 1930, floodlights were permanently installed in the Cycledrome, but the players “received a pay reduction for night games…to help pay for the cost of floodlight installation.”22

In 1930 and 1931, fan “attendance continued to plummet” and player salaries were low.23 The Steam Roller played the Green Bay Packers on Thanksgiving Day of 1931, losing 38-7.24 A few days later, the team folded. “At the conclusion of the 1931 season, the three partners gave up and turned their franchise back to the NFL.”25 While the team never returned to professional football, they did reorganize as a semi-pro team in 1932, playing local teams through 1964.26