In 1945, John Sollenberger had what decades later sounds like a Hail Mary pass of a notion: to bring a National Football League team to Hershey.
Said Sollenberger, who oversaw programming for what then was known as Hershey Stadium:
“We have the facilities and we have the population in and around Hershey that would compare favorably with Green Bay,” according to FootballGeography.com, citing an Associated Press story.
Truth be told, Green Bay, Wis., home to the Packers, is an outlier in the big-market NFL, but Sollenberger was on to something. Even today, the population of the Harrisburg-York-Lebanon Combined Statistical Area, which includes Hershey, is more than three times larger than the Green Bay-Shamano CSA.
Needless to say, Hershey never landed an NFL team to call its own, but it was a fixture in the league. For most of the 1940s through 1960s, Hershey was the training camp host to NFL teams:
Pittsburgh Steelers, 1941, 1942 and 1946
Philadelphia Eagles, 1945, 1951-63, 1965-67
Baltimore Colts, 1947 (members of the All-America Football Conference, which merged with the NFL in 1950)
Boston Yanks, 1948
New York Bulldogs, 1949
‘Part of the community’
We’re honoring that professional era of Hershey’s rich football history with our new Hershey Football Training Camp Tee.
Hershey is most associated with ice hockey (the Bears’ 11 Calder Cups are the most championships in American Hockey League history), but the arrival of football training camp was a big deal in town.
From the Hershey Community Archives website:
“From 1951 to 1967*, the Philadelphia Eagles came to Hershey for their summer training camp. The team would arrive in late July or early August for three weeks of pre-season conditioning. The football players were housed in rooms on the third and fourth floors of the Community Building.
“Each summer the Eagles really did become part of the community. In addition to living at the Community Building, the players used its recreational facilities to relax in the evenings. Many local boys remember playing pool or handball with the football players.”
Training camp also brought with it NFL preseason games played in Hershey. It was at the Hershey Community Archives that I had an opportunity to page through a program from an August 1964 exhibition between the Eagles and the Colts.
The program, which cost 50 cents, noted that training camp had started on July 12 for rookies, quarterbacks and centers, one week ahead of the rest of the squad (this year, all Eagles players reported to NovaCare Complex in Philadelphia on July 24).
‘Build a Winner at Hershey Training Camp’
A photo caption said, “The new Eagles are perhaps the most spirited ever to train at Hershey and certainly the best conditioned. Here they are racing off the field after a hard practice session.”
An article bore the headline, “Strain and Muscle Build a Winner at Hershey Training Camp,” the second paragraph noting: “Observers in Hershey, professional and amateur alike, have been tremendously impressed with the orderly, rugged, and hard-working practice schedule set by Coach [Joseph] Kuharich and his four assistants.”
Kuharich, who had been lured away from Notre Dame for the 1964 season, went 6-8 that year. He is the only Eagles coach with a losing record for his time with the team, which ended in 1968.
Sollenberger and Hershey never got their own NFL team, but they came pretty close in 1952.
That was the last year that an NFL team folded. The Dallas Texans (formerly the Boston Yanks and the New York Bulldogs) were so abysmal at the gate and on the field that in mid-November, the league took control of the team and relocated its home base to Hershey, where the team practiced.
The team’s two remaining “home” games, however, were played in Akron, Ohio (the only win of the season, against the Chicago Bears and played in front of 3,000 fans) and Detroit, en route to a 1-11 overall record.
The NFL disbanded the team, with many players winding up on the new incarnation of the Baltimore Colts in 1953.
Meanwhile, the Eagles would continue to call Hershey home for training camp through 1967.