"Pro football is almost a different game from college football," LIFE magazine helpfully informed its readers in October 1938. In those years, the biggest pro sports in America were baseball, boxing and horse racing; professional football barely registered on most fans' radar. But pro ball was making strides, and LIFE acknowledged the upstart National Football League — with portraits of the then-champion Redskins.
"The faces [of the players featured in the article] belong to Washington Redskins," LIFE wrote. "Their bulldog jaws, shattered noses, bull necks are characteristic of pro footballers everywhere. Most of them have businesses or part-year jobs. During the season they may get as much as $15,000 for playing eleven games."
Fifteen thousand bucks might not sound like a lot of money, especially in light of the salaries paid to today's NFL stars, but it was roughly ten times the average American salary in 1938, in the midst of the Great Depression when unemployment was pushing 20 percent. Not bad money — especially for guys with bulldog jaws and shattered noses.
That's Hall of Famer Sammy Baugh up there in the leather helmet, by the way. Tough enough for ya? And by the way: The reason all the portraits here are of white guys is because the NFL's color barrier wasn't breached until 1946 — a year before Jackie Robinson played his first game as a Dodger.
Ben Cosgrove is the editor of LIFE.com. Picture This is his weekly, and occasionally more frequent, feature for The Stacks.
Photo Credit: Carl Mydans—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images