The story opens with a flashback to the raw beginnings of football in America in the late 1890s, with a butcher making a ball out of a pigskin for his young son, Blondy, to play with his friends in the market street. As a young man, main character CHARLES “BLONDY” WALLACE becomes a University of Pennsylvania All-American football player, known for his vices, great play, and leadership. He’s the opposite of the quiet, moral, dependable, but introverted leader who will soon become his competitive adversary from the other side of the state in Pittsburgh, BOB SHIRING.

The two of them meet for the first time as they square off in the first professional football championship game, played in the old Madison Square Garden, 1901. Shiring, playing for the Homestead team from Pittsburgh, gets the best of Wallace, playing for the Philadelphia Athletics. It is a foreshadowing of the nature of the budding rivalry between them and their great teams over the next five years, as Wallace challenges Shiring to be more “inventive” with his tactics instead of the simple, smash up-the-middle flying wedge play, while Shiring questions Wallace’s lack of team play.

In the stands watching, and secretly cheering him on, is a former lover of Blondy’s, CASSIE CHADWICK. She first met Blondy in Philadelphia when he was in college at Penn and she was working at a strip club. They bonded over a dare that his fraternity brothers put him up to that she helped him consummate. A few years later, she has become a grifting vixen of the highest level. She didn’t expect to see Blondy while taking in a trendy indoor football game with the well-to-do at the Garden, because she has actually traveled to New York City from Ohio with a banker so that she can prove to him that she is Andrew Carnegie’s illegitimate daughter, and thus worthy of a substantial credit line. She pulls off the ruse when they stop at Carnegie’s home after the game. She enters by herself and, with the help of friends who work for Carnegie, returns with a forged promissory note for $2 million.

On the train back to Homestead, while the team is still admiring the huge sterling silver trophy cup that they had won, Captain Shiring praises his teammates for their good work, but announces that the team is folding due to bankruptcy.  Pro football isn’t working as a business.  As he finishes his speech, the train goes off the rails and panic ensues.  Shiring lowers a heavy shoulder to the train door to free the passengers, and nobly helps the women and children to safety.

With the backing of Massillon industrialists, EJ STEWART, the manager and quarterback of the local football team (as well as the sports editor of the Massillon newspaper), is on a Machiavellian mission to bring pride to his small city by building a championship team in the amateur OHIO LEAGUE. Stewart sells the idea to his backers of paying to import Shiring and a few of his fellow stars from Pittsburgh to lead the MASSILLON TIGERS to glory. When Shiring’s wife dies giving birth to their first child, Shiring decides to accept the offer to help support his family. The Tigers go on to dominate all challengers on their way to the 1904 “World Championship.”

Eight miles away in neighboring CANTON, OHIO, local business moguls GEORGE WILLIAMS AND JOHN ROMMEL are eager to respond to Massillon’s bold move and defend their city’s reputation as Massillon’s big brother. They must build a pro championship team of their own…and, more important, beat Massillon. They convince their colleagues that building a winning football program, and staying on top of Massillon, are good for business.

Back in Philadelphia, Penn is up against its local rival, little Swarthmore College. While coaching Penn’s offense, Wallace designs a ploy to injure Swarthmore’s biggest and best player, BOB “TINY” MAXWELL, much to the dismay of one of Wallace’s star players, OTIS LAMSON. Maxwell’s face is so badly battered that a photo of the hero’s mug is published in national newspapers. President Teddy Roosevelt sees the photo in the White House and calls for a ban of the game unless its rules are changed.

Williams and Rommel see the photo, as well. They need a guy like Wallace to bring toughness to their program, so they recruit him to bring his brand of football and over-the-top leadership style to Canton to put their BULLDOGS on top where they belong. Bowing to little Massillon is unacceptable. He accepts, but demands total control of the team’s roster.

Wallace arrives in town and realizes that his past love interest, Cassie, is running the local brothel. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn how their relationship began and why it’s doomed to fail. However, Wallace realizes that by reviving his romance with Cassie, regardless of how manipulative his motives are, he can recruit the best players to join the squad with promises of a “good time.” Cassie, always smitten for Wallace, gets sucked into the fray, and their love affair is resurrected, but not without their misgivings and shortcomings.

Despite Wallace’s machinations, Massillon wins the 1905 championship game, again due to better teamwork and town spirit. The two towns are at war, especially after many in Canton lose their shirts to large wagers placed on the Bulldogs. Stewart gloats to Wallace about how things may never change and claims world domination. Wallace is under siege from all angles, and becomes obsessed with changing the outcome in 1906, and saving his reputation and career.

Wallace realizes that drastic measures are necessary to compete with the Massillon juggernaut. With Cassie’s prodding, he realizes that he needs to stay in Canton in the off-season to get the job done, but only if he can convince the Canton financiers to agree to his terms. No holds barred.