Honor the Heroes of the Game, Preserve Its History, Promote its Values & Celebrate Excellence Everywhere
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Joe Horrigan, the Hall’s Executive Vice President, is the foremost historian on the game.
When considering a name for this blog, I wanted something that was a football term – like “overtime” – but at the same time something that suggested an historical perspective like “over time.” After all, a key component of the Hall’s Mission is to preserve the Game’s history. You can also listen to me each week as I co-host “Pro Football Hall of Fame Radio on SiriusXM” from 2-4 ET every Saturday with Hall of Fame selection committee member Howard Balzer.
There’s a word in our football lexicon, that when used is like the proverbial left-handed compliment. And the word is “versatile.”
By its very definition – “competent in many areas and able to turn with ease from one thing to another,” “versatile” just sounds so, well, average. It’s definitely not a hardy endorsement. To me it insinuates someone is “adequate,” or maybe even “lacking” in some way.
Now, we’ve all heard the phrase, “A Jack of all trades is a master of none.” Well, that seems to be what “versatile” implies. But actually, the complete and correct version of that phrase is, “A Jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.” And folks, that’s my point.
There have been some very “versatile” football players over the years who were clearly better than many who were a “master of one” position. And my favorite example of that phenomenon is the legendary “Bullet Bill” Dudley.
No, “Bullet Bill” Dudley is not a fictitious character from the movie The Magnificent Seven. He was an outstanding halfback with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Detroit Lions and Washington Redskins during the 1940s and 1950s. A terrific player. Enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1966 and dare I say, maybe the “most versatile” player in NFL history. And, I mean “versatile” in the most complimentary way. He was way beyond “competent.”
Although a book could, and come to think about it, has been written about Bill Dudley, but even so, I will attempt in just a few passages to summarize his amazing career.
First of all, by his own admission “Bullet Bill” didn’t earn his nickname as a result of his blazing speed. In fact he really wasn’t fast at all. It was just that he was elusive and had an uncanny ability to see the whole field when he darted and dodged would-be tacklers.
A recipient of the Maxwell Award while at the University Virginia as the Best College Football Player of the Year, Dudley was the first-round pick of the Steelers in 1942 and is just one of 14 Hall of Famers selected as the first overall pick. As a rookie, he won the NFL rushing title gaining 696 yards, completing 35 of 94 passes for 438 yards and two touchdowns, punting 18 times for a 32 yard average, returning 20 punts for 271 yards, and running back 11 kickoffs for 298 yards. In his first game he dashed 55 yards for a touchdown and in his second scored on a kickoff return. As you’d expect All-NFL honors were bestowed upon him that year.
But, following his amazing rookie performance, Dudley surprised many when he voluntarily interrupted his pro football career to serve his country during World War II enlisting in the Army Air Corp.
After training, the Air Corp recruited the famed All –American to play football as a member of an Army football team that in 1943 posted a 12-0 record. For his part, Bill was named MVP.
After fulfilling his two-year military commitment, Dudley rejoined the Steelers just in time to play in the final four games of the 1945 season. It was if he’d never left.
In those four games Dudley ran for two touchdowns, kicked two PATs and returned three kickoffs. In just four games he became the team’s leading scorer. But that was just a sampling of what was to come.
The following year, “Bullet Bill” led the NFL in rushing, interceptions, and punt returns. In so doing, he became one of just three players ever to win pro football’s so-called “Triple Crown,” leading in three different statistical categories in the same season. He actually led in a fourth category – completed lateral passes – but since that’s no longer carried as a separate statistical category it’s often overlooked. For his amazing performance, Dudley was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player. The NFL’s two other “Triple Crown” winners are also members of the Hall of Fame, Sammy Baugh, who led in passing, punting and interceptions in 1943 and Steve Van Buren who led the league in rushing, scoring and kickoff returns. Talk about “versatile.” Three of the best!
By the way, I think Bill is the only player to earn MVP honors in college, the military and the pros.
Dudley was traded to the Detroit Lions after the 1946 season. A popular player, he was elected team captain all three years he played in the Motor City (1947–49). In 1947 the 5-10 Dudley eluded a Chicago Bears punt coverage team for an 84-yard touchdown. That same season, he
Dudley finished his 9-year NFL playing career with three seasons as member of the Washington Redskins. And even in each of those final three seasons, “Bullet Bill” led his team in scoring.
In a 1950 game against his old team the Steelers, Dudley delivered one of the most amazing plays ever. The still-shifty runner was back to receive Joe Geri’s punt. Geri boomed one 60 yards that looked to have caught Bill off guard. However, recovering quickly, he managed to back pedal 30 yards and, while keeping both feet in bounds, reach out-of-bounds and pull the ball inbounds at his own four-yard-line. Somehow the amazing triple-threat-back then managed to reverse his momentum, turn up field and race 96 yards for a touchdown.
There are many more Bill Dudley stories, but here’s the really amazing thing. During his brilliant nine-year career, Dudley scored nine different ways. He is the only player in the history of the game to have scored rushing, receiving, passing, on a punt return, a kickoff return, a fumble recovery, and an interception, as well as kicking extra points and field goals.
Now, there is also that matter of lateral passing. If you count that now forgotten statistical category, he actually scored 10 different ways! The only other way he could have scored is if he recorded a safety.
Now that’s “versatile!”
Perhaps the good folks at Webster’s Dictionary should consider a new definition. Under “versatile” the notation should read, “see Bill Dudley.”
Has there ever been two colors more closely associated with a team than silver and black? I don’t think so. Just like when you hear a TV play-by-play announcer proclaim, “That kid is going to Canton,” you understand he means the Hall of Fame. Well, when you hear a reference to the “Silver and Black,” you know too, it can only mean one thing, “the Raiders,” or as their legendary Hall of Fame owner Al Davis would say “Tha Raydas.”
In addition to having uniquely identifiable colors – which by the way, the numbers once included a thin gold trim around them – the team has one of the most loyal fan bases in the NFL, the “infamous” Raider Nation.
Yes, I know, they can be, well let’s just say, a little scary at times. But in reality, underneath all that face paint and the metal-studded jerseys are fans who absolutely revere the Raiders, their mystique and winning tradition. “Just win baby,” and a “Commitment to Excellence,” aren’t just Al Davis Raiderisms. They are the Raider Nation’s Mission Statement.
I recently had the pleasure of participating in a special tribute to Raiders Hall of Fame quarterback Kenny Stabler. It was during halftime of the Raiders’ September 18th home opener against the Atlanta Falcons. On hand were Kenny’s three daughters, Kendra Moyes, Alexa Stabler-Adams and Marissa Stabler, his grandson Jack and Kenny’s longtime companion Kim Bush. They were joined on the field by eight Raiders Hall of Famers: Dave Casper, John Madden, Ray Guy, Mike Haynes, Willie Brown, Art Shell, Ted Hendricks, and Jim Otto as we presented the daughters the Hall of Fame Gold Crest that is on the Gold Jackets worn only by Hall of Famers. It was a moving homage to a deserving Raiders great.
Ken Stabler was recently honored during halftime of the @RAIDERS game. Watch below. pic.twitter.com/oWi2izyd0L
— Pro Football HOF (@ProFootballHOF) September 29, 2016
Ken Stabler was recently honored during halftime of the @RAIDERS game. Watch below. pic.twitter.com/oWi2izyd0L
Ordinarily, halftime is, well let’s face it, the time fans usually get up to visit the concession stands or, more urgently, the restroom. Not so on this day. This wasn’t just any halftime. There was no marching band or a popstar lip-syncing a familiar song. This was a tribute to “The Snake.” And the Raider Nation stayed and stood and cheered as if he was there orchestrating one more game-winning drive.
What made it even more special is that Madden was there. The Hall of Fame coach, who was selected by Kenny’s daughters to be their father’s Hall of Fame presenter, was unable to travel to Canton in August for the Enshrinement Ceremonies due to hip replacement surgery. Had he been able, he would have been on stage with Kenny’s grandsons Jack and Justin Moyes to unveil their grandfather’s bronzed likeness. But this time, a still-healing Madden wasn’t going to let a new hip stop him. After some stirring words of praise and some typical Madden humor, the Raiders legend unveiled his fellow Hall of Famer’s bronzed bust as the Raider Nation bellowed its approval.
Ken Stabler's family talks about @RAIDERS nation and what they mean to them. pic.twitter.com/NFQB3W1O7r
— Pro Football HOF (@ProFootballHOF) September 29, 2016
Ken Stabler's family talks about @RAIDERS nation and what they mean to them. pic.twitter.com/NFQB3W1O7r
In a way, the ceremonial unveiling may actually have been more impactful in the Oakland-Alameda County Stadium than on the Hall of Fame stage. After all, this was Kenny’s stage. It was the very field upon which he and his teammates played and Madden coached. And, it was in front of the much appreciated Raiders fan base.
Now, I’m not foolish enough to proclaim any team’s fan base as the best or most loyal. Remember “fan” comes from the word “fanatic.” And that’s what most of us fans are. But I can tell you this, I honestly cannot recall ever hearing the word “family” used as often by Hall of Famers when referring to the fans as I did over the course of that weekend. It was a feeling too, that wasn’t lost on the Stabler daughters. Each repeatedly reminisced of and acknowledged the special feelings and appreciation they had for the Raiders organization and the Raider Nation. A fitting tribute within a fitting tribute.
Gold Jacket John Madden Remembers @Raiders Ken Stabler pic.twitter.com/ZieBAIhH6J
— Pro Football HOF (@ProFootballHOF) September 29, 2016
Gold Jacket John Madden Remembers @Raiders Ken Stabler pic.twitter.com/ZieBAIhH6J
“Shula, you know what your problem is? You’re uncoachable.”
Wow, it’s hard to believe that anyone would ever say that to the game’s winningest coach, but by Don Shula’s own recollection, it’s true. What makes the remark even more unbelievable is that those tough words were uttered by Cleveland Browns Hall of Fame Coach Paul Brown.
The occasion at which Brown offered his harsh critique was not when both were burning up the sidelines as NFL coaches, but rather when one – Brown – was a coach, and the other – Shula – was the student.
The year was 1951, and Shula, a halfback out of John Carroll University, was attending his rookie training camp as a ninth-round draft pick of the Browns.
It was a grueling training camp that the longshot rookie doubted he’d survive. But the perceptive Brown saw something in Shula as well as in another rookie named Carl Toseff, a 22nd round pick also from John Carroll. Shula and Taseff were the only rookies on the Browns 1951 squad.
Remember the name Taseff. I’ll get back to him.
Now, in addition to joining a squad led by a future Hall of Fame head coach, Shula’s teammates included seven future Hall of Fame players, including Len Ford, Frank Gatski, Otto Graham, Lou Groza, Dante Lavelli, Marion Motley, and Bill Willis. Talk about mentors.
But there’s more. The sleeper in this story is an assistant coach and longtime Brown disciple and future Hall of Fame coach, Weeb Ewbank.
Okay, so where am I going with all this? Well, these four men, Brown, Shula, Ewbank and Taseff – I told you I’d get back to him -- were all members of the Browns at the same time, but for just the 1951 season. Yet the quartet is forever connected in pro football history.
Let’s start with Brown. Obviously, he is the most important link. After all, he provided the other three their first pro football opportunities. Ewbank actually coached for Paul at the Great Lakes Naval Station during World War II before joining him in Cleveland in 1949.
But while Brown did draft and sign both Shula and Taseff, he also traded both to the Baltimore Colts two years later. The John Carroll friends and eight other players were sent packing to Baltimore in exchange for five Colts including future Hall of Fame tackle Mike McCormack. Now, our story could end right here with that massive trade; but it doesn’t.
The following year, Ewbank rejoined the Shula-Taseff duet as the new Colts head coach of the Colts. However, the reunited trio lasts just three seasons, as Shula is released following the 1956 season. Taseff stayed in Baltimore through 1961 and Weeb, after leading the Colts to two NFL Championships (1958, 1959) was fired following the 1962 season. Ironically, it was also following the 1962 season that Paul Brown was unceremoniously fired by the Browns.
So, that’s it, right? The end of the Paul Brown, Don Shula, Weeb Ewbank, and Carl Taseff connection. Well, not so fast. We’ve got more.
In 1963, Shula was named head coach of the Colts, replacing Ewbank. At 33, he was the then-youngest head coach in NFL history. "He was hailed as a brainy type who was destined for a bright future as a grid tutor," the team's press release read. "Now, perhaps earlier than he had ever anticipated, he gets a shot at the top job." The young coach didn't disappoint. Under Shula the Colts enjoyed seven consecutive winning seasons and the team reached the NFL title game in 1964 and 1968.
As the 1968 NFL Champions, Shula’s Colts advanced to Super Bowl III. His opponent was the American Football League’s Champion New York Jets. And the Jets coach, you guessed it, Weeb Ewbank. I know, this is getting more complicated than a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young reunion, but there’s still more.
As many of you no doubt know, Ewbank went on to defeat Shula and the Colts in Super Bowl III. The win gave the fledgling AFL the credibility it sought and for Ewbank redemption.
Again, the story could stop here, but it doesn’t.
Ewbank, the only head to win titles in both the AFL and NFL, hung up his coach’s cap after five more seasons with the Jets. Shula, well he left the Colts following the 1969 season to take over a struggling Miami Dolphins team that had won just three games the previous season.
Shula wasted little time in transforming the struggling Dolphins into a winning franchise. In his first year he posted a 10-4 record, followed by 10-3-1 in 1971. In 1972, he made NFL history going 17-0 in regular- and post season play, the only coach to do so. Well, I should clarify…the only NFL coach ever to do so. Paul Brown, Shula's mentor, also recorded an undefeated season. He led his Cleveland Browns to a perfect season in 1948, but that was as members of the NFL’s rival league, the All-America Football Conference of which the Browns were members from 1946 until the 1949 when the two rival leagues merged.
And oh, by the way, joining Shula in Miami as an assistant coach in 1970 was Carl Taseff. Taseff spent the next 24 years with Shula and the Dolphins before retiring in 1993.
As for Shula, well he finally retired after the 1995 season as the winningest coach of all time. His 347 career regular- and post-season wins may be pro football’s only unbreakable record. Not too bad for someone deemed “uncoachable.”
So, as the late, great veteran radio commentator Paul Harvey used to say, “Now you know the rest of the story.”
Pro football has returned to Los Angeles. And the Hall of Fame has the ball to prove it.
We got 1st artifact of season! The ball used in @RamsNFL 1st game back in LA (highest attended preseason game ever) pic.twitter.com/ipn7SlJ9jQ
— Pro Football HOF (@ProFootballHOF) August 31, 2016
We got 1st artifact of season! The ball used in @RamsNFL 1st game back in LA (highest attended preseason game ever) pic.twitter.com/ipn7SlJ9jQ
The Rams are back and LA fans are excited. It is, however, a little bittersweet since it does come at the expense of another city’s loss. But, not too surprisingly, I have a somewhat different perspective on this historic franchise shift. It probably won’t ease the separation anxiety being felt by St. Louis football fans right now, but, hey, maybe it’ll help.
In a convoluted way the Rams shift back to LA is not just linked to St. Louis, it’s interrelated to Chicago, Phoenix, Cleveland, the Buccaneers, the Raiders, and seven pro football leagues; the National Football League, the American Football League (1926), the American Football League (1936-37), the All-America Football Conference (1946-49), the American Football League (1960-69), the World Football League (1974-75) and the United States Football League (1983-85).
Okay, let’s start with Phoenix. As you may recall, the reason the St. Louis market was available for the LA Rams in the first place was that following the 1987 season, the St. Louis Cardinals left for greener – or should I say browner pastures – by relocating to Phoenix. While the team did abandon St. Louis, it wasn’t a franchise born in that city. The Cardinals actually can trace their roots to Chicago, where they came into being in 1898 and remained until 1960. It was after losing the venerable Cardinals to Arizona in 1987 that St. Louis struck again and enticed the Los Angeles Rams to Missouri.
So, if you’re keeping score, St. Louis “invited” two NFL teams to abandon their longtime home cities and relocate to their fair city. Hmmm, an inconvenient truth? Well, that’s probably little unfair, but worth noting.
Okay, so that covers the Chicago and Phoenix connections.
Now, let’s talk about the Cleveland correlation. This time it’s LA that sends the moving vans to another city. Following the 1945 season, the Cleveland Rams, fresh off their 15-14 win over the Washington Redskins in the NFL Championship Game, announced they were moving to Los Angeles.
Wow, think about that. The Rams win the NFL title and then move to another city. Unbelievable. But there’s more. This wasn’t the Rams first shift. The Rams franchise actually began in 1936 as a member of the then-rival American Football League. However, after one season in the AFL the Rams shifted to the more popular NFL.
Ironically, when the Rams left the AFL, it opened the door for the Los Angeles Bulldogs, an independent pro team to join the fledgling AFL. The Bulldogs, thus became the first major league pro football team to play its home games in Los Angeles. A good team, the Bulldogs went undefeated and won the 1937 AFL title. Unfortunately, the AFL folded at season's end and the Bulldogs returned to independent “minor league” play.
In 1946, the All-America Football Conference, another competitor to the NFL emerged. The most formidable challenge to the NFL to date, the AAFC gave birth to the Cleveland Browns and the San Francisco 49ers. A charter member of AAFC was the Los Angeles Dons. Interestingly, both the Dons and the relocated Rams called the LA Coliseum home in 1946. Officially, the Dons were the first to play in the Coliseum beating the NFL’s Rams by two weeks.
The AAFC played only four seasons before being absorbed by the NFL. The Browns, 49ers and a team called the Baltimore Colts – not to be confused by the 1953 NFL entry Baltimore Colts – merged with the NFL. The remainder of the AAFC players, including the Dons, were distributed through a confusing player allocation plan to the various NFL teams.
With the dissolution of the Dons following the 1949 season, the Rams were the sole major pro football entry in Los Angeles. Then, in 1960 a fourth iteration of a league called the American Football League, placed a franchise in the Southern California city. While this AFL was here to stay, the new Los Angeles Chargers franchise was not. After just one season Chargers owner Baron Hilton relocated his team to San Diego where – at least for now – it remains.
In an effort to be inclusive and accurately depict the long and storied history of failed LA football franchises, I need to mention the short-lived World Football League (1974-75) and it’s Southern California Sun franchise. There, I mentioned it!
My hesitancy to make too much of that team is that technically, they played in Anaheim, not LA. But, in reality, I guess we all know the market they really sought.
Similarly, we have the LA Express of the equally ill-fated United States Football League (1983-85). Although the Express left no lasting impact, two players, Steve Young and Gary Zimmerman found their way to the NFL and eventual election into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
A more serious foray into LA market occurred in 1982 when the Oakland Raiders decided they’d move south to what appeared to be a better market. Like the others, however, this shift didn’t fare too well either, as the Raiders returned to the East Bay in 1995, creating the pro football void that is now about to end.
Finally, I suspect and hope, some of you may have noticed, I haven’t explained my earlier reference to the Buccaneers as another team linked to the Rams shift to LA. Actually, that was just to throw you off a bit. I was not referring to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but rather the Los Angeles Buccaneers. That Buccaneers team was a one-year-wonder as a 1926 NFL franchise. And as a good sport historian might point out, there was also a team in the 1926 AFL known as the Los Angeles Wildcats. Actually, both the Los Angeles Buccaneers and the Los Angeles Tigers were travelling teams for their respective leagues. Both teams played out of Chicago, never playing a home game in the much sought after Los Angeles market.
NFL franchise histories
On November 12, 1892 the Allegheny Athletic Association (AAA) defeated the Pittsburgh Athletic Club (PAC) 4-0 in a game of football. A few weeks later, on December 27, Biddle University defeated Livingstone College by the same score.
So, other than the score – which by the way is not a typo, touchdowns in 1892 were worth four points – do these two games have in common? The answer may surprise you. Both games mark very historic events in the development of the sport of football.
The November 12 game between the AAA and PAC was the first game in which a player was paid to play, as evidenced by the AAA’s accounting ledger sheet now a part of the Hall of Fame’s archives. The ledger clearly indicates that William “Pudge” Heffelfinger was paid $500 to play that day, thus making him football’s first professional. In other words, that was the birth of the professional game.
As for the other game, it was the first played between two black colleges. Black colleges have been around since 1837. The first, the Institute of Colored Youth, later renamed Cheyney University, was founded by a group of Quakers. As author and New York Times columnist Samuel Freedman recounts in his outstanding book Breaking the Line, “Over the succeeding decades, more than 100 other colleges and universities for black students arose in the United States, with the vast majority of those institutions springing up in the South after the Civil War.”
Some of these black colleges were indeed founded by well-meaning philanthropists or religious denominations such as the Quakers, motivated, as Freedman wrote, “with an idealistic commitment to educating and elevating a formerly enslaved people.” However, Freedman also points out, many “were created by governors and legislatures in the South as a means of preserving the iron rule of segregation and inequality in public schools.”
So now, with that historical background established, I’ll continue with my connection between the two 1892 football games. While more and more black colleges began to embrace the sport of football after that first game, so too did many small towns and cities across the Northeast and Midwest begin to welcome professional teams.
However, even as the game continued to grow in popularity and spread at both the collegiate and professional levels, it remained almost completely segregated. Between 1892 and 1920 when the National Football League was founded, only four African Americans played professionally. From 1920 until 1933 only 13. And from 1934 until 1946 there were no African Americans in the NFL.
Charles Follis (left), the first documented African American pro football player.
Historically, some pro coaches argued – or better put – defended the omission of blacks by suggesting that there were only a few playing major collegiate football for them to recruit. Well, true, there were only a handful of African Americans playing at “major” colleges, and for a good reason, most were segregated.
There was, however, as Freedman wrote, “a parallel universe of black excellence in football,” flourishing in black colleges across Border States and the South. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much were it remained for decades.
But, something happened in the 1960s that finally brought the “parallel universe” of football programs at black colleges and universities to the attention of the mainstream sports community and in the process changed the game forever. Competition.
With the start of the American Football League in 1960, there was an immediate need for quality players for the young league to compete with the established NFL. Some AFL owners, general managers and coaches realized that there was an abundance of good players who were being overlooked or uninvited to the pro game simply because of the color of their skin. Remember, it wasn’t until 1963, when Bobby Mitchell, Ron Hatcher and John Nisby were signed by the Washington Redskins, that every NFL team was integrated.
Suddenly, almost as if black players had just magically appeared on the scene, AFL rosters and eventually NFL rosters too, included players from schools like Grambling, Morgan State, Jackson State, North Carolina A&T and dozens of other black schools. A success story in the making.
Now, I think we’ve all witnessed at one time or another, that sports can serve as a vehicle that drives social change. The stories of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and their football programs are great examples of that. An entire encyclopedia of stories could and probably should be written about the social implications resulting from football programs at HBCUs. They’re not just sports stories, they’re American success stories.
And while it has been long and sometimes bumpy, the road to equality in football that began with that 4-0 game in 1892, is now paved and it leads to Canton, Ohio, thanks in large part to two African American pioneers, quarterbacks James Harris and Doug Williams. Together, in 2009, these former NFL stars founded The Black College Football Hall of Fame (BCFHOF) whose mission is to preserve the history and honor the greatest football players, coaches and contributors from Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Interestingly, there are currently 64 Inductees in the BCFHOF. Twenty-nine are also members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including Willie Lanier, Michael Strahan, Art Shell, Mel Blount, Jerry Rice and Walter Payton, just to mention a few. One can only wonder, though, how many more might have been in both Halls of Fame had the playing field always been level.
It is an amazing and inspiring story and one that James and Doug have worked tirelessly to preserve and share so that the lessons learned will not be lost to the ages.
So, proudly, on May, 12, 2016 football history was again made when the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Black College Football Hall of Fame announced a partnership that will provide the BCFHOF with a permanent home in Canton, Ohio at the PFHOF. Another chapter in the story of the sport we call football will now be forever preserved for future generations to learn from, appreciate and benefit.
Welcome to Canton.
A really cool artifact arrived at the Hall of Fame this past Wednesday; the gold plated “50” used as a part of the year-long Super Bowl 50 celebration. The Lombardi Trophy was centered between the gold “5” and the “0” and was the feature element of the official logo and Super Bowl 50 branding. A very nice addition to our collection. And in years to come the gold 50 will, as historic artifacts should, inspire museum visitors to reflect on a special time and place in pro football history.
Just received @ProFootballHOF from @NFL. The Super Bowl 50 gold numerals. On display soon. Very cool. pic.twitter.com/eLKjh0N3MM
— Joe Horrigan (@JoeHHOF) May 4, 2016
Just received @ProFootballHOF from @NFL. The Super Bowl 50 gold numerals. On display soon. Very cool. pic.twitter.com/eLKjh0N3MM
That time will likely be February 7, 2016 and the place, Santa Clara, California where Super Bowl 50 was played. But for me, those gold-plated beauties caused me to reminisce about Super Bowl I and realize how far this championship game and pro football in general have come in the last five decades.
Imagine this, the first Super Bowl between the American Football League Champion Kansas City Chiefs and the National Football League Champion Green Bay Packers didn’t even sell out. Reportedly, a third of the 94,000 available seats at the L.A. Coliseum went unsold. The disappointing turnout caused NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle to question whether the $6, $10, and $12 ticket prices may have been too high. Wow, what a difference 50 years makes. The average resale cost of a Super Bowl 50 ticket was a whopping $4,639 according to online ticket brokers.
Of course we all know what a big part “entertainment” plays in the Super Bowl experience today. The pregame entertainment for Super Bowl I was the University of Arizona and Grambling University Marching Bands. The two bands accompanied legendary trumpeter Al Hirt who helped regale the early birds in the stands awaiting the game’s start.
The National Anthem was performed by the Universities of Arizona and Michigan Bands who also performed at halftime. Pretty tame stuff compared to Super Bowl 50 performers Dierks Bentley, Gavin DeGraw, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Lenny Kravitz and Missy Elliot. But at least at Super Bowl I, the only “wardrobe malfunction” worry was whether or not the coaches’ clip-on ties would fall off during a sideline rant.
Oh yes, things were different in 1967. For instance, women in the post-game locker room following Super Bowl I? No way. Heck, back then women weren’t even allowed in most press boxes. I remember in my hometown of Buffalo, the only woman allowed in War Memorial Stadium’s press box was an elderly lady who ran the hotdog rotisserie.
Ah, but alas, it’s a new day. Today there are not only women reporters in Super Bowl locker rooms, but in every NFL locker room and every press box. There are females working at every level of sport. And in Buffalo, where it was once just a hot dog rotisserie operator, the Bills went on to hire the first female scout in the NFL – Linda Bogdan – and this past year hired Kathryn Smith, the first full-time female assistant coach in the NFL.
And speaking of Super Bowls and women in the NFL, the only woman to attend all 50 Super Bowls is Norma Hunt, the wife of Hall of Famer and AFL and Kansas City Chiefs founder, Lamar Hunt. Norma, along with the 15 others who have been to every Super Bowl – eight fans, three writers, three photographers, and one groundskeeper – were honored for their milestone at a private ceremony at Super Bowl 50. Photographer Walter Iooss, one of the Super 16, quipped that his only regret was “I’ve never seen the commercials.”
Let’s not forget too, that it was Lamar Hunt who famously came up with the name “Super Bowl.” Now, there is some confusion as to exactly when the moniker became official. But for the record, he proposed the name prior to the first game. Although it was widely used by the media, for one reason or another NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle resisted using the name. But it was definitely out there. In fact it can be seen in photos spelled out on the Super Bowl I sidelines in big block lettered props. But, for whatever reason, official league publications like the ticket and game program for the first two games referred to it as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. But by Super Bowl III, Pete gave in and finally officially blessed the term “Super Bowl.”
Now 50 golden years later “Super Bowl” is the most recognized term in the entire sports lexicon, and the game the biggest single-day sporting event in the world. And to commemorate that success, the Hall of Fame is pleased to add to its collection these iconic symbols of success.
Will They Be Draft or Hall of Fame “Busts”
Well, to no one’s surprise a couple quarterbacks were selected one and two in this year’s edition of the “The Future Is Now” show, a.k.a the NFL Draft. The Los Angeles Rams grabbed Jared Goff and the Philadelphia Eagles snagged Carson Wentz.
Alright, alright, before I go any further, I admit my using the term “The Future is Now,” is a bit ironic. Washington Redskins fans will remember that phrase was owned by George Allen. The Hall of Fame coach used it to describe his philosophy of building teams with “seasoned veterans,” not draft picks. So, while I feel a little sacrilegious about twisting his famous axiom, I do so with respect.
None-the-less, expectations right now are pretty high for these two fortunate young first-round QBs. I expect Rams loyalists will soon proclaim the selection of Goff as the best thing to happen since Fred Gehrke painted logos on the team’s helmets in 1948. And fans from The City of Brotherly Love will declare – at least for now – an unwavering affection for their new QB.
However, it might be wise for the optimistic to temper their enthusiasm just a tad. Remember, as Benjamin Franklin once said, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” And when it comes to drafting NFL caliber quarterbacks, especially in the first round, Old Ben is right. Nothing is certain.
Now, I’m not trying to throw a wet blanket on this year’s top two picks. Certainly there have been more success stories about QB’s chosen in the first-round than not. But let’s not forget, in 1998 while the Colts selected “future Hall of Famer” (a phrase I rarely use) Peyton Manning, the Chargers chose Ryan Leaf. And the Cleveland Browns, well, their recent run of first-round QB picks include the likes of Johnny Manziel, Brandon Weeden, Brady Quinn, and Tim Couch. Anecdotal evidence of my point that not all first-rounders are a sure thing, I admit. But here’s something else to toss around (pun intended). There have been some really great NFL QBs that were either late-round selections or not drafted at all.
Case in point, Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas, considered one of the best ever, was a ninth-round selection of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1955. The Steelers, however, cut him before he threw a single pass in the regular season.
After a season of semi-pro football, he was signed by the Baltimore Colts as a free agent. Although Johnny U’s first regular season pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown, followed by a lost fumble on his very next possession, he soon thereafter developed into one of the game’s finest and led the Colts to titles in 1958 and 1959 and a win in Super Bowl V.
Another Hall of Fame quarterback, Bart Starr, was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in 1956 in the 17th round. Like Unitas, he too had a rocky start as a pro. In fact, after three seasons he was just about ready to hang up his cleats when the Pack’s new head coach Vince Lombardi convinced him to do otherwise.
Bart went on to earn MVP honors in both Super Bowl I and II and was a three-time NFL passing champion and a 10-time Pro Bowl choice.
More recently, in 1994, Kurt Warner reported to the Green Bay Packers for a free agent tryout. The undrafted rookie was released before the regular season began. After a three-year stint in the Arena Football League he was signed as a free agent by the St. Louis Rams who then sent him on to NFL Europe’s Amsterdam Admirals.
It wasn’t until 1998 when starter Trent Green went down with an injury in the preseason that the Rams turned to their backup. Warner responded with an NFL MVP season, and a victory and MVP honors in Super Bowl XXXIV. He followed that up with another Super Bowl appearance (SB XXXVI). Later, as the starting QB of the Arizona Cardinals he made his third Super Bowl appearance, losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII.
Now I’m not trying to say that Goff and Wentz need to be looking over their shoulder for some unknown never-quit free-agent or late-round selection to take their spot on a roster. But, maybe before we add their names to the “future Hall of Famer” list we should wait and see if their first pass is intercepted for a touchdown too.
If you’re like me, when the NFL’s 2016 schedule was released last week, the first thing I did was check which teams were tapped to play in the nationally televised Thursday, Sunday and Monday Night Games. I’m not quite sure why each year I check to see which teams are going prime time. I mean, I do have The NFL Sunday Ticket and can pretty much watch any game I want, but somehow those nationally televised night games still seem “special.”
No doubt, when Monday Night Football first came on the scene in 1970, it was a really big deal. Sports bars, big screens and football under lights. What could be better?
Well, as fondly as those early Monday Night Games may be recalled, they were hardly the first foray into football after hours. Actually, the NFL’s first venture into darkness occurred on November 6, 1929. On that moonlit night, the Providence Steam Roller made history when they hosted the Chicago Cardinals in the league’s first game played under lights.
The Steam Roller, a team that is unfamiliar to most fans today, was a pretty darn good team in the day. Members of the NFL from 1925 to 1931, the Steam Roller actually won the NFL title in 1928. Their opponent that night, the Chicago Cardinals are of course better known today as the Arizona Cardinals.
Now here’s a piece of football trivia for you. Providence was the actually the last NFL franchise not now in the NFL to win the league title.
Now, back to my story of pro football from the dark side. That now nearly-forgotten first NFL night game was played in Providence’s Kinsley Park which luckily had recently installed floodlights. The game was originally scheduled for Sunday, November 3 and was slated to be played in a bicycle-racing stadium called the Cyclodrome, which also served as the Steam Roller’s home field.
Heavy rains that day, however, made the football field unplayable. So, since neither team wanted to lose a payday the Steam Roller management quickly rescheduled the game to be played three days later on Wednesday night at Kinsley Park.
Wow, what a novel idea. Wednesday Night Football! Too bad television hadn’t yet been invented.
Surprisingly, the game, which Providence lost 16-0, was considered a success as it drew 6,000 fans and the interest of the local media. One newspaper sarcastically reported that the ball, which was painted white for the game, “had the appearance of a large egg,” and when passed there was a panicky feeling that the intended receiver “would be splattered with yellow yolk.”
While stadium floodlights and night games may not have had an immediate impact on the pro game, it did apparently affect the Steam Roller players as evidenced by a provision in the 1930 contract of Steam Roller fullback Tony Latone. The well-weathered document on file in the Hall of Fame archives stipulates that Latone was to be payed $125 “for all league daylight games and sixty percent of that sum for all league floodlight games.”
What? Players taking a pay cut to play at night. Hard to imagine; but true. According the team management, the pay cut was necessary to “help pay for the installation costs of the floodlights.”
Well, that may have been true, but I have a hunch that the cost of floodlights wasn’t the only red ink in the team’s accounting ledger. As one writer retrospectively put it, “the Steam Roller was flattened by the Depression.” It was hard times. The team had dropped to mediocre and attendance was low. For the Steam Roller the lights were about to go out anyway.
After the conclusion of the 1931 season, the team announced it was suspending operations for a year. The desperate move was taken so the Providence team might have time to find an investor to save the franchise. But alas, the Steam Roller never played in the NFL again and in 1933 the franchise was forfeited to the league.
Hey, who knows, if only that Wednesday Night Football thing had caught on, things might have been different.
Recently, Dallas Cowboys Owner, President and General Manager Jerry Jones was in Canton serving as a guest speaker at the Greater Canton Chamber of Commerce Annual Dinner. The more than 1,600 in attendance were absolutely mesmerized by Jerry’s candor, humor, personal stories, and vision.
One particular story, however, really caught my attention. It was how in 1966, the then-23-year-old Arkansas entrepreneur somehow secured a $1 million loan from the Teamsters Union to purchase the young American Football League’s San Diego Chargers.
Although it sounds almost inconceivable today considering the value of sports franchises and the process one goes through just to be considered a possible suitor for a team; it really almost happened. It was only after listening to his father’s cautious advice that the loan and deal might not be in his best interest that he withdrew his offer.
Shortly after his change of heart the AFL and NFL announced a merger. That announcement alone dramatically increased the value of the Chargers franchise. A fact that was not wasted on Jones and his advisor father. With a smile on his face, he lamented his missed opportunity and the loss of a near-immediate windfall profit.
Of course it’s hard to feel too sorry for the now-owner of America’s most valuable sports franchise. But the story did remind me of another similar tale of missed opportunity. This one involved the NFL’s 1952 Dallas Texans.
The Texans were a transplanted version of the league’s failed New York Yanks franchise. Following the 1951 season, Yanks owner Ted Collins sold the franchise to millionaire brothers Giles and Connell Miller who thought the “Big D” was ready for professional football. Well, as it turned out, that simply wasn’t the case.
On the weekend of the Texans home debut, the 75,000 seat Cotton Bowl had already hosted two major college matchups – one on Friday night and the other on Saturday afternoon. By the time the Texans took the field on Sunday all but a meager 17,499 fans had had their football fix.
Though the Texans lost 24-6 to the New York Giants that day, they did manage to score first. But not without some help from their opponent. Dallas’ touchdown came as the result of a Giants player fumbling a punt deep in New York territory. Two plays later Texans’ halfback George Taliaferro threw a touchdown pass to Buddy Young. The defensive back on the coverage was the same guy whose fumble gave the Texans great field position. That faltering Giants player was Tom Landry. Yes, the same Tom Landry who would go on to become the Dallas Cowboys first-ever head coach and future Hall of Famer. So, in a way, Tom Landry was responsible for the first points scored in Dallas by an NFL franchise.
But now, back to the Texans.
After that inauspicious beginning and just when the Millers thought things couldn’t get worse, they did. The crowds got smaller and the losses, both in the box office and on the field, got larger. Finally, after just seven games, the brothers informed the league they were unable to meet their financial obligations. NFL Commissioner Bert Bell was forced to step in and revoked their franchise.
With five games remaining on the schedule, the Dallas Texans were made wards of the league. Four of the remaining games were played as away games and a fifth “home game” was played in Akron, Ohio at the Rubber Bowl. That game was the only win by the Texans, who embarrassed the Chicago Bears 27-23.
Now, how was it that Jerry Jones’ failed attempt to purchase the Chargers reminded me of the hapless Dallas Texans? Well, before the Miller brothers gave up their franchise, they tried desperately to secure financial assistance. As the future of their franchise grew dim, the Millers informed Bell that a wealthy investor had expressed an interest in bailing out the team. But when the inevitable was upon them, the investor was in South America and Bell declined to give the brothers additional time to contact him. That investor was Clint Murchison, Jr. (below) who in 1960 bought the expansion Dallas Cowboys franchise.
So, if you can follow my logic here, it was Murchison’s missed opportunity to buy the Texans that resulted in the Cowboys being available for him to purchase in 1960. And it was Jones’ missed opportunity to buy the Chargers in 1966 that left him with the chance to buy the Cowboys in 1989. And although Jones’ purchase price was $149 million more than his Chargers offer 23 years earlier, it didn’t require a loan from the Teamsters Union to make it happen. That, no doubt, made his father happy.
Okay, if “0” (zero) has no value, is it a number? For instance, if team A beats team B, 7- 0, the zero represents no points, or the absence of points or no value. Right? Well, that’s what I thought. In my mind, zero represented the “lack” of a number and that the first number is the number 1 (one). Well, not so according to Ask Dr. Math who I found recently when I Googled, “Is zero a number?”
According to the good Doctor, “Zero is a number; in fact, it is a real number. It is on the number line right between 1 and -1. You can add, subtract, and multiply with 0 and get real answers. You can divide numbers into zero and get a real answer, zero.”
So, you might ask, what the heck does all this have to do with anything and why on earth am I pondering the existence of zero in the first place. Well, believe it or not it is a football issue.
The reason for my admittedly odd question actually has to do with the NFL’s player numbering system. The number zero (thank you Dr. Math) is not among the NFL’s allowed numbers.
The current numbering system policy goes back to 1973 when the NFL mandated ranges of numbers to be used by players by position. The simple system begins with numbers 1-19 and they are reserved for quarterbacks and specialists. Well, talk about disrespectful. No zero. Hey, remember now, zero is a number, and as such deserves an opportunity to be selected by quarterbacks and specialists just like 1-19!
Now, not only is zero a number and should be allowed to be worn by players, there have actually been several NFL players who in fact wore the forgotten number. Now why any player would want to be known “zero,” that’s another issue altogether. But the fact is, according to research found in our archives, more than a dozen former players, mostly during the 1920s and 1930s, wore the number zero. That list includes Hall of Fame tackle Pete “Fats” Henry, who purportedly sported “0” on his jersey in 1927-28 when playing with the Pottsville Maroons.
The most recent to don the disregarded digit was Obert Logan, a safety with the 1967 expansion New Orleans Saints. Obert began his career as an undrafted free agent with the Dallas Cowboys in 1965. Nicknamed “The Little O” reflective of his first name and relatively small size – 5-10, 182 pounds – Obert was selected by the Saints in the 1967 NFL Expansion Draft. It was as a Saint that “The Little O” chose zero as his number. As it turned out, zero was also the number of seasons he played after his first with the Saints. Coincidence, I’m sure.
Now, as strange as it might be that a player would chose zero as their uniform number, let’s not forget that there were three who doubled down and chose double zero (00) as theirs; Oakland Raiders Hall of Fame center Jim Otto (1960-1974), Saints/Houston Oilers wide receiver Ken Burrough (1970/1971-1981) and Steve Bagarus a back with the Washington Redskins (1945-46, 48) and Los Angeles Rams (1947). Obviously Bagarus retired before the numbering system was put in place. But since both Otto and Burrough were wearing “00” when the 1973 numbering system edict came down, they were grandfathered in and permitted to wear the unique number throughout their careers.
Of the three “00’s” however, only Otto’s choice seems to have supporting logic as it was a play on the spelling of his last name that begins and ends with an O. The other two, well I just don’t kn“oo”w (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that) what they were thinking.
So, for those of us who remember the Three Dog Night’s hit single “One” in which the super group proclaimed “One is the loneliest number you’ll ever do,” I offer this…One may be the loneliest, but Zero is by far the least appreciated.
Well, the NFL’s 2016 Annual League Meeting is now, as they say, “in the books.” And like everything else the league does, it was first class and comprehensive.
Held at the beautiful and sprawling Boca Raton Resort & Club, the daily meetings began early and ended late. Just being there and watching football history unfold right in front of my eyes, was rewarding enough. But for me, this year was extra special as I had the rare opportunity to spend some time with a very special person. On the second day of the four-day confab, I had the pleasure of sitting down with and interviewing the “First Lady of Professional Football,” Virginia McCaskey.
Preserving history! @JoeHHOF interviews Virginia McCaskey, daughter of @ChicagoBears founder George Halas. pic.twitter.com/XLwLtTwNVT
— Pro Football HOF (@ProFootballHOF) March 21, 2016
Preserving history! @JoeHHOF interviews Virginia McCaskey, daughter of @ChicagoBears founder George Halas. pic.twitter.com/XLwLtTwNVT
To talk football with any NFL club owner – past or present – is for me, always great. But this conversation was truly special. Think about it. Here I am at the NFL’s 96th Annual Meeting and I’m reminiscing with the daughter of George Halas, one of the league’s founding fathers and the founder of the Chicago Bears.
Although she prefers to go by her official title of “Corporate Secretary,” Virginia McCaskey is in reality the principal owner of the NFL’s most storied franchise.
To the now 93-year-old, growing up the daughter of George and Min Halas seemed fairly normal. “George Halas was not a household name when I was young,” she told me, “and the Chicago Bears didn’t mean that much, and pro football wasn’t all that important to people.” All true.
But even so, Virginia’s exposure to the pro game was as unique as any could have been and began at a very early age. In 1925, when she was just three years old, Virginia accompanied her parents on the first leg of the now famous “Red Grange Barnstorming Tour.” That 19-game, 67-day swing across the East and West Coasts of the United States, put pro football on the map. Although too young to remember the specifics of the trip, she related how she and her mother and younger brother George travelled with the team by train down the East Coast. The team played in front of large crowds and in cities that had never witnessed the professional game. But, as she explained, after completing the East Coast portion of the grueling schedule, her mother decided it was time for the young family to return to Chicago while the team continued on to the West Coast.
Another pivotal period in the Bears history, and an era she remembers fondly was the 1940s. Specifically the 1940 season when the Bears defeated the Washington Redskins 73-0 in the championship game. The lopsided affair still brings a big smile to Virginia’s face. But beyond the win, she also recognizes how important the game was in the development of the all-important T-formation that her father and Clark Shaughnessy perfected. She recalled how coaches from every level from across the country contacted her father to learn more about the revolutionary style of play.
Her favorite player…oh so many to consider…but after a short deliberation Hall of Fame tackle Link Lyman is who she chose. Partly because Lyman’s wife and Virginia’s mother were best friends and they had two daughters who became her “pals.”
But there are many others she remembers fondly including Paddy Driscoll, Bronko Nagurski, and the Mara, Rooney and Bidwill families. Charley Bidwill was a friend of her father’s even before he bought the then-Chicago Cardinals. Bidwill, she shared, lent her father money at one time to help keep his Bears team afloat.
Two former players, Brian Piccolo and Walter Payton, however, caused her to swallow hard as she remembered them both with the fondness of family members.
In a voice that dropped with solemn reflection, she told me that Piccolo’s death may have been the only time she ever questioned God’s will. But then she offered that looking back now she realizes all the good that has been accomplished in Brian’s name in cancer research.
Clearly, Virginia McCaskey has lived through and been a part of pro football’s good times as well as the lean years. She remembers how competing teams did things “for the good of the league.” Even if they were their toughest competitors on the field.
Still, the Bears’ leader made it clear to me that her team won’t be toasting marshmallows by a campfire with any division rivals anytime soon. When I suggested that a “certain love,” might exist between the Bears and their longtime rivals, she took a long pause, looking me directly in the eye and replying in a firm, corrective tone “okay, YOU call it love.” Then she smiled and chuckled. Her Dad would’ve been proud.
Throwback Thursday with Joe Horrigan - NFL Owners Meetings
Posted by Pro Football Hall of Fame on Thursday, March 24, 2016
Throwback Thursday with Joe Horrigan - NFL Owners Meetings
Well, it’s that time of year again when Talk Radio phone lines are lighting up with callers wanting to be heard. The conversation has shifted from “what could have been” to “what should be” and “who the best choice to get us there is.”
No I’m not talking about the heated political discourse surrounding the upcoming presidential election. I’m talking about the seemingly endless debate surrounding the 2016 NFL Draft. Sports Talk Show callers from every corner of the earth seek enlightenment, offer opinions, and challenge the wisdom of others as they collectively hope the final judgement of their team’s brain-trust will be enough to “make their team great again.”
“Who should be the first-overall pick, what are our team’s greatest needs, and why on earth did we draft so-and-so last year,” are just a few of the topics passionately opined by callers. And those callers -- wow – some sound as informed as a seasoned NFL general manager. Others, not so much.
But the fact is, the NFL Draft, once thought to be something only a team’s scouting department cared about is now as much a part of the average fan’s interest as the season opener. And even though free agency has made a huge difference in how quickly a team can move up in the standings, the NFL Draft is still where long term success is born.
Now that being said, there have been plenty of miscalculations and surprises in the annual draft that one could argue stymied a team’s ascent. Heck, in 1936, the first year of the draft, the Philadelphia Eagles selected Jay Berwanger with the first-overall pick. The Eagles, however, unable to come to an agreement on salary traded Berwanger’s signing rights to the Chicago Bears. Surely the Bears would have more luck (and money) to sign the University of Chicago star and first-ever Heisman Trophy winner. But in the end, Berwanger’s $15,000 salary demand was $1,500 more than Bears’ owner George Halas could tolerate and the NFL’s first-ever draft pick went unsigned.
My personal favorite draft faux pas, however, occurred in 1946 when the Washington Redskins drafted UCLA back Cal Rossi in the first round. Apparently the Redskins were the only NFL team unaware that Rossi was just a junior and not eligible for the draft. Embarrassed but determined, the Redskins came back in 1947 when Rossi was a senior and again drafted him in the first round. But once again, the Redskins found out too late what the rest of the league apparently knew. Rossi had no intentions of playing pro football. Back-to-back years a first-round pick wasted on the same guy. Absolutely unthinkable today.
Obviously, there have been some more recent first-round picks that didn’t pan out. But let’s not forget the low-round and even undrafted players who did. An interesting but somewhat little known fact is that there are more undrafted free agents (16) in the Hall of Fame than there are first-overall draft picks (14). The undrafted free agents include the likes of Mick Tingelhoff, Warren Moon and John Randle. But even here, there is a story behind the story.
For several undrafted free agents now in the Hall of Fame, including Marion Motley and Bill Willis it was more a case of race than performance that resulted in their being undrafted. Motley and Willis were undrafted by the NFL and instead signed with the Cleveland Browns of the rival All-America Football Conference in 1946. Motley and Willis were two of the four African American players who broke pro football’s “color barrier” that year. The other two were Kenny Washington and Woody Strode who signed as undrafted players with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams. Integration came slowly in pro football and drafting African American players, particularly in the early rounds, was even slower.
Aside from African American players who were simply ignored by teams, other notable late-round misses now in the Hall of Fame include Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr, a 17th round pick in 1956, and Baltimore Colts legendary receiver Raymond Berry, a 20th round pick in 1954. New York Giants tackle Roosevelt Brown was almost an afterthought as a 27th round pick in the 1953 draft, as was Deacon Jones, drafted by the Rams in the 14th round in 1961.
So, draftniks beware. No matter how many mock drafts you study, how many hours of the NFL Combine you watched or how many sports talk radio shows you’ve listened to or participated in, the only thing less predictable than the weather in Denver may be the NFL Draft.
And now I’d like to close by again making a political reference. This time to a line by one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin. For it was Franklin who in 1789 said, in part, “…but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” to which I’d like to add, “and the endless debate on the wisdom of an NFL Draft choice.”
Well, Peyton Manning made it official.
On March 7, 2016, he announced he was stepping away from the playing field. A playing field that has been a stage for pro football’s leading man. And typical of the guy who performed so brilliantly for the masses for 18 seasons, he did it with style, dignity, a consciousness of appreciation, and a true reverence for the game’s history.
Coincidently and appropriately, his announcement came on a day when Marvin Harrison and Tony Dungy were visiting the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a part of their Enshrinement Ceremony planning. Talk about surreal. Two individuals, so much a part of Manning’s success and he of theirs, were at the Hall of Fame when the countdown to Canton clock began ticking for the legendary quarterback. Even before the retirement announcement Marvin and Tony had shared stories about the future Hall of Famer.
I was sitting in my office in between meetings with Marvin, Tony and Kevin Greene who was also here, when Peyton’s televised press conference began. As I sat watching his exceptionally eloquent speech with a couple of staff members I half-jokingly suggested he should save his notes and reuse them as his acceptance speech in Canton years from now. It was that good. He offered retrospective appreciation for his teammates, coaches, family, friends, and opponents alike, and left us feeling what we probably already knew, he truly loves the game. And without a doubt, he appreciates all it has provided and taught him. He embraced the values of the game and acknowledged he'd use them the rest of his life.
More than once he had to pause, fight back tears and regain his composure. But for me, the most poignant moment was when he mentioned meeting the legendary Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas and how number 19 offered some brief but sage advice. “Stay at it,” he told Manning. “I’m pulling for you.” Simple and to the point. But that was Johnny U. Obviously those few heartfelt words meant an awful lot to a young man who already had plenty of sports role models, a list that surely began with his father, Archie. But this was Johnny Unitas. Even then, Peyton had such a profound appreciation for those players who came before him. So, when he got choked up talking about Johnny U, I wasn’t surprised.
“I hope that ‘Ol number 19 is up there with his flat top and maybe his black high-tops on,” he managed to say in between gulps of emotional hesitancy. “And,” he struggled to continue, “I hope he knows that I have stayed at it and maybe he’s even a little proud of me.” It was that unique sense of respect that real champions seem to share and understand so well.
It was also at that point I realized that some of Manning’s younger fans may not really know much about Johnny Unitas. Some probably Googled “Johnny Unitas” to learn something about this guy that moved Peyton to near tears. But we grey-hairs who had the privilege of seeing both play, we’ve been pointing out for years the sometimes eerie similarities between the two Colts legends. The poise in the pocket, the slouched posture, the cool take charge composure of a professional doing his job, the “coach” on the field that pushed others to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. That’s what these guys had in common. And very importantly, both understood the game was only over when the clock finally expired; not a second earlier. And that, for Peyton was on March 7, 2016. Congratulations Peyton.
Super Bowl 50 is rapidly approaching. While there are now four fewer teams in the running, it’s still anyone’s guess as to which team will ultimately earn the right to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy in celebration of a championship season.
However, while we’re focused on the Super Bowl, let’s not forget there are still two champions to be determined before anyone hoists the VLT. First there must be an American Football Conference Champion and a National Football Conference Champion. Remember? The Super Bowl is played between two Conference Champions. And that requirement goes back 50 years to when the American Football League and the National Football League met in the first AFL-NFL World Championship Game, aka the Super Bowl, as a part of the merger between the two rival leagues.
All right, all right, all right. I know if you’re reading my blog, there’s a pretty good chance that you already know this. But here’s where I’m going with this. Today, the AFC Championship Trophy is known as the Lamar Hunt Trophy, in honor of the founder of the AFL and the Kansas City Chiefs, Lamar Hunt. The NFC Championship Trophy is named the George S. Halas Trophy, in honor of George Halas, one of the founders of the NFL and the Chicago Bears.
Unfortunately, neither Lamar nor George are alive to witness and celebrate the upcoming milestone Super Bowl. However, the two First Ladies of Football, Virginia McCaskey, the daughter of George Halas, and Norma Hunt, the wife of Lamar will be watching and celebrating the historic event and doing so with an appreciation that only they could have. A wife and a daughter of the founders of two rival leagues that now play as one. These two women know firsthand how hard their loved ones worked to make their leagues a success. They know how much they loved the game and how proud they both were with what they had built.
Norma and Lamar Hunt, 1970
And proud they must have been. But even in their most optimistic moment, I can’t imagine that either Lamar Hunt or George Halas ever imagined that their pro football ventures would be as successful as they have become. And while success is what they worked so hard to achieve, it was more than that.
Both of these pro football pioneers were sportsmen first and businessmen second. Not that either ever wanted to lose money, but they were both ready and willing to do so – and indeed did – to see their dreams through fruition.
George Halas and daughter Virginia.
I recently came across a quote from George Halas that I think would still represent his feelings if he were here today to share them. And I’m sure it’s a sentiment that would have been echoed by Lamar Hunt, the man who, don’t forget, came up with the term “Super Bowl.”
“I suppose some people think an interest in sports is frivolous, but not for myself. I’ve loved sports since I was old enough to cross a Chicago street by myself. I’m happy I made pro football a career. It has been good to me in the material sense, but more important is that I have been associated with youth in all my years as a pro football coach and owner.”
So as we prepare to enjoy the 50th edition of the Super Bowl, I’d like to salute two of the game’s greatest contributors and extend a thank you to Virginia McCaskey and Norma Hunt for allowing us to enjoy the fruits of their loved one’s dreams.
Each week in my blog, I update the results of the Super Bowl rematches taken place throughout the season leading up to Super Bowl 50. Here they are through Week 10.
On September 30, 2015, Pittsburgh Steelers rookie linebacker Anthony Chickillo was promoted from the team’s practice squad to the team’s active roster. And with that the 6th round draft pick from the University of Miami made National Football League history. Actually not only did Anthony make history, so too did his father and grandfather. You see, by making the Steelers’ active roster, Anthony became the third generation of Chickillos to play in the NFL. And that put the Chickillo family in the NFL history book as just the fourth three-generation of family members to play in the league.
The Chickillo NFL-family-tree begins with Anthony’s grandfather Nick, a guard with the Chicago Cardinals (1953). Next up is Anthony’s dad, Tony, a defensive end/defensive tackle with the San Diego Chargers (1984-85) and the New York Jets (1987). We pointed out this piece of NFL history to Anthony when he visited the Hall of Fame this past summer when the Steelers brought all of their rookies to visit the football shrine. While obviously he was aware of his family’s NFL pedigree, he was surprised to learn that should he make the team, his family would be just the fourth to earn such a distinction.
Chickillo, second to left, watches highlights of Hall of Famers during his visit.
Now that I think about it, I sure hope that sharing that information served as inspiration and not as undue pressure. Life is tough enough for a rookie in this league. Either way, it’s now an NFL milestone and hopefully a source of pride for the Chickillo family.
The first three-generation NFL family is a little different in that the family link began with Bob Higgins an end with the Canton Bulldogs (1920-21). The second family member in this trifecta was Steve Suhey a guard with the Pittsburgh Steelers (1948-49) who although not related to Higgins, went on to marry Higgin’s daughter. Got that? Now, completing the first three-generation NFL family was Steve’s son Matt, a pretty good fullback with the Chicago Bears (1980-89). What makes this trio unique is that Matt, who is Steve’s son and Bob Higgins’ grandson, is the only one of the three who is “biologically” linked to the other two. I know, it’s confusing.
Our second three generation family is much simpler to follow. That one begins with George Pyne II, a tackle with the NFL’s 1931 Providence Steam Roller. His son George III played defensive tackle for the Boston Patriots (1965) and his son Jim was a center with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1995-97), Detroit Lions (1998), Cleveland Browns (1999-2000), and the Philadelphia Eagles (2001).
The final NFL three-generation of players is the Matthews family. What can you say about this bunch? While they too span three generations there are – as of now – seven family members who have NFL blood running through their veins.
The Matthews brood begins with grandpa, Clay Matthews, Sr., a defensive end/defensive tackle with the San Francisco 49ers (1950, 1953-55). Following in Clay, Sr.’s footsteps were sons Clay, Jr. an outstanding linebacker with the Cleveland Browns (1978-1993) and Atlanta Falcons (1994-96), and Hall of Fame center, tackle, guard Bruce Matthews. Bruce excelled with the Houston Oilers and Tennessee Titans (1983-2001). The third generation of Matthews consists of Clay, Jr.’s sons Clay, a linebacker with the Green Bay Packers (2009-present) and Casey who played linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles (2011-14).
Bruce, not to be outdone by his brother, also had two sons that made it to the NFL. His son Jake is a tackle with the Atlanta Falcons (2014-present) and Kevin, a center, played four seasons with the Tennessee Titans (2010-2013).
Although we have not yet added the father and son NFL combos from 2015 (we’ll get to it real soon), as of the start of this season, including the four above mentioned families, there are 217 documented sets of fathers and sons who played pro football. So, I guess the best way to sum up this week’s blog is to quote R&B singer-songwriter Sly Stone of Sly and the Family Stone who crooned his way in 1971 to a #1 R&B hit.; “It’s a Family Affair,” even in the NFL.
Well, it’s looking more and more like the Carolina Panthers may join the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins as the only teams to go unbeaten and untied in the regular and postseason. That’s right, the Browns and the Dolphins. And even though it’s true, you won’t find any mention of the Browns undefeated milestone in the NFL Record and Fact Book. But it really did happen. It’s just that it didn’t happen in the NFL. It occurred in 1948, when the Browns played in the upstart All-America Football Conference (AAFC), a rival league that competed for four seasons (1946-49) with the established NFL.
The eight-team AAFC not only gave birth to the Browns, but also the San Francisco 49ers and the first iteration of the Baltimore Colts. All three of those AAFC entries were admitted intact into the then-10-team NFL by way of a 1950 merger. The rest of the AAFC’s stable of quality players were absorbed by NFL teams through a convoluted player distribution plan following the 1949 season.
Somewhat lost to history is how good the AAFC was back then. Thirteen players, whose careers began in the AAFC, went on to Hall of Fame enshrinement. One player, a defensive back with the AAFC’s Brooklyn/New York Yankees, Tom Landry, went on to stardom as a coach, earning Hall of Fame coaching honors in 1990.
But it was the Cleveland Browns and their seven future Hall of Fame players and their Hall of Fame Coach Paul Brown that dominated the upstart league.
How good were they? They were very, very good. In fact, the Browns won the AAFC title each of the four years the league existed and in 1948 posted their perfect 15-0 record. And, as if to prove their NFL worthiness, the Browns won the NFL title in 1950, their first season as members of the senior circuit.
Now, clearly an undefeated season is impressive enough, but if you count ties, Cleveland actually began their oft-overlooked “non-losing” streak in 1947 and extended it into the 1949 season. The talent-laden Browns finished with an amazing 29 games without a loss. That is the longest winning streak – or “non-losing” streak if you prefer – in pro football history.
So, is it fair to count ties in the Browns winning streak. To that my answer is a resounding “yes.” Back in the day, there was no provision for an overtime period in regular season games to settle tied games.
If you insist that we not count ties, then the Browns streak drops to 18, and that’s good only for a six-way tie for third longest winning streak in pro football history. But, like I said there was no provision for overtime until much more recently and obviously ties are not losses, so for me the streak is 29. And, oh-by-the-way, if we do count ties, the second longest winning streak in pro football would belong to the NFL’s Canton Bulldogs who from the final game of the 1921 season to the final game of the 1923 season went 25 consecutive games without a loss.
“After further review,” is now a part of our football lexicon. And as we all know, it’s asserted just prior to a game official’s pronouncement of his decision relative to a challenge by a coach or an instant replay official. Often it’s the opening line for what is as close to an apology as you’ll ever get from an official. “After further review, it’s apparent that we screwed up and we’re truly sorry so we’ve decided to reverse our call.” Well, maybe those aren’t the exact words they use, but I think I’ve captured their sentiment. The important point here is that in pro football mistakes are acknowledged and in many instances a wrong is righted. And not just during a game. In fact, every game and individual stat is reviewed by the league and corrected whenever an error is found. And that’s a good thing.
And, you may not be aware, but in the pre-instant replay years there were actually instances where an official’s call was reversed long after the game was over. An example that comes to mind involves the 1972 Miami Dolphins. After the final regular season game ended and the team was preparing for the playoffs, team management asked the NFL to review a play in which the aptly named running back Mercury Morris was charged with a 9-yard loss on a fumbled lateral. The loss of yardage left the speedy receiver with 991 rushing yards for the season.
Well, the league not only reviewed the game film, they reversed the call declaring that it was indeed a forward pass, not a lateral and therefore an incomplete pass not a fumble. Morris was awarded nine more yards giving him exactly 1,000 for the season and making him and his Hall of Fame teammate Larry Csonka the NFL’s first 1,000-yard rushers on the same team.
Now, I bring this up, not to cast doubt upon an NFL first or the integrity of the league’s decision to overturn the game official’s call, but rather as a great example of a righted wrong. And, you guessed it; I want to make a case for yet another wrong that needs righted.
ESPN has just released its latest “30 For 30” show. This one “Four Falls of Buffalo” is about the Bills’ remarkable four consecutive Super Bowl appearances. Okay, now don’t get excited, the fact finders at ESPN didn’t uncovered new never-before-seen evidence that proves Scott Norwood’s missed field goal attempt was actually good. That’s not the wrong I wish righted. What I’m suggesting is that 17 former Bills players should be credited with one more full season played.
No, I didn’t go back and find 16 games that the collective football universe somehow magically forgot. However, what I will point out is that during the Bills’ four consecutive Super Bowl runs, 22 players played in all four Super Bowls and counting the playoff games leading up to them, played in an additional 13 games. And, more to my point, 17 of those 22 players were also with the team during the two seasons prior (1998 and 1999) bringing their total extra playoff games to 16. And that my friend is an additional season. And remember, those 16 games were against the best teams in the league each of those years. No gimmes here.
One more thing not to overlook, four of the 17 players to pick up the 16 extra games – Jim Kelly, Andre Reed, Bruce Smith and Thurman Thomas -- are in the Hall of Fame as is their coach Marv Levy and team owner Ralph Wilson.
Okay, okay, before you jump all over me, I realize that the Pittsburgh Steelers also have 22 players who played in and won four Super Bowls. And I understand that their 22 guys played in just as many if not more postseason games. But, it’s just that as a native Buffalonian, lifelong Bills fan (and former ball boy) it just seems right that I try to do something to help take away some of the sting that still remains from those four consecutive Super Bowl losses.
But wait, here’s a thought. Maybe if we can find that league official that changed Mercury Morris’ fumbled lateral to an incomplete pass, we might be able to right the wrong known as the “Music City Miracle.”
ESPN, the show is great, but the pain remains.
Okay, imagine if you will a Hollywood movie script about a 1931 college All-American and social butterfly who rises to NFL ownership and secretly works for the FBI spying on Nazi planners during World War II. The leading man in this football espionage story is known as “Shipwreck” Kelly, a wealthy, good-looking athletic playboy with an appealing personality and very well connected with the social elite.
As our story goes, “Shipwreck” earned his nickname after one-upping an old sailor also named “Shipwreck” who back in the 1920’s earned a reputation by sitting atop flagpoles. Our “Shipwreck” does one better when he climbs a flagpole and somehow manages to stand on top for a few minutes. It was strange behavior, but it was a strange time.
Now, fast-forward a year in this silver screen script and envision our flagpole-climbing football hero in New York City playing pro football with let’s say, the New York Giants. Ever the playboy, the only thing our leading man enjoys more than football is the exciting nightlife that only New York has to offer. Although he’s a good football player, playing in the NFL just isn’t enough for this flagpole and social climber. So, when he learns that an NFL team in Brooklyn might be for sale, “Shipwreck” partners with a teammate and purchases the fledgling franchise.
Now of course, like every good script, we need love interests to make it more marketable, so “Shipwreck” becomes a regular at all the hotspots in New York and is frequently seen with showgirls and the daughters of wealthy bankers. But, for our story even that isn’t enough. So, let’s add say a former Olympic figure skating star to the plot and give her part ownership of the franchise and make her the first female owner in the NFL. Now that’s a story. But there’s more.
After a few years dabbling in the NFL, our star, “Shipwreck,” now married to a very wealthy and well-known debutante, decides to use his social connections to do undercover work for the FBI. Now, stay with me here, it gets complicated. At this point, the U.S. is very much engaged in World War II. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (pictured below), in a stroke of genius, realizes that “Shipwreck’s” social status gives him entre to gatherings in foreign countries like Argentina. Hoover determines that “Shipwreck” can infiltrate the large German social circles that exist there and covertly gather pertinent information which he can then pass on to the FBI. Our football hero happily agrees and becomes pro football’s first spy.
Alright, I know it doesn’t sound like an Academy Award winning film and probably reads a like far-fetched crazy story that only bad Hollywood writer could dream up. But, the amazing thing is, it’s all true. Or at least “Shipwreck” said it was all true.
You see, John “Shipwreck” Kelly was a halfback with the New York Giants in 1932. In 1933, he and Giants teammate Chris Cagle purchased the NFL’s Brooklyn Dodgers where the duo continued to play. Their partnership lasted just one year before Cagle sold his interest to Dan Topping. Now here’s the part that’s tough to substantiate. Shipwreck, in a great interview with writer Dick Whittingham in his book What a Game They Played, claims that in 1940 – after Shipwreck was officially out of football – his former partner Topping married Olympic figure skater Sonja Henie and sold her half his interest in the team. As for the spy part, Shipwreck produced a letter from J. Edgar himself to substantiate that claim. Heck, maybe this isn’t such a bad movie script after all.
The tradition of NFL football on Thanksgiving Day is as old as the league itself. In fact, in 1920, the league’s inaugural season, the Decatur Staleys (now known as the Chicago Bears) and several other teams played games on Thanksgiving. Albeit, some played non-league teams and the results didn’t count in the league standings. However, they’re still, if you will, “firsts.”
Obviously, since then there have been some really great Turkey Day games. But, the most “significant” in my humble opinion goes back to 1925 when the upstart NFL was still struggling for an identity and searching for some “star-power” to take it to the next level. Enter Illinois halfback Red Grange, the then-biggest name in college football.
On November 21, following his final collegiate game, Grange announced he was turning pro and joining the Chicago Bears. The announcement made the Bears and the NFL the toast of the town. They had the big-name player they desperately needed and it was headline news across the country.
Joining Grange at his signing announcement were George Halas and Dutch Sternaman, the Bears co-owners and Charles C. Pyle, better known as “Cash and Carry” Pyle who was introduced as Grange’s manager. You can make the argument that Pyle was pro football’s first player agent.
Here’s what the four agreed to. A contract was signed between the Bears’ co-owners and Pyle, who then entered in to a contract with Grange. Since Grange technically still had college eligibility, it was better that he sign a contract with the promoter than an NFL team. But in reality, it was just semantics. The agreement was that Grange would finish out the Bears 1925 season that still had six games remaining.
Grange’s first game as a pro was just five days after his final collegiate game and on Thanksgiving Day against the Chicago Cardinals. It couldn’t get much bigger than that, Chicago rivals, Thanksgiving Day and the “Galloping Ghost” Red Grange.
Of course, Halas, Sternaman and Pyle knew that with Grange in the lineup, there were new opportunities. Immediately the Cardinals as well as the other five teams scheduled to play the Bears were informed that their previously agreed to terms were no longer applicable. With Grange as a draw and the resulting added attendance, the Bears and Pyle wanted and got a bigger cut of the proceeds. But let’s face it, their opponents really didn’t mind. They too reaped the benefits of the Superstar’s presence. Halas, Sternaman and Pyle also notified two of the scheduled opponents – the Frankford Yellow Jackets and the Providence Steam Roller – they’d have to find larger venues to host their games. And they did.
As for the Thanksgiving Day game, it drew a sellout crowd of 36,000 fans, the largest gathering for an NFL game to date. For his part, Grange rushed for 36 yards, had 56 yards on punt returns and intercepted a Cardinals pass near the Bears goal line thus stopping their most serious scoring threat. The game ended in a 0-0 tie. Now, I did say that this was the most “significant” Thanksgiving Day Game, not necessarily the most exciting. More importantly than his play that day, Grange’s debut was the start of a 10-game whirlwind end to the 1925 season. In addition to the already scheduled six NFL opponents, Pyle managed to squeeze in more paydays with four additional exhibition games.
A police escort was neccesary to get Grange through the crowd following his pro debut with the Bears on Thanksgiving.
The most important game of the Grange odyssey, however, and one of the most important in NFL history, occurred on December 6. That’s when the Grange-led Bears played the New York Giants. You see, the Giants were finishing out their inaugural NFL season buried in red ink. However, the 70,000 fans that filled New York’s Polo Grounds just to get a glimpse of the living-legend Grange, provided gate receipts enough to turn Giants owner Tim Mara’s red ink black. It also convinced the somewhat reluctant owner to stay the course and not abandon his pro football venture, something he’d been considering. One New York newspaper reported that Grange’s “growing fame drew almost one hundred reporters, from papers as far West as St. Louis, to the Polo Grounds to cover his playing and send out the news to millions.”
So, let’s recap. The signing of Grange provided the Bears and the NFL with a marquee player; generated publicity like the NFL had never experienced; drove up attendance; generated big gate receipts for struggling teams, and solidified a franchise in the most important of all markets, New York City. Not too shabby.
Oh, and the fun didn’t end with the conclusion of the Bears 1925 regular season. After a two-week rest and recovery period, Grange and the Bears were back on the road as the stars of barnstorming exhibition tour created by Pyle. The tour began on Christmas Day in Coral Gables, Florida, followed by games in Tampa, Jacksonville, New Orleans, Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco and ended with two-game swing in Portland and Seattle. And, in case you didn’t notice every one of those cities with the exception of Portland and Los Angeles, are now members of the NFL. And even that looks to be changing soon.
NFL President Joe Carr, during his report to the owners following the 1925 season stated that “Thousands upon thousands of people were attracted to their first game of professional football through a curiosity to see Grange in action, and many became profound advocates.” Pretty significant, I’d say. And it all began on Thanksgiving Day, 1925.
Over time— and yes, I’m shamelessly using the name of my blog to introduce this segment – it’s likely that every existing pro football career record will fall. Don Shula’s career coaching record might be the toughest to topple, but surely somewhere there is a young coach just waiting in the wings. But he’ll have to win a heck of a lot of games and coach a really long time to do so. But barring a losing record, coaching burnout, or an impatient owner, it is possible. But it’s not Shula “for whom the bell tolls” today, to quote Hemingway, but rather Peyton Manning.
I know there’s a lot of chatter out there about last Sunday’s game and how it’s too bad that Manning’s latest record came in a game where a football Superman looked merely mortal. Well, as you might expect, I have a different take on this.
A career record, whether it’s Shula’s career wins or Manning’s passing yardage mark, are the cumulative result of many wins and many yards passing. Sure when a career record falls there’s a specific moment in time when the pre-existing milestone is surpassed. But when that happens what we’re really witnessing and hopefully celebrating is the completion of a long and arduous journey to that moment. As I tweeted from Denver when Manning eclipsed Brett Favre’s record on Sunday, it’s not about a play, a game or even a season, it’s about a remarkable Hall of Fame career.
Now, would it have been a better day for Peyton and his legion of fans, of which you can count me as one, if the Broncos had won? Sure, but here too, I have a different take. Peyton’s performance on Sunday should be remembered for what it really was. It was a gutsy demonstration of his tenacity and burning desire to win. Let’s face it, if you or I had a tear in our plantar fascia (I looked it up…it’s painful), we’d likely be home on the couch, with our leg elevated or wrapped with an ice bag, not running around dodging 320-pound defensive linemen. It was also one more example of Peyton’s character and proof that there is in fact an eternal flame that burns within his soul that makes him want to win again and again.
Let me also offer this. When you come to Canton, and I hope you do, and you look upon the football that Manning threw for his most recent record, remember this; that football doesn’t represent just that singular moment. It represents thousands of hours of hard work and preparation. It represents all of the players and coaches who were a part of his success. And it represents a lifetime of support from his family and friends.
Peyton Manning yards passing record football on display at @ProFootballHOF along with 7 TD game mementos. pic.twitter.com/Xwmha21jKa
— Joe Horrigan (@JoeHHOF) November 17, 2015
Peyton Manning yards passing record football on display at @ProFootballHOF along with 7 TD game mementos. pic.twitter.com/Xwmha21jKa
And finally, although I’m certain that someday all of Manning’s amazing records will be broken; I can assure you, the competitive spirit of this remarkable athlete will never be broken. That’s forever.
Usually when we say an “NFL veteran,” we’re referring to a player whose career has made it to at least a second NFL season. But today, as we celebrate Veterans Day, my reference to “NFL veterans” refers to those who were members of an NFL team and more importantly, also members of the U.S. Armed Forces team. And there are many. More than you are likely aware.
While every man or woman who serves in our Armed Forces, whether during a time of war or peace, deserves our unconditional gratitude, today I focus on a few of the 1,200-plus NFL war-time veterans. I salute the players, coaches, owners and administrators who either interrupted or postponed their pro football careers to serve their country during time of war.
That 1,200-plus list of names includes 24 NFL men who made the ultimate sacrifice, loss of life, while defending our country. It includes three Congressional of Medal of Honor recipients. And like with so many armed forces veterans, it includes countless examples of personal sacrifice and acts of true heroism.
On the list of “NFL veterans” who served during war there are many familiar names. Names like Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame Coach Tom Landry, who as a 19-year-old enlisted in the Army Air Corp during World War II. Landry flew 30 missions as a co-pilot of a B-17 bomber, and survived a crash in Belgium after a bombing run over Czechoslovakia. And there’s Buffalo Bills founder and Hall of Fame owner Ralph Wilson, Jr. who served as a skipper on a minesweeper in both the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters during WWII. Ralph, a decorated veteran, was also the first American to respond to and witness the devastation after the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan.
Chuck “Concrete Charley” Bednarik, the Philadelphia Eagles Hall of Fame Center/Linebacker, was a waist gunner on a B-24 Liberator and took part in 30 long-range bombing missions over Germany. For his courageous service he was awarded the Air Medal and four Oak Leaf Clusters, the European Theater Operations Medal and four Battle Stars, and the Good Conduct Medal.
Chuck Bednarik (front, left) with crew.
During the Korean War, Eddie LeBaron, who later quarterbacked the Washington Redskins and the Cowboys, and was a long-time NFL and team executive, spent seven months on the front line and was wounded twice. For his heroic efforts in a hard-fought battle at Korea’s Heartbreak Ridge he was awarded the Bronze Star.
Two NFL rookie guards, Bob Kalsu, who played for the 1968 Buffalo Bills and Don Steinbrunner of the 1953 Cleveland Browns, died while serving in Vietnam. Both Kalsu and Steinbrunner were reservists who were called to active duty. Kalsu, after eight months of heavy combat was killed in action while defending Firebase Ripcord, a remote jungle mountaintop. Steinbrunner, who after a year with the Browns, decided on a career in the Air Force, lost his life when his plane was shot down over Kontum, South Vietnam in 1967. There were no survivors.
Two lesser-known NFL players, but remarkable military veterans Ralph Heywood and Harry Marker have the distinction of being the only players to serve as members of the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Heywood, after his initial discharge from the Marines following WWII, embarked on a four-year pro football career with the All-America Football Conference’s Chicago Rockets (1946), the NFL’s Detroit Lions (1947-48), Boston Yanks (1948) and the New York Bulldogs (1949). A reservist, he returned to active duty in 1952 during the Korean War and then later commanded the 26th Marines Regiment in Vietnam.
Marker, a defensive back out of West Virginia, played just one game as a member of the 1934 Pittsburgh Pirates (now known as the Steelers) before deciding on a military career in the U. S. Army. He also served with distinction during WWII, Korea and Vietnam.
And the list goes on and on.
Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman cut short his pro football career to join the Army Rangers. He too gave his life for his country. NFL and Chicago Bears founder, player and coach, George Halas, twice interrupted his football career to serve during WW I and WWII. Lieutenant General Earnest C. Cheatham, a defensive tackle for the Steelers and Baltimore Colts in 1954, was the highest ranking military officer to play professional sports and served with distinction in both the Korean and Vietnam wars. And there’s the remarkable story of survival involving Mario “Motts” Tonelli a Chicago Cardinals fullback who as a WWII prisoner of war survived the infamous Bataan Death March and more.
I know and understand fully that there are hundreds, no, thousands, of similar stories surrounding our Armed Forces veterans, but today, Veterans Day, I guess I just wanted to reflect on a few of the men that we remember as “Heroes of the Game” and recognize them as true “American Heroes."
Each week in my blog, I update the results of the Super Bowl rematches taken place throughout the season leading up to Super Bowl 50. Here they are through Week 9.
Last weekend’s wild shootout between the New Orleans Saints and New York Giants in which Drew Brees tossed a record-tying 7 TDs and Eli Manning fired 6 touchdown passes, reminded me of another touchdown tossing QB, Jim Hardy. “Who?” you say. Well, in 1950, Chicago Cardinals quarterback – and yes, the Cardinals used to play in Chicago – Jim Hardy threw six TDs. He nearly had a record seventh if not for a drop in the end zone. Pretty good for a guy you probably never heard of before now.
But the truth is the Brees-Manning performance really didn’t cause me to reflect on Hardy’s then-great passing performance. What it really reminded me of was his performance the week before. In that game, Hardy did set an NFL record. Not for touchdown passes but for interceptions. Hardy threw eight. To make matters worse, he also had two fumbles. Could things get any worse than that? Of course they could.
The game was the season opener against the defending World Champion Philadelphia Eagles and Hardy’s day started off on a really bad note. He and teammates, future Hall of Famer Charley Trippi and Mal Kutner, were involved in a car accident on the way to the stadium. Fortunately, no one was hurt. While Trippi and Kutner jumped into a cab and headed to the stadium, Hardy, the driver, had to stay back to fill out the police report. He arrived at the stadium just in time for the kickoff. So, he took his first snap without even the benefit of a warm-up throw.
Hardy’s bad on-the-field day started almost immediately. His second pass attempt was picked off. By halftime he’d thrown three picks and the Cardinals trailed the Eagles, 31-0.
“I can still remember sitting on the bench in the dressing room with my head in my hands thinking that nothing could be worse than three interceptions in one half,” Hardy once recalled. Little did he know he’d throw five more.
To start the second half, the beleaguered passer fumbled the first snap from center. Then on the next possession, he threw the first of his five second-half interceptions. The onslaught continued but there was no rest for the shell-shocked Hardy. He received a brief reprieve when he was pulled from the game midway through the fourth quarter. However, his backup Frank Tripucka lasted only three plays before being carted off the field with an injury. Hardy’s nightmare continued as he was inserted back into the game.
In all, Philadelphia converted his two fumbles and three of his interceptions into points and cruised to a 45-7 victory. Poor Jim’s infamous day finally and mercifully ended. Unfortunately, his stats showed almost as many of his 39 attempts ending up in Eagles’ players hands as those of his receivers. He completed just 12 passes.
So, unfairly or not, Jim Hardy will be forever remembered not for his outstanding six-TD performance, but rather for his car-wreck-of-a-day on opening day, 1950.
Each week in my blog, I update the results of the Super Bowl rematches taken place throughout the season leading up to Super Bowl 50. Here they are through Week 8.
We’ve all heard the saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” or something close to that. Well, a few days ago, I found myself referencing that age-old adage to make a point about the National Football League. It was during a panel discussion on which I participated following a sneak peek at a soon to be released documentary “Before the League.”
The six-part documentary is a look at pro football, its early years, the challenges, successes, its early stars, and its transition from rural small-town America to the big city. From the edited half-hour compilation that I saw, it looks like a real winner. I look forward to seeing the whole thing when it’s released later this month.
In any case, joining me on the panel discussion were three others, who like myself, are featured in the film; Chris Willis, the Head of the Research Library at NFL Films, Kate Buford, a Jim Thorpe biographer and Hall of Fame Gold Jacket, Floyd Little.
In a role reversal, Floyd, who is usually an interviewee, served as the interviewer for the discussion. Together we had a great back-and-forth exchange on the NFL’s early years, during which I made my “the more things change” observation.
My point was that when the NFL was founded on September 17, 1920 in Canton, Ohio, although it had profound results, it really wasn’t big news. In fact there was only a brief note on the meeting in just a couple newspapers, mostly from Ohio. But, each made reference to the need for a league and the three reasons why. And that was, as I pointed out, why the old adage “the more they stay the same” applied.
You see, the brief news coverage of the meeting reported that the NFL – or the American Professional Football Association as it was known until it changed its name in 1922 – was organized for three primary reasons: one, to combat players’ high salary demands, which were in the $75 to $150 per game range; two, to keep players from jumping from team to team – which they would do for an extra few bucks, and three, to protect college eligibility. “Ninety-five years later,” I queried, and I ask again now, “how we doin?” It seems like we’re still struggling with the same problems today – salary cap, free agency and college eligibility – as those that existed almost one hundred years ago.
So, I guess the answer is, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Well, the Bills and the Jags game at Wembley Stadium in London on Sunday was exciting to say the least. Down 27-3, the Bills second-teamers – yes, eight starters and their number two running back were out – managed to take a 31-27 lead with just over five minutes to play. But alas, the Jaguars showed their London mates that in American football, “it ain’t over until the fat lady sings.” And to Londoners that probably makes about as much sense as the pass interference call on Nickell Robey that set up the home team’s winning score. But the outcome and win-loss records aside, it really was an important game. Online streaming is the next step in the evolution of how we’ll consume the game.
Here’s how I see that evolution.
It begins on October 22, 1939, when the Philadelphia Eagles met the football Brooklyn Dodgers in the first televised game in NFL history. On that day 500-or-so New Yorkers who actually owned television sets had a chance to watch the game on NBC’s experimental station, W2XBS. More saw it on televisions in the RCA Pavilion at the World’s Fair in New York where it was scheduled as a special event. It was the beginning of game’s most important relationship, the marriage between football and television.
My number two biggie in TV’s football evolution came in 1951 when the Dumont Network broadcast the NFL Championship Game. It was the first NFL title game broadcast nationally. The game, like the Bills/Jags game, was super exciting. The Rams beat the Browns on a 73-yard TD pass late in the fourth quarter. Fans, who tuned in, like those who streamed the Bills/Jags game, got their money’s worth and were hooked on this idea of nationally televised games.
Third on my list is the 1958 NFL Championship Game. Actually, I should call it 2-b since it’s also a championship game and the television part really didn’t change. It’s just that this nationally televised title game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants was played in media central New York City and went into overtime. Eventually the Colts won the nail-biter 23-17, but more importantly, 45 million viewers tuned in to witness.
Now lots happened between 1958 and my next stop on the history timeline. But for me, the next “big thing” in televised football was ABC’s Monday Night Football. Even though the NFL and CBS experimented with one nationally televised Monday night game in 1966 and 1967 and then two in 1968 and 1969, and then the rival AFL did the same with NBC in 1968 and 1969; it was ABC’s weekly game that changed everything. With a wild three-man booth and halftime highlight films, it was no longer just a football game; it was a prime time extravaganza. For what it’s worth, I contend Monday Night Football also gave birth to the sports bar scene.
Next let’s go back, back, back, back, back, to cable TV and ESPN; pro football year round on a 24-7 network. The all-sports network that debuted on September 7, 1979 was a sports junkie’s dream. As NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue once explained, “ESPN was able to take the draft, pregame and highlight shows, and other NFL programming to a new level.” By 1985, ESPN was in the mix of televising NFL games. It introduced us to a regular Sunday Night Football schedule and eventually took over the Monday Night franchise slot.
So what could possibly be next? Ah, yes. The satellite dish! Finally, in 1994 for those who no longer resided in the same region as their beloved home team, the satellite dish and NFL Sunday Ticket made it possible to not only watch their home team, they could watch any game they wanted.
And finally, let’s not forget the 2003 launch of the NFL Network, a cable/satellite network that brings us 24-7 NFL football. Life is good.
So, in conclusion, Bills fans fear not. Just as the world remembers your team as the one that went to four consecutive Super Bowls – not for losing four – they’ll now also be remembered as one of the two teams that played in the first live stream of an NFL game to a global audience on a digital platform. Who really cares who won the Eagles/Dodgers game in 1939 anyhow?
We have a really terrific program at the Hall of Fame called Heart of the Hall of Famer. It’s one of our award-winning youth and educational initiatives where we connect Gold Jackets (a term used for our living Hall of Famer) to schools through videoconferencing. In fact, as I’m typing this blog, Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews is here talking to and taking questions from students in classrooms across the country. Now, the really cool part is that Bruce isn’t talking about X’s and O’s or about his playing career, he’s talking about what we call the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Gold Jacket Standards of Character – commitment, integrity, courage, respect, and excellence. Bruce is relating to his young audience, what it takes to be a Hall of Famer in everyday life. It’s a really, really good program and the feedback from teachers and students alike is remarkable.
With Bruce being here today, it got me thinking about all the Hall of Famers I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with in just the past couple weeks either at events around the league or here at the Hall of Fame or as guests on our new Pro Football Hall of Fame on SiriusXM show (each Saturday on channel 88 from 2-4 pm ET), who like Bruce epitomize great character.
Hall of Famers like Randall McDaniel who during an interview on our radio show last Saturday, spoke effusively about how much he enjoys teaching second grade special needs children. Man, can you imagine what goes through the mind of a second-grader when the former Vikings guard – all 280 pounds of him – enters the room for the first time? And, I thought my third grade teacher, Sister Modesta was intimidating. But, like that kindly old nun who tolerated this oft-misbehaving class clown, Randall is nothing short of a patient gentle giant and a great example of “character.”
Now, as out of place as a big former offensive lineman may seem in a second grade classroom, here’s another Hall of Famer sighting that might surprise you. This past week Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann was in Canton as a guest conductor of the Canton Symphony Orchestra. Yes, I know it’s not what you would call a “giant leap” for this former ballet student to be at the Symphony, but I guarantee you, Lynn is the only Hall of Famer who, I kid you not, has his own Conductor’s baton. Lynn appeared with the Symphony as it performed “Soundtracks of the Gridiron.” Swann not only took over the podium from Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann to conduct his alma mater USC’s fight song, he led the orchestra through their presentation of the Cleveland Browns’ fight song. The good-natured Maestro Swann, however, jokingly instructed the audience not to tape that portion of his performance and referred to it as “sacrilegious.”
We also had an opportunity recently to chat with Alan Page in Minnesota at the Vikings Week Four Game where during halftime Hall of Fame President David Baker presented Mick Tingelhoff his Hall of Fame ring. Page, who spent 15 seasons with the Vikings and Chicago Bears, had just 27 days earlier retired as an associate justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, a 23-year career. Talk about integrity. Which reminds me, another guest we had on our SiriusXM show was Hall of Fame wide receiver Steve Largent, who in his post-NFL career served in the U.S. House of Representatives for eight years. The list could go on and on.
I guess my point is this, as David Baker likes to say, “These guys didn’t fall out of bed great.” They worked hard and continue to use the same qualities, and standards of character that made them Hall of Fame players in their everyday lives. I think it’s worth noting.
As promised, I’ll continue to update the Super Bowl rematches taking place during this Super Bowl 50 season. Here you go:
Well, I hope you caught my byline double entendre of “Over Time.” When considering a name for this new blog, I wanted something that was a football term – like “overtime” – but at the same time something that suggested an historical perspective like “over time.” After all, a key element of the Hall’s Mission is to preserve the Game’s history.
And with that, let’s talk Super Bowl “over time.” This year, as a part of the celebration of and preparation for Super Bowl 50, the NFL has scheduled several games, most of them in front of national TV audiences, between teams that faced each other in past Super Bowls. Some of the rematch teams have scheduled Alumni reunions around the games and present-day players have worn Throwback uniforms as a form of tribute to their past. A great idea, I love it.
In Week Three when the Green Bay Packers hosted the Kansas City Chiefs in a rematch of the first Super Bowl – even though it wasn’t officially called the “Super Bowl” back in 1967 – the Packer management brought the entire Super Bowl I team back for the game and a halftime salute. Now that was impressive.
And so was the Pack’s 38-28 victory over the Chiefs. It was reminiscent of Green Bay’s 35-10 shellacking of Kansas City in Super Bowl I. Not so impressive, however, was the comment from a young woman I heard as I was walking out of the stadium. “Did you see those guys at halftime from the first Super Bowl team?” she queried her friend. “Weren’t they cute?” Cute, are you kidding? Boy bands are “cute,” not Super Bowl superstars. Obviously this latter-day fan was too young to remember Ray Nitschke’s toothless smile or Dave Robinson’s bloodied knuckles or Forrest Gregg’s steely-eyed stare. “Cute?” I beg to differ.
Now, maybe I’m the only one counting, but in the five Super Bowl rematch games played thus far, history has repeated itself each time with just one caveat. In Kickoff Weekend, the Miami Dolphins defeated the Washington Redskins, just as they did in Super Bowl VII. However, the Redskins did defeat the Dolphins (27-17) in Super Bowl XVII, so that rematch was going to go in the “history repeating itself” column either way.
Sadly, as genuinely interesting as I find these retro games, I’m afraid most fans just aren’t nearly as engaged. Now, if there was a fantasy football component, they would probably register significantly higher. Barring that, maybe if we continue to track the results of the rematch games versus the original results, it will give the outcomes some additional relevance and a greater appreciation for the earlier editions of the Super Bowl. So, that’s my plan. Each week, along with a new column on some other football “over time” topic, I’ll update the Super Bowl replay results.
Coming up in Week 6 are rematches of Super Bowl XLVII (Baltimore 34, San Francisco 31); Super Bowl XLIII (Pittsburgh 27, Arizona 23); and my favorite this week, Super Bowl IV (Kansas City 23, Minnesota 7). For those who may not know, remember, or heaven forbid, care, the first four Super Bowls pitted the NFL champions against the champions of the upstart rival American Football League. Kansas City’s upset victory in Super Bowl IV importantly tied the series at two wins for each league. The following season the AFL and NFL completed their merger and the significance of the Super Bowl continued and grew to its unbelievable present-day popularity. The Chiefs organization and their fans truly appreciate their AFL heritage and understand the significance of Super Bowl IV. Perhaps, even with the recent setback of losing Jamaal Charles, the sentimental value of this rematch might be enough to turnaround the Chiefs’ season. And, for the record, Bobby Bell, Willie Lanier, and Emmitt Thomas aren’t “cute” either.