Super Bowl isn't the whole story

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Tom Kertscher
Thursday, February 4, 2010

The hype rains down for Super Bowl XLIV -- as if the National Football League has been around for only 44 years.

With 95 million television viewers and $206 million in TV advertising, the hype is understandable.

But the league is actually 90 years old. You just wouldn’t know it by the attention paid to the Super Bowl as compared to its predecessor, the NFL Championship Game, which was played back when players pocketed a few thousand dollars for winning it all.

So, without taking anyway from the Super Bowl, let’s celebrate some of those old-school championships and the colorful characters, including Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor and Ray Nitschke, who played in them.

The first title game was played in 1933, when the league split into two divisions. After six lead changes, the Chicago Bears edged the New York Giants, 23-21, at Wrigley Field.

The game was decided in the final minutes when Bronko Nagurski, who played fullback and linebacker for Chicago, passed to Bill Hewitt, a helmet-less receiver and fellow future Hall of Famer. Hewitt made a lateral to end Billy Karr, and Karr scored the winning 36-yard touchdown.

The Bears won their second championship seven years later, in 1940, by scoring 11 touchdowns on the Washington Redskins.

Leading 73-0 after their final TD, the Bears were asked not to attempt an extra point. So many balls had been kicked into the stands that there was only one spare left.

In 1948, the Philadelphia Eagles won their first title in a blizzard, behind Hall of Fame running back Steve “Wham Bam” Van Buren.

There was so much snow that Van Buren didn’t think there would be a game until he got a call at home from coach Earl “Greasy” Neale. Unable to get to the stadium by car, Van Buren walked and then took a series of buses and commuter trains.

The snow made the tarp so heavy that the grounds crew couldn’t lift it off the field, so the players were called out of their locker rooms to help. Van Buren scored the game’s only touchdown and the Eagles beat the Chicago Cardinals, 7-0.

Fans of the 2009 Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions might take pride in knowing that their teams dominated the 1950s, with each team winning three championships.

The Browns’ three titles came during a stretch when quarterback Otto Graham led the team to an astonishing 10 title games in 10 years. The Browns won championships each of the four years they played in the All-America Football Conference (1946-’49) and then three of the six championship games they played in after moving to the NFL.

“Imagine a quarterback leading his team to 10 straight Super Bowls today and you have a measure of the kind of man Otto Graham was,” legendary Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote.

In the ’54 championship game, Graham, who wore No. 60, had six touchdowns -- three rushing and three passing -- as the Browns beat the Lions, 56-10.

Graham retired after that game, but was coaxed back the next season and had four touchdowns -- two running and two passing -- in the ’55 title game, a 38-14 win over the Los Angeles Rams.

The Lions of the 1950s also were led by a Hall of Fame quarterback, Bobby Layne, who was known almost as much for his partying as for his playing. The Lions won all three of their championships (’52, ’53 and ‘57) by beating the Browns.

In ’53, the Lions had the ball with less than 3 minutes left in the game and trailing, 16-10.

Layne was directed to run a screen pass, but Layne reportedly said: “Know what I think? I think a cigarette sure would taste good about now.”

It wasn’t surprising that Layne had postgame activities on his mind. “I’m just a born night owl,” he once said. “Maybe I’m a better player because I start having fun at midnight, get to bed when everybody else is waking and sleep all morning. Makes me fresh as a daisy for the game.”

Ignoring the call for a screen, Layne instead called a pass downfield to end Jim Doran, who had caught only six passes all season. Layne completed the pass for a 33-yard touchdown and a 17-16 victory.

The one championship game that has gotten its due, the 1958 clash between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium, has become known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” Twelve players, along with three coaches and two executives, ended up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The Colts’ 24-year-old quarterback Johnny Unitas, who was wearing nine pounds of padding to protect three broken ribs, directed his team to a game-tying field goal with 7 seconds left in regulation.

Then, in the first championship game decided in sudden-death overtime, Unitas led a 79-yard drive that ended with a 1-yard TD plunge by fellow Hall of Famer Alan Ameche for a 23-17 win.

As was common during this era, newspapers reported the winnings of each team. Colts players received each $4,718.77. However, a brewery owner and an anonymous Colts fan each donated $25,000, which added another $1,200 to each player’s take.

The 1960s were nearly owned by the Green Bay Packers, who won the championships in ’61, ’62, ’65 and in ’66.

(The Packers also won the ’67 NFL Championship Game, in the famous Ice Bowl victory over the Dallas Cowboys. But that game was followed by the first Super Bowl, when the Packers defeated the American Football League’s Kansas City Chiefs.)

In ’61, the Packers flattened the Giants, 37-0, in Green Bay. Hornung, who played during weekend leaves from the Army in the final two months of the season, contributed 19 points on a touchdown, three field goals and four extra points.

In the ’62 title game, at Yankee Stadium, the Packers outlasted the Giants, 16-7, on a day when the temperature dipped to 13 degrees with 40 mph winds.

Giants linebacker Sam Huff, one of the toughest (some say dirtiest) players of his day, expressed awe about the performance of Taylor, the Packer fullback who had 105 total yards and a touchdown.

“Taylor isn’t human,” Huff said. “No human being could have taken the punishment he got today. Every time he was tackled it was like crashing him down on a cement sidewalk because the ground was as hard as a pavement. But he kept bouncing up, snarling at us and asking for more.”

The most valuable player in that game was Nitschke, who tipped one ball to cause an interception and recovered two fumbles.

How tough was the front-teeth-missing middle linebacker, who was the face of smash-mouth football?

Teammates once feared for Nitschke’s life when a 25-foot tower fell on his head during a practice. But Nitschke got up, changed his helmet, which had been pierced by a bolt, and kept practicing.

After the Packers won the ’61 championship, Packer coach Vince Lombardi had told his team: “Today you were the greatest team in the history of the National Football League.”

Many experts, however, rank Lombardi’s ’62 team as among the best of all time.

It’s hard to imagine that playing in something called the Super Bowl would have made either team any greater.

Last updated: 1:01 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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