By Robert Weintraub
An NFL championship game played in New York City? What the heck is the league thinking? It might be shivery!
Aside from all the money stuff (and that's what New York is famous for, more than anything), there is another reason the league didn't hesitate to place the Super Bowl in the Big Apple -- precedent. Turns out, before there ever was such a thing as a Super Bowl (TM), the NFL title was decided in New York eight times, either at the Polo Grounds in Harlem or just across the Harlem River at Yankee Stadium. All but one of the games featured the New York Football Giants, then as now owned by the Mara family. That tradition was a factor in awarding the big game to New York, even if both the Giants and the Super Bowl now make their homes in New Jersey.
So with Denver and Seattle coming to town, the time seemed appropriate to look back upon those previous eight championship games, which included a couple of the most memorable contests in NFL history, and, for the most part, temperatures that won't make the league happy if they come next Sunday.
Dec. 9, 1934
Giants 30, Bears 13
When the Giants upended the Patriots' unbeaten season in Super Bowl XLII, the franchise was merely reenacting events from 73 years earlier. Chicago came to the Polo Grounds with a 13-0 record (the Eastern and Western divisions alternated hosting title games in those days) under George Halas. Rookie halfback Beattie Feathers (playing without socks, which he hated to wear) had turned in the NFL's first 1,000-yard rushing season, working with Bronko Nagurski to form a terrifying backfield tandem. Using the T-formation, the Monsters of the Midway outscored the opposition 286-86.
The Giants were but 8-5, but they would get a mighty assist in toppling Goliath from the weather.
With temperatures hovering in single digits, the Polo Grounds turf was frozen almost solid. The teams slipped around in a parody of football for three quarters, with the Bears managing a 13-3 lead. But then Giants clubhouse attendant Abe Cohen appeared. He had been sent on a mission to find sneakers, which would provide better traction than the cleats the teams were wearing. Cohen made the uniforms for Manhattan College (which is in the Bronx, natch), so he went there to finagle rubber-soled shoes. It took the better part of the game, and he only managed to grab nine pairs, but it was enough.
The Giants ran circles around Chicago over the final ten minutes, erupting for 27 unanswered points to capture a stunning victory. While the day would go down in pigskin lore as the "Sneakers Game," there may have been another key to New York's win. With the team's water buckets frozen, Trainer Gus Mauch brought a different refreshment to his players -- shots of whiskey. So not only did the Giants have better traction, they were much looser than the Bears as well.
Dec. 13, 1936
Packers 21, Redskins 6
It hasn't always been the Giants -- indeed, New York has once before been a neutral site host for a championship game. 'Skins owner George Preston Marshall had already announced plans to move the franchise from Boston to the nation's capital, but in a typical Marshall maneuver, he didn't want to reward the good fans of Beantown, whom he judged wanting, with a title game. So he split the difference between his once and future homes, deciding to play Green Bay at the Polo Grounds. After a week of pounding rain, game day was sunny and mild, though the field remained muddy.
The Packers, led by quarterback Arnie Herber and wideout Don Hutson, boasted the league's best aerial attack, completing a whopping 42.4% of their passes in '36 (that passed for electrifying football back in the Depression). The two connected for a long scoring strike early in the game, and the Packers never trailed, easily handling the wayward Redskins 21-6. Green Bay, coached by Curly Lambeau, for whom the stadium was named, had previously won titles based on having the best record, but this was the franchise's first victory in a championship game. The following season, Washington would win the title in its first year in town.
Perhaps more entertaining than the game was the wedding ceremony later that night of Packers star tailback/linebacker Clark Hinkle in Manhattan. Hinkle would retire in 1941 as the leading rusher in NFL history.
Dec. 11, 1938
Giants 23, Packers 17
It was 31 degrees with an arctic wind chill, but a new record crowd for championship games, 48,120, came out to the Polo Grounds to see the Packers and the Giants meet for the title for the first time. They would see a classic, if brutal, game.
The Giants were led by Hall of Famer Mel Hein, who played center and linebacker with legendary toughness. But not even Hein could withstand a kick to the face. After an accidental bit of scrimmage kung fu, Hein was insensate, carried off the field for the first time in his career. That evened the odds a bit, for the Packers were without the previously injured Hutson.
The Giants blocked a pair of punts to build a 9-0 lead (missing a PAT -- take that, Roger Goodell). The first was recovered by New York's Leland Shaffer, who broke his leg on the play, but remained in the game. Meanwhile, the fake reverse play, so common today, made its first appearance in this game, the brainchild of New York coach Steve Owen. The play worked for a touchdown pass by Ed Danowski.
The Packers rallied to take a 17-16 lead when, late in the third quarter, Giants back Hank Soar took over. The tailback ran and passed his way down the field nearly single-handedly before slipping out of the backfield to catch a touchdown pass, dragging Hinkle across the end line. Soar would go on to become a baseball umpire, and twenty years later he was judging first base during Don Larsen's perfect game in the World Series.
New York desperately held on to its narrow margin. Down to its last possession, the teams played "dueling Willis Reeds." Hutson came limping on to the field to run patterns into the end zone, while Hein re-entered in a daze to rush the passer. When Herber's final Hail Mary to Hutson fell to the turf, the Giants became the first team to repeat in the championship game era.
Hein was unable to celebrate, going to the hospital instead.
Dec. 17, 1944
Packers 14, Giants 7
Al Blozis was a powerful offensive tackle for the Giants (and the national record-holder in the shot put) before World War II, but in 1944 he was in the army, stationed at Fort Benning. However, he managed to acquire a brief furlough in order to play in the championship game on this blustery afternoon. As with baseball, football suffered through roster attrition during the war years, with most of the prime athletes in the service. But Green Bay still had Hutson, and that alone was enough to propel them back to the title game. Herber had retired from the Pack, but got up off the couch to lead the Giants when all their other quarterbacks left for war.
The hero of this game was an uncelebrated fullback named Ted Fritsch. Early in the game he scored from the one on fourth and goal (Lambeau likely used advanced metrics to determine that going for it was the right move). Late in the first half, the Giants triple-covered Hutson, leaving Fritsch all alone as he slipped from the backfield and caught a touchdown pass up the seam.
Green Bay's defense did the rest. 34-year-old Joe Laws intercepted Herber three times as the Giants tried to pass their way back into the game. The home team pulled back one score, but in the dying minutes, Herber threw his fourth pick of the game, and the Packers held on for the win.
Blozis went back to the army, and just six weeks later was on his first combat assignment. While on patrol in the French high country he was killed by German machine gunners, one of 21 active NFL players to give their lives to the war.
Dec. 15, 1946
Bears 24, Giants 14
With the war over, "real football" was back, and both teams bounced back from ersatz three-win seasons in 1945 to meet in the finals for the fourth time.
The game was played under the specter of gambling. Giants fullback Merle Hapes was suspended for not telling Commissioner Bert Bell of an attempt to fix the game through bribery. Star tailback Frank Filchock was also named by the same source who blew the whistle on Hapes, bookmaker Alvin Paris. But Bell let Filchock play, although the huge crowd (58,346) at the Polo Grounds nonetheless booed him when he appeared on the field. The G-men started the game in a fog, and the Bears jumped out to a 14-0 lead, but Filchock threw a pair of touchdown passes to tie it up heading into the fourth quarter.
Then the Bears unveiled a new trick play, the quarterback bootleg. The surprise fake allowed star quarterback Sid Luckman to run for his first touchdown of the season, a 19-yarder that gave Chicago the lead for good. Da Bears went on to win 24-14, aided immensely by eight, count 'em, eight New York turnovers, including six picks (and a fumble) suspiciously thrown by Filchock.
Weeks later, during Paris' trial for attempted bribery, Filchock admitted to accepting the payoff. He and Hapes were drummed from the league. Filchock went on to be Denver's first coach in 1960 in the American Football League.
Dec. 30, 1956
Giants 47, Bears 7
The Giants moved across the river to the House That Ruth Built in September (cheap excuse to plug my book!), and three months later hosted the first NFL championship game ever played in the Bronx. In a throwback to the first title game at the Polo Grounds, a sheet of ice covered the field, as it had 22 years before.
This time, the home team didn't wait to wear sneakers. Defensive end Andy Robustelli owned a sporting goods store, and he supplied the team with rubber-soled shoes. The star-studded Giants (Frank Gifford, Sam Huff, Charlie Conerly, etc) may not have needed the advantage, given the thorough rout that ensued. The Monsters of the Midway were slain early, falling behind 17-0 after the first quarter, and 34-7 at halftime. In the NBC broadcast booth, the eclectic trio of Chris Schenkel, Jack Brickhouse, and Red Grange struggled to hold viewers as the Giants pummeled the Bears.
The massive crowd of over 56,000 looked down on this stacked home team, coached by Jim Lee Howell with the capable assistance of Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry, and dreamed of dynasty. Alas, the coordinators would go on to establish powerhouses elsewhere, and the Big Blue Wrecking Crew wouldn't win another title for 30 long years.
Dec. 28, 1958
Colts 23, Giants 17 (OT)
You probably are aware of this one, commonly referred to as the most important game in NFL history. In the frigid gloaming of Yankee Stadium, Johnny Unitas led Baltimore on a dramatic drive to a game-tying field goal, setting up the first (and only) overtime period in championship history. He then led the Colts down the field, where Alan Ameche ran it in for the win as a nation watched transfixed on television. The NFL has pretty much been America's obsession ever since.
Here are some details you may not have known:
The game itself was of course incredibly dramatic, but it had been the month-long lead up that really drove the game and the sport into the stratosphere in New York. The G-men had to win five straight just to get to the title game, including an almost-as-heartstopping game against the Browns two weeks earlier. Summerall won that one with a 49-yard field goal through the Yankee Stadium snow, one of the greatest kicks in league history by someone not named Vinatieri. The streak electrified the city, especially Madison Avenue. Don Draper & Co. made the team into household names, adding heft and poignancy to the title game.
The Giants went three-and-out to start overtime.
While trying to run out the clock ahead 17-14, Gifford appeared to get the first down that would have ended the game. But referee Ron Gibbs marked him short, giving the ball to Johnny U. Gibbs later sent Gifford a letter admitting he had blown the call.
The overtime rule had been in place since 1947, but few players knew about it. "What happens now?" asked Pat Summerall on the Giants sideline.
As the Colts drove for the winning score, the 20,000 Baltimore fans in attendance rocked the grandstand so violently that a television cable came loose. Viewers at home, their nails bitten to a nub, suddenly were greeted with a "Please Stand By" slate. An all-time nightmare appeared nigh, but an NBC exec saved the day by pretending to be drunk and racing on to the field, the police in hot pursuit. By the time he was corralled, engineers had managed to reconnect the cable, and the nation saw Ameche win the game.
- Unitas was invited to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show that night, but declined. Ameche happily took his place, and the fee that came with it.
Dec. 30, 1962
Packers 16, Giants 7
What the 1967 "Ice Bowl" is to Green Bay and the 1981 "Freezer Bowl" is to Cincinnati, the 1962 "Unnamed But Bitter Cold Bowl" is to New York (hopefully that remains the case after next Sunday). The mercury read 13 degrees, and winds gusting up to 40 MPH howled across the south Bronx. NBC set bonfires to unfreeze its cameras in order to broadcast, and one cameraman suffered frostbite. Both teams wore sneakers this time, but they didn't help on a field akin to a frozen parking lot. Packers players who played in both games would say this day was colder than the Ice Bowl five years hence.
Despite the fact that conditions were fit only for Wooly Mammoths, 65,000 fans still filled Yankee Stadium. The league's blackout policy in those days prohibited local broadcast, even of a title game, within a 75-mile radius, so fans flooded hotels and saloons upstate and throughout the tri-state area in order to watch. Inconvenient, yes, but at least they stayed warm.
Lombardi, a Brooklyn native who famously starred for nearby Fordham as a player, was back in town with a team considered one of, if not the, greatest of all time, suiting up eleven future Hall of Famers. New York countered with the league MVP at quarterback, Y.A. Tittle, but the conditions snuffed out his brilliance. The game was a rematch of the 1961 title game, won convincingly by the Pack. New York ached for vengeance, but were too encrusted by ice to make it happen. In this case, revenge was not a dish best served cold.
With passing improbable, the game was reduced to an epic clash of wills along the line of scrimmage. The Pack was a running team led by Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung. Taylor coughed it up five times, but amazingly, Green Bay recovered them all. That pretty much summed up the afternoon, a 16-7 win that gave the Packers its second straight title.
Between the television blackout and a newspaper strike, locals scarcely were aware this memorable game took place. That most likely won't be the case when the NFL championship game returns to the City for the first time since that bitterly cold afternoon.
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Robert Weintraub is the author of the books The Victory Season and The House That Ruth Built. He writes regularly for the New York Times, ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, CJR, Slate and many others. Follow him on Twitter @robwein.