NEW YORK -- It's hard to believe in the midst of Super Bowl XIX hype week that pro football once had about as much prestige on the sports pages of U.S. newspapers as wrestling.
College football was supreme in the 1920s and 1930s when a few pioneers formed the National Football League and tried to popularize the pro game. College coaches urged stars like Red Grange not to destroy their reputations by turning pro. It was a shocking story when Grange signed with the Chicago Bears after his remarkable career at Illinois.
Even into the 1930s, sports editors routinely sent office boys to the local pro games to give them a chance to write a few paragraphs. The New York Giants treated high school kids to seats on the 30-yard line for 35 cents and other clubs had similar programs. Title games merited little more than the regular-season games.
It wasn't until the pros opened up their game by emphasizing the forward pass, putting the goal posts on the goal line and making other concessions to the offense that the game became popular.
That didn't mean, however, that NFL title games prior to the first Super Bowl in 1967, were all push and tug affairs. In fact, it can be argued that the NFL titles game between 1934 and 1966, were even more exciting than the week-long national picnic that is the current Super Bowl.
The two most important NFL title games before Super Bowl I were the Chicago Bears' 73-0 victory over the Washington Redskins in 1940 and the Baltimore Colts' 23-17 overtime triumph over the New York Giants in 1958. Both shaped the future of the sport.
The Bears' overwhelming win over a team that had beaten them 7-3 a few weeks earlier, was the result of Coach George Halas' innovative T-formation, with its man in motion during the quarterback's count. George McAfee, a halfback who ran the 100 in 9.6, was the man in motion, taking the linebackers in a 6-2-2-1 defense to the sideline with him. With Sid Luckman spinning out of the T, the Bears could throw wide to McAfee or counter to the other side of the line with one of their powerful running backs.
The magnificent performance by the Bears convinced coaches from the high school to the pro level that Halas' T was the formation of the future and within a year or so almost every team in the country was using it. As a footnote to history, it was the first title game ever carried on network radio. Red Barber broadcast it to 120 stations of the Mutual Broadcasting System, which paid $2,500 for the rights to the game.
The Colts' overtime win over the Giants -- sometimes called 'the greatest game ever played' -- was televised 'live' by NBC and reached an estimated 10.8-million homes. However New York was blacked out and New Yorkers couldn't even read about it because the city was in the midst of a newspaper strike.
But -- and it is one of the biggest 'buts' in sports history -- the Grand Poobahs of TV had sauntered out to the Polo Grounds to see the game. It convinced them that pro football was a highly-marketable product for TV and huge contracts between the NFL and the medium soon followed.
Down memory lane with other title games:
The Cleveland Browns climaxed their first season in the NFL in 1950 with a 30-28 triumph over the Los Angeles Rams, achieved by the brilliant passing of Otto Graham and a 16-yard field goal by Lou Groza with 28 seconds left ... One year later, the Rams ended the Browns' reign of terror with a 24-17 victory on a 73-yard pass from Norm Van Brocklin to Tom Fears in the fourth period. It was the first title game televised coast to coast with the DuMont network paying $75,000 for the rights to it.
The 1933 and 1934 games between the Bears and Giants are also well-remembered. In 1933, the Bears won, 23-21, when Bronko Nagurski, the epitome of the hard-running fullback, threw a surprise two-handed, basketball-like pass for the winning touchdown. The 1934 game was the famous 'Sneaker Game,' played in nine degree weather at New York's Polo Grounds. The field was slick with ice and the Giants trailed at halftime. They donned basketball sneakers for the second half, however, outmaneuvered the Bears and won 30-13. Graham McNamee broadcast the game for NBC Radio and each winner's share was $621.
So go to it in Super Bowl XIX, fellows; you'll have to stage some game to top some of the ones that were played before you.
Adv for Wednesday, Jan.