The year was 1950, and the National Football League, unlike the
rest of post-World War II America, had still not conceived of
itself as a superpower. And yet the year might fairly be
considered the beginning of professional football's modern era.
This is an article from the Oct. 6, 1995 issue
On the autumn afternoon of Nov. 5, a war raged in Korea--more
than 4,700 U.S. soldiers had already perished, and about that
many were missing in action--and a bitter cold war was being
waged on the homefront as Senator Joseph McCarthy's
anticommunist rantings loomed large in the midterm elections two
Four days earlier, two gun-toting Puerto Rican nationalists had
tried to assassinate President Harry Truman while he napped at
Blair House, across the street from the White House.
The nation was in the midst of a baby boom, and buoyed by the
addition of three franchises from the disbanded All-America
Football Conference, including the breathtaking Cleveland
Browns, the NFL was about to boom as well. Of the league's 13
teams in 1950, only the New York Yanks and the original
Baltimore Colts would not survive until today. (The Colts folded
after the '50 season, not to be reborn until '53; that franchise
was moved to Indianapolis in '84.)
In six games involving 12 of the 13 teams on that Nov. 5 (the
first-place Yanks had the day off), 40 future Hall of Famers
took the field, five of them head coaches. From the chilly
confines of the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan to the
sweltering Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, spectators were
treated to no-frills competition. Only two teams were televising
their games, and there were no exploding scoreboards, no
AstroTurf fields, face masks or seven-figure salaries. Situation
substitution had not yet been invented, and though fans were
animated--in Baltimore they carried victorious Colt quarterback
Y.A. Tittle off the field--none of them even considered doing the
What the games featured were quarterbacks Tittle, Frankie
Albert, Sammy Baugh, Otto Graham and Bobby Layne, and teammates
Sid Luckman and Johnny Lujack, and Norm Van Brocklin and Bob
Waterfield (page 26). "The talent pool back then was amazing,"
recalls Tittle, whose Hall of Fame career ran from 1948 to '64.
"A lot of colleges had great quarterbacks piled up from the war
years, and by 1950 they were coming from everywhere."
With the single wing having steadily given way to the T
formation, every pro team needed an accomplished passer, and
virtually every team had one. The Los Angeles Rams, who would go
on to meet the Browns in a classic NFL championship game that
December, had two future Hall of Famers in Waterfield and Van
The ground game was just as glorious. Among the great runners
on display that day were Hall of Famers Marion Motley, Doak
Walker, Steve Van Buren, Joe (the Jet) Perry and Charley Trippi.
Alltime greats at other positions in that two-way era included
tackle-placekicker Lou (the Toe) Groza, center-linebacker Chuck
Bednarik, end-halfback Elroy (Crazy Legs) Hirsch and safety
Emlen Tunnell. Legendary coaches Paul Brown, Curly Lambeau and
George Halas roamed the sidelines.
"That was the dawn of pro football as we know it, and it was a
lot of fun," says Gordy Soltau, a San Francisco 49er end who
played from 1950 to '58. "We didn't have the television, the
publicity or the exposure; the fans were the ones up in the
stands. There wasn't much money to make, but we had some great
A look back at the games of Nov. 5, 1950, includes a fantastic
finish spurred by a display of laterals that would make Deion
Sanders drool; a major upset spurred by a 5'8" hometown hero; a
come-from-behind milestone victory followed by a wild
celebration; a mano a mano duel for the league scoring title; a
grind-it-out performance by one of the best teams ever put
together; and a punch in the nose. Our journey begins in New
York, proceeds south to Philadelphia and Baltimore, then west to
Detroit and Chicago, and ends in the blood-red sun of L.A.
POLO GROUNDS, NEW YORK CITY:
NEW YORK GIANTS 24, WASHINGTON REDSKINS 21
A crowd of 23,909 saw the underdog Redskins, losers of five
straight games after a season-opening victory, take a 21-14 lead
that held up until the final 2:04. Three late Washington
blunders helped the Giants win the game on Ray Poole's 40-yard
field goal with four seconds remaining, giving Hall of Fame
coach Steve Owen's team a 5-2 record.
The first mistake came early in the fourth quarter, when the
Redskins, facing fourth-and-three from the New York four,
elected to go for it rather than kick a field goal that could
have put them ahead 24-14. Rookie running back Chuck Drazenovich
ran smack into future Hall of Famer Tunnell at the line of
scrimmage, and that was that.
Later, with four minutes left, the Giants began a drive at their
own 11-yard line. Quarterback Charley Conerly's arm and halfback
Ed Price's legs carried New York into scoring position, but the
Giants faced fourth-and-15 from the Washington 26.
Then came mistake number 2. Conerly fired a pass to end Bill
Swiacki in the right flat, and Swiacki made a diving catch on
the 12, a yard short of the first-down marker. In 1950 the rules
specified that a tackler had to hold the ballcarrier until the
whistle blew, and in a classic case of brain-lock, Redskin
defenders Harry Dowda and Drazenovich stood like statues while
Swiacki scrambled to his feet and into the end zone for the
The Redskins still had a chance to pull out the game. Instead,
they literally threw it to the Giants. On second down future
Hall of Famer Baugh, then in his 14th season with the Redskins,
threw a pass to end Hugh (Bones) Taylor, who quickly lateraled
to running back Charlie (Choo Choo) Justice. But Choo Choo was
no Prime Time--he ran eight yards to midfield and, while being
dragged down by a defender, tried to pitch the ball to a guard,
Casimir Witucki, who was completely out of the play. The ball
never got there because an alert young Giant defensive back
named Tom Landry--who would go on to become the Hall of Fame
coach of the Dallas Cowboys from 1960 to '88--snagged the lateral
in midair and returned it to the Washington 41.
Justice, a former North Carolina All-America playing only his
third game as a pro, lay flat on his back, pounding the turf
with his fists. He and Taylor were later fined $50 by Washington
coach Herman Ball, who cited a team rule against laterals except
those called for by the quarterback.
The Giants moved the ball to the 33 to set up Poole's kick. With
Conerly holding and a nippy wind at his back, Poole split the
uprights for the victory.
It was a bitter loss for the visitors, and reaction in the
nation's capital was far from politically correct. Writing in
the Washington Times-Herald, Al Hailey said that in the fourth
quarter the Redskins "began playing like a bunch of intoxicated
SHIBE PARK, PHILADELPHIA:
PITTSBURGH STEELERS 9, PHILADELPHIA EAGLES 7
Little Joe Geri, a pint-sized relic of an outdated offense, came
through in his hometown with a storybook performance that
included three field goals and 113 rushing yards on 25 carries.
The defending NFL champion Eagles had won five consecutive games
since their shocking, season-opening defeat by the Browns, their
first loss at home since late in the 1947 season. But the
Steelers, despite a 2-5 record going into the game, were the
team all opponents dreaded facing. That's because Pittsburgh,
under coach John Michelosen, was the last NFL team to feature a
pure single-wing attack. "Teams would absolutely hate to play
us," Geri recalls. "We were all power, double-teaming the
linemen, making contact off the ball. When we were through with
them, they were beat up as all hell. They didn't want to see us
Geri had grown up in Phoenixville, a suburb of Philadelphia, and
scores of his friends and relatives, including his parents, were
among the crowd of 24,629. They saw the 5'8" Geri connect from
11, 36 and 13 yards--he missed two other attempts, from the 35
and the 10--with the goalposts on the goal line, rather than in
the back of the end zone, where they would be moved beginning
with the 1974 season.
After Geri's first field goal, Eagle quarterback Tommy Thompson
led a 41-yard drive capped by the game's only touchdown, a
one-yard plunge by future Hall of Fame runner Van Buren, to give
Philadelphia a 7-3 lead. The Steelers cut the advantage shortly
before halftime, when Geri's 36-yarder hit the crossbar and
bounced over. Geri's winning kick came in the third quarter. The
Eagles had a chance to win on the final play of the game, but
Joe Muha's desperation field goal from the 50 was short.
The heart of this game was in the trenches, where future Eagle
Hall of Famers Bednarik and center Alex Wojciechowicz battled
Steeler Ernie Stautner, a defensive tackle who is also enshrined
in Canton. Other Hall of Famers on the cold, dry field were
Steeler receiver Pete Pihos, Eagle coach Greasy Neale and
Steeler defensive back Jim Finks, who was inducted this past
July in recognition of his subsequent career as a Minnesota
Viking, Chicago Bear and New Orleans Saint administrator. It was
Finks who killed the Eagles' last real scoring opportunity by
intercepting a pass from backup quarterback Bill Mackrides--one
of seven Philadelphia turnovers.
But the day belonged to Geri, an ex-Marine who had survived the
Normandy invasion before enrolling at the University of Georgia.
"Football was a different game than it is today," says Geri, who
would become a phys-ed instructor and coach after his four-year
NFL career. "We didn't make any money. We were people that loved
the game. I played tailback in the single wing, which meant I
passed and ran and handled the ball 85 to 90 percent of the
time. I kicked off, punted and kicked the field goals and extra
points. If I were playing today, I guess I'd have to get six or
seven million dollars a year."
MEMORIAL STADIUM, BALTIMORE:
BALTIMORE COLTS 41, GREEN BAY PACKERS 21
There were only 12,971 fans on hand at the still-unfinished
stadium for the only NFL victory enjoyed by this incarnation of
the Colts, and many of them were on the field celebrating before
the game ended. Trailing 21-14 in the fourth quarter, the Colts
drew within a point on a 96-yard touchdown run by fullback Jim
Spavital, then shrugged off a missed extra point by intercepting
three passes for touchdowns in the final five minutes. The game
featured 30 possession changes, and Baltimore gained a then
team-record 506 yards.
It was the only game that the Colts would win in their first and
only NFL season after moving over, with the Browns and the San
Francisco 49ers, from the All-America Football Conference. The
team disbanded when the year was over, but in 1953 the Dallas
Texans, who had joined the NFL the previous year, moved to
Baltimore and adopted Colts as their nickname.
Even as the fans swarmed the field, carrying Tittle off on their
shoulders, the players were self-conscious about the jubilation
their victory had prompted. "We didn't have much to celebrate,"
Tittle says. "We were embarrassed. That was probably the worst
team in the history of football. I think our defense still holds
the record for most points allowed. We couldn't stop anybody."
In fact the Colts don't hold the record, but they did allow 63
touchdowns in 12 games. Only two teams have given up more
touchdowns in a season, and the 1981 Colts, who gave up the most
(68), did so in a 16-game season.
On this cool afternoon, the Colts had some intangibles in their
favor. For one thing, the Packers were happy to be in
Baltimore--happy to be anywhere, really. Their Friday-night
flight from Green Bay, with a stop in Detroit, had been a
harrowing, six-hour ordeal that required a day of recuperation.
Charging through heavy rain and snow, the plane, in the words of
Green Bay Post-Gazette sports editor Art Daley, suddenly
"dropped from 16,000 to 600 feet, but the pilot skillfully
brought the big ship in on the beam--practically a blind landing."
The Packers, coached by Gene Ronzani, entered the game with a
3-4 record, jumped out to a 7-0 lead, allowed two Baltimore
touchdowns, then stormed back to take a 21-14 lead on
quarterback Paul Christman's 40-yard scoring pass to end Al
Baldwin. Led by the quarterback tandem of Christman and Tobin
Rote and the running of veteran halfback Tony Canadeo, a future
Hall of Famer, the Packers appeared to be in control of the game.
Then, with 11 minutes left, Spavital broke loose on his 96-yard
run, one yard short of the league record, for his third
touchdown of the game. The Packers clung to the lead when Rex
Grossman flubbed the extra-point attempt, but the embattled Colt
defense seized the moment. Future Hall of Fame defensive tackle
Art Donovan, a rookie, helped anchor a suddenly resilient line,
and with five minutes left, Baltimore defensive back Jim Owens
intercepted a Christman pass and rambled 25 yards for the
The Colts held the Packers twice more--once on a fumble and once
on downs--then poured it on in the final 35 seconds. Defensive
back Frank Spaniel snared a Rote pass and ran it in for a
25-yard score, and Herb Rich followed on the next Packer
possession by picking off a long pass by Rote at the Colt 40 and
skirting the sideline for yet another touchdown. Both scorers
were mobbed by fans, who had lined up three deep on the
sidelines and had to be cleared off the field for the final
It was a rough defeat for the Packers, but at least they had a
pleasantly uneventful flight home.
BRIGGS STADIUM, DETROIT:
CHICAGO BEARS 35, DETROIT LIONS 21
Long before the NFC Central became known as the Black-and-Blue
Division, the Bears and the Lions were waging passionate,
physical battles for Midwestern supremacy. This game was a
typically contentious affair that matched the two men, Bear
quarterback Lujack and Lion halfback Walker, who were battling
for the league scoring title.
Tied with Walker at 64 points going into the game, Lujack pulled
ahead with a 17-point day--on two touchdowns and five
conversions--to Walker's three extra points. More important for
Lujack, the former Notre Dame star helped his team improve to
5-2 while the 3-5 Lions suffered their fourth straight defeat,
this one in front of 30,410 disappointed fans.
"I had no idea about the scoring race," Lujack says. "My time at
Notre Dame taught me many things, and one was that when players
start thinking about individual success, the team will suffer."
Playing most of the game in place of Luckman, who was then in
the final season of his 12-year Hall of Fame career, Lujack
staked the Bears to a 21-0 lead on a pair of runs and a 39-yard
pass to end John Hoffman. The Chicago roster also included four
eventual Hall of Famers--quarterback George Blanda,
tackle-linebacker George Connor, halfback George McAfee and
center Clyde (Bulldog) Turner. Then there was Halas, the
legendary coach and team owner, himself an inductee at Canton.
"The Bears were the Monsters of the Midway, and those black
uniforms made them seem larger than life," Walker says. "Halas
was a great psychologist, so he played every angle he could to
Lion coach Alvin (Bo) McMillan was not so secure. The day after
the game, the directors of the Detroit Football Company met to
discuss his status. McMillan would resign at the end of the
season, replaced by Buddy Parker, who would mold the Lions into
one of the dominant teams of the decade.
After falling into the early hole that day, the Lions did their
best to save McMillan's job. Their two future Hall of Famers,
Walker and Layne, who had starred together at Dallas's Allen
Park High School, were brilliant. Layne set Lion records by
completing 23 of 45 passes for 374 yards--the yardage mark still
stands--and led Detroit rushers by carrying 10 times for 64
yards, including touchdown runs of 17 and 15. Walker,
double-covered out of the backfield, still hauled in six
receptions for 116 yards. Teammate Leon Hart, the Heisman Trophy
winner at Notre Dame a year earlier, had nine catches for 154
yards, including a 66-yard touchdown on which he took a short
pass from Layne, rambled down the right sideline, slipped and
fell on the turf, shook off defender John O'Quinn and dragged
three would-be Bear tacklers the final 15 yards.
Lujack, the winning quarterback, would undoubtedly be in the
Hall of Fame along with Layne had he not decided to retire in
1951, after four outstanding seasons. "My contract was up, and I
had a couple of separated shoulders and a knee problem," Lujack
explains. "Then Frank Leahy, who was the coach at Notre Dame,
invited me to be his quarterback coach. I had always been so
fond of Notre Dame and was amazed they had offered me a
scholarship, so here was an opportunity to say, Thank you, Frank
Leahy, and thank you, Notre Dame."
Incidentally, Walker eventually beat out Lujack for the scoring
title, 128 points to 109.
COMISKEY PARK, CHICAGO:
CLEVELAND BROWNS 10, CHICAGO CARDINALS 7
There was a tendency to underestimate the Browns going into that
1950 season because they had come from the All-America
Conference. But those Browns would appear in the next six NFL
championship games and win three--including the one that year, an
epic clash with the Rams when Cleveland was at its peak.
"They were probably one of the best teams ever," says Landry.
"Paul Brown was so on top of things in terms of preparation, he
really changed football. Up until then it was, Win one for the
Gipper, with maybe a couple of different offensive and defensive
formations. He made it such a science. You couldn't beat them
unless you could match him."
Brown's squad was also loaded with talent. Graham is usually
mentioned along with Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas in debates
over who is the best quarterback of all time. The team had
future Hall of Famers Motley at fullback--a dominant ballcarrier
and receiver with speed and size--Groza, Dante Lavelli at end,
Frank Gatski at center, Bill Willis at middle guard and Len Ford
at defensive end. Another receiver, Mac Speedie, was barely a
notch below their level, and halfback Dub Jones was a versatile
The Browns, who entered this game with a 5-2 record, had already
proved themselves to the NFL snob set. They had opened the
season against the defending champion Eagles in Philadelphia and
cruised to a stunning 35-10 victory.
"We kicked the hell out of them," Graham recalls. "For four years
[as AAFC champions], we had been hearing how we were inferior to
NFL teams, and during that time Paul Brown didn't say one word.
He would just cut out all these clippings from coaches, players,
fans, sportswriters--even the NFL commissioner--and put them on
the bulletin board. I assure you, when we finally played
Philadelphia, there was never a team in the history of sports
that was more emotionally ready to play a game. Paul Brown
didn't try to get us fired up, he tried to calm us down."
This victory over the Cardinals in front of 38,456 fans served
as a testament to the strength of the Browns, especially their
rushing attack. Cleveland ran for 237 yards despite losing
Motley to a back injury early in the second quarter, and Graham
threw for only 114 yards.
After recovering a fumble, the Browns scored on their first
offensive play as Jones took a pitchout from Graham and ran 33
yards untouched around right end into the end zone. Groza added
a 17-yard field goal with five minutes left in the first quarter.
The Cardinals, coached by the legendary Lambeau, had no luck
establishing a running game. They gained only 71 yards on the
ground despite the presence of Hall of Fame halfback Trippi.
Quarterback Frank Tripucka, whose son, Kelly, would enjoy a
successful NBA career in the 1980s, scored on a one-yard sneak
late in the first half after connecting with end Bob Shaw on
passes of 64 and 13 yards.
In the second half Cleveland did not allow the Cardinals past
midfield until the waning moments, when, according to Cleveland
Plain Dealer correspondent Harold Sauerbrei--who would serve as
the Browns' general manager from 1970 to '74--"the Browns were
laying back and permitting them to complete short passes."
Yes, Brown had even perfected the prevent defense.
MEMORIAL COLISEUM, LOS ANGELES:
LOS ANGELES RAMS 28, SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS 21
The year 1950 marked the beginning of this rivalry, as the 49ers
joined the NFL after four years in the AAFC. The two teams would
play each other 91 times over the next 45 years (the Rams lead
the series 48-41-2), with the regional hostilities ceasing only
upon the departure of the Rams for St. Louis following the 1994
This was the second meeting of the 1950 season between the two
teams--the Rams had won the first 35-14--and if the rivalry was
already heating up, the weather may have played a part. It had
been 104 degrees the previous afternoon for UCLA's victory over
Oregon State at the Coliseum, and the temperature was a
comparatively nippy 90 degrees by the time 33,234 fans had
settled into their seats for Sunday's game.
The 49ers, 2-5 going in, had a potent offense led by the
lefthanded quarterback Frankie Albert and the brilliant running
of Perry, a third-year fullback who would retire in 1963 and
earn Hall of Fame induction six years later. The 5-2 Rams were
even more explosive, with Van Brocklin and Waterfield
alternating series at quarterback, Hirsch and Tom Fears
terrorizing defensive backs and running backs Glenn Davis, Dick
Hoerner and Paul Barry piling up yardage.
While both Ram quarterbacks were destined for the Hall of Fame,
this day belonged to Waterfield--though not right away. Van
Brocklin started the game and threw seven passes, completing
three to his own receivers for 89 yards but two to San Francisco
defenders. The first 49er interception, by middle guard Visco
Grgich, set up Jim Cason's 24-yard touchdown run in the first
quarter. The second interception was snagged by defensive back
Howie Livingston, who stepped in front of Fears and ran 45 yards
untouched into the end zone, giving San Francisco a 14-7 lead
and ending Van Brocklin's day in the third quarter.
In came Waterfield, who also threw two interceptions but
completed 10 of 15 passes for 138 yards. His biggest throw came
with 10 seconds left in the first half and the Rams at their own
28. Waterfield fired a deep pass over the middle to Bob Boyd, a
onetime collegiate sprint champion, who caught it at the San
Francisco 39 and sped into the end zone, giving him four
touchdowns in six receptions for the season.
At halftime Niner coach Buck Shaw and his players eschewed the
steamy locker room and gathered in the shade near the Coliseum's
colonnade, just below a section of rabid Ram fans. "We were
sitting there eating oranges and the Ram fans were booing us,"
Soltau recalls. "Frankie [Albert] grew up in Glendale and didn't
like being booed in the Coliseum, and he was giving them a real
Says Albert, "It was the big game for the 49ers. It was like Cal
and Stanford in that game's heyday. But we didn't have enough
horses to beat the Rams in those early years."
The emotional pitch intensified in the second half, when the
Rams fought back from their 14-7 deficit with three
third-quarter touchdowns. The 49er defense, which included
rookie Leo Nomellini, a future Hall of Fame defensive tackle,
couldn't stop the Ram ground game. L.A.'s first scoring drive of
the second half was aided by a Statue of Liberty handoff from
Waterfield to Barry, who produced a 16-yard gain.
Among the Ram runners only Davis struggled; the 1946 Heisman
Trophy winner from West Point gained only two yards in five
carries. He got so frustrated on one third-quarter attempt that
he vented his anger at Soltau, who recalls the incident with
amazing clarity. "Davis took a pitchout to the left side," says
Soltau, "and I started getting a pretty good angle on him. I
broke through one guy and kind of had to dive over the guy in
front of me. I was just about to wrap my arms around Davis when
he doubled up his fist and hit me right in the nose. I didn't
even see it coming. Davis was this clean-cut guy, and I didn't
expect it. I went down, and fortunately he only got two yards. I
had cotton up my nose the rest of the day."
Soltau still lives in the Bay Area, while Davis resides in the
Southern California desert. Says Soltau, "I kid Davis about that
all the time."
But Soltau has no complaints. At a time when the NFL was still
looking for widespread national acceptance, he figures he took
one for the team.