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Jim Murray

It Was Most Noteworthy Game Ever

February 11, 1986|Jim Murray

In the winter of 1958, a friend of mine, Tex Maule, covering the football game between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts, probably stuck for an angle, reached for the infinity button.

"Was this," he asked editorially, Jove thundering from Olympus, "the greatest game ever played?!"

Well, it wasn't. Baltimore and John Unitas won it in overtime, 23-17, an outcome that was distinguished chiefly by the wonder it took the Colts so long.

But Tex's begging the question set some of us to discussing what were the greatest games ever played. A chorus soon set up for any of Red Grange's "Galloping Ghost" games but soon settled for the famous "Four Horsemen" game, which moved Grantland Rice to biblical muse in 1924.

But that game was really a sapless encounter ennobled only by the rich imagery of the poet in the press box. Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen had scored only 13 points, in the most mundane of fashions.

Rice wrote: "They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice . . . " You wonder what he would have said if they had scored 20 points.

A much more cogent case could have been corralled for another Army-Notre Dame game, this one in 1913 when, outlined against a blue-gray November sky was the forward pass.

This weapon, legal since 1906, had languished in the arsenals of the intercollegiate brain trusts until a pair of Notre Damers, Gus Dorais and Knute Rockne, de-mothballed it. Their attack really was cyclonic. They completed 14 of 17 forward passes for 243 yards, unheard of totals for those days. They beat Army, 35-13.

Football never was the same again. Dorais may have been the first one to spiral the ball, and Rockne the first to run designed patterns.

If impact on history is a gauge, that game may have been the greatest ever played.

But, a letter from a reader, Mike Kopcha, with a clipping enclosed, forcibly reminds me of a game I have always felt, for sheer significance, outdistanced any other ever played.

It is probably a game you never heard of and no one wrote any poems about or dredged up a biblical equivalent. It was a professional championship game, of sorts, but the game was in its infancy then and no one had any indication that what they were looking at was a prehistoric Super Bowl.

The game was for the NFL title, and it had, to be sure, the Chicago Bears in it, as usual. But the other team was the Portsmouth, Ohio, Spartans. You will know them only because, the next year, they became the Detroit Lions.

The game was played in Chicago Stadium on Dec. 18, 1932.

You heard me--Chicago Stadium. Now, those of you who have been there know that Chicago Stadium is a 20,000-seat hockey and fight arena, and if you're wondering what a football game was doing there, well, we used to have winters in those days. The ground would get hard, the temperature would dip into minus figures and pro football wasn't such a mania that people would risk frostbite and pleurisy to watch it or play it.

It wasn't the first football game played indoors in the Chicago Stadium. An exhibition had been staged there two years earlier, a charity game between the Bears and Chicago Cardinals.

For the 1932 title game, they had to truck in top soil and moss and turf. The field was only 80 yards long. There was only one goal post, so they ruled out the field goal, which had not yet become an important part of the game.

The game was played at night. They would have had to light the arena anyway.

The field was only 145 feet wide, instead of 160. So, the competing teams had to agree that, whenever a play ended on the sideline, the ball would be moved in 10 yards to cut down the risk of injuries from colliding with the seats and customers.

In those days, the ball was put in play where it had ended up on the previous play, and it was not uncommon for the center to have to line up on the sideline with the entire rest of the team lined up to one side of him.

Moving the ball in worked so well that it ultimately led to the creation of the hashmarks we have today as Bear owner George Halas saw how well the innovation worked in opening up a game and preventing the defense from using the sideline as a 12th man.

The game itself, although settled by an undistinguished 9-0 score, had its moment. It was won, fittingly, by Red Grange on a pass from, of all people, Bronko Nagurski.

You couldn't improve on that script but the Spartan coach, Potsy Clark, with no feel for history, tried. He ran out onto the field, screaming that Nagurski had thrown an illegal forward pass.

In those days, you had to be five yards behind the line of scrimmage to throw a pass. Clark claimed that Nagurski had not been.

Whether he was or not is moot. The next year, with urging from Halas and Redskin owner George Preston Marshall, that limiting factor was removed. You could pass from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage.

So, what we had here was no Four Horsemen, no wrong way runs or first-time aerial circuses.

But, let's see what we did have here:

--The first night game.

--The first indoor game, regular season or title.

--The first game on an artificial surface.

--The first game with hashmarks, even though they were imaginary.

--The last game where the passer had to be five yards or more behind the line.

It was also, alas, the last game in which the field goal played no important part, indeed, no part at all.

A watershed game in all respects. Was this the greatest game ever played? Well, hardly. But it was 50 years ahead of its time.

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