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0-0, 0-0 AND 0-0 : For Three Consecutive Years in the 1930s, Pittsburgh and Fordham Were Fit to Be Tied

September 05, 1987|GORDON EDES | Times Staff Writer

This is much ado about nothing to nothing.

Or, to be precise, about 0-0, 0-0 and 0-0.

This isn't Shakespeare, this is football, back in the days when men were not only men but Seven Blocks of Granite and Four Horsemen, when a pass was something you might make at a dame but seldom during a game, when the Statue of Liberty was a popular trick play and the Sally Rand a naked reverse.

This is about Pittsburgh and Fordham, two college teams that were powerhouses in their era, playing to scoreless ties three years in a row in New York's Polo Grounds: 1935, '36 and '37.

OK, so maybe touchdowns were like everything else back in those Depression days--hard to come by. But what seems an oddity now was viewed much the same way then. In fact, they used to vote on such things, and after the third straight zip-zip in New York's Polo Grounds, the Associated Press declared it the sports oddity of 1937.

Perhaps, if Tony Matisi had taken his own advice, these games would not have been sifted out of the ash heap of thousands of others long since forgotten.

But even today, Marshall Goldberg, a month away from his 70th birthday, remembers the words of the Pitt captain in the Panther huddle in 1937, the ball resting just five yards from the Fordham goal line.

" 'If anyone gets penalized on this play, they'll have to answer to me,' " Goldberg recalls Matisi sternly warning his teammates.

The play called in the huddle was a reverse, with Goldberg carrying the ball. Mad Marshall, they called the All-American halfback from Elkins, W. Va., whose school rushing records stood until Tony Dorsett broke them almost 40 years later.

"We probably had the best reverse ever," Goldberg said. "It was very deep, and the 'off' side of the line would come along with us. It was a tremendous power play, and we'd gain five, six yards a crack."

This time was no exception. Fordham's famed defensive line--the aforementioned Blocks of Granite, which in the previous two years had included a young guard named Vince Lombardi--was caught in a cement mixer. Goldberg swept around the right side into the end zone untouched, the first and only time in three years that either team crossed the goal line against one another.

But it didn't count. Far from the play--on the opposite side of the field--a penalty had been called. Holding on Pitt's left tackle . . . Matisi.

Matisi swore he had thrown a perfect block.

"The next day," another Pitt back, Curly Stebbins, later recounted to writer Myron Cope, "I open the Sunday paper--the New York News--and there is the most beautiful stranglehold you ever saw. Tony is in a crouch with his left arm around the Fordham guy's leg, hanging onto him for dear life, and the Fordham guy is standing up but sort of leaning, as if he's holding onto something.

"I can still see the whole scene. It reminds me of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima."

The Fordham player was Al Gurske.

"He couldn't have gotten to me if he'd taken an airplane," Goldberg says today.

But Goldberg wasn't ready to convict Matisi on the basis of a newspaper photograph.

For one thing, he said, "Today's officials would never have called it. It had nothing to do with the play."

And for another, Matisi was employing a popular technique of the day, called a crab block.

"You go down like that, and your left hand goes to the ground," Goldberg said. "If it was around his leg, then it's holding."

If Matisi was the No. 1 scapegoat, Stebbins wasn't far behind. Pitt fumbled the ball eight times, including five by Stebbins. A couple of days before the game, someone had stepped on his left hand in practice and broke it.

"He was wearing a very clumsy glove, like the kind of glove a boxer wears when he punches the bag," Goldberg said. "It was more a detriment than an aid."

Someone asked Pitt's coach, Jock Sutherland, why he hadn't removed Stebbins from the game after his fourth fumble.

"I had no way of knowing that he was going to fumble a fifth time," Sutherland said.

John Bain (Jock) Sutherland was one of seven children whose Scottish immigrant mother, Mary Burns Sutherland, was descended from the poet, Robert Burns.

He was known as The Great Stone Face.

"He never smiled," said Bobby LaRue, another Pitt halfback now retired after 44 years as a Pittsburgh dentist. "And if he did, he never laughed. Football came first."

Goldberg said Sutherland had treated him as a son--he wouldn't let Goldberg practice before the Fordham game because he wanted him to rest--but still kept his distance.

"He was a very lonely man," Goldberg said. "He never married. He had very few friends, a couple of drinking pals maybe, but most things he did, he did by himself."

As a football tactician, however, Sutherland was a giant of his generation. He combined extraordinary defense--in 1931-37, Pitt averaged six shutouts a season--with a relentless running attack--one, it is said, that ran Notre Dame right off Pitt's schedule.

In a game against Ohio State, Pitt won without throwing a pass.

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