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Friday, Oct 31, 2014
Pro Football

Cold-weather title games used to be the NFL norm


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NEW YORK — For the first time, the Super Bowl is being played outdoors in a cold-weather city.

It used to be the norm for the NFL’s championship game.

Just ask 92-year-old Charley Trippi.

Long before there was a Super Bowl, the Hall of Famer played in two title games with the Chicago Cardinals — the first while wearing sneakers to cope with an icy field, the second in a Philadelphia blizzard that made it impossible to even see the yard lines.

“You never really knew if you had a first down,” Trippi remembered today when reached at his home in Athens, Ga. — where, interestingly enough, there was snow on the ground from a freak winter storm that paralyzed much of the South.

It wouldn’t be at all surprising to have flurries at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, when the Denver Broncos face the Seattle Seahawks, though the forecast called for only a 20 percent chance of precipitation. The temperature, expected to climb well past the freezing mark in the afternoon, could dip back into the 20s after nightfall.

Trippi doesn’t understand why the NFL took a chance on its signature game being marred by inclement weather, when the league has plenty of warm-weather cities and domed stadiums to choose from.

“The championship game should be played in a climate that you know is going to be agreeable to put on a good exhibition of football,” he said. “Actually, if I was a fan, I wouldn’t go to the game with that kind of temperature.”

Before the first Super Bowl in 1967, the NFL title game was a matchup between division winners in late December, hosted by one of the teams. Since most pro franchises in those days were located in the Northeast and Midwest, it wasn’t at all surprising for the championship to be decided in some especially brutal weather. In fact, it often became the central theme.

Most notably, there was the famous “Sneakers Games” in 1934, when the New York Giants borrowed some basketball shoes from a nearby college, changed out of their cleats in the third quarter, and turned a 13-3 deficit into a 30-13 victory at the ice-covered Polo Grounds. The Giants would repeat the tactic 22 years later, romping to another title largely by having better footing than their opponent.

Both title games that Trippi played in were affected by the weather.

In 1947, Comiskey Park was coated with a thin sheet of ice when the Cardinals hosted the Philadelphia Eagles on a bitterly cold day (Trippi remembers the wind chill being minus-20). Borrowing a page from the Giants, Trippi traded his cleats for sneakers and scored two touchdowns on a 44-yard run and a 75-yard punt return, leading Chicago to a 28-21 victory and what remains the franchise’s only title.

“The only time I played an NFL game in tennis shoes was in Chicago for our championship team,” Trippi said. “We got better footing in tennis shoes. You couldn’t stand up in cleats.”

The following year, the teams met again in the title game, this time at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park. A full-fledged blizzard struck the city, dumping so much snow the grounds crew couldn’t remove the tarp. The players were summoned from the locker room to help pull it off the field.

By the time the game kicked off, the field was completely covered again, this time by several inches of the white stuff. What followed barely qualified as football, much less a title game.

“It was more of a pushing game,” Trippi said, recalling how the players were slipping and sliding all over the place. “It was incredible. The officials improvised the whole game. No one could see the lines. The ballplayers just couldn’t react like they wanted. I think the fans got cheated out of seeing a real championship game.”

The Cardinals, who had gone 11-1 during the regular season and led the league with an average of more than 391 yards per game, managed just six first downs and 131 yards in the horrible conditions. The Eagles didn’t fare much better, but a Chicago turnover early in the fourth quarter set up the game’s only score, Steve Van Buren’s 5-yard touchdown run.

The final: Philadelphia 7, Chicago 0.

To this day, Trippi figures the Cardinals were wrongly denied their second straight title.

“When two professional teams play and they can only score seven points,” he said, “that shows you what a terrible game it was.”

He hopes there’s not a repeat on Sunday.

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