This is an excerpt from the book Rugged and Enduring: The Eagles, The Browns and 5 Years of Football by Inquirer staff editor David Cohen on the 1948 NFL championship game.
On Dec. 19, 1948, the city of Philadelphia had a blizzard and an NFL championship game.
The city awoke that Sunday to a driving snowstorm. In Pennfield, where he lived with his wife, Steve Van Buren woke up, looked outside, and went back to bed, assuming the game was canceled. An hour later, Van Buren decided he better go to Shibe Park, just in case. He made his usual trek, taking the trolley, then the Broad Street Subway, then walking eight blocks to the stadium. When he got there, he discovered that there was going to be a game after all.
It's not quite clear why the two teams ended up playing that day. Cancellations were not unthinkable in those days; in years past, games had even been rained out. The Cardinals have always said that they didn't want to play. Some of the Eagles have said that they weren't eager to play, but deferred to the wishes of the Cardinals, whom they were told had voted to play. Some accounts say both teams consented to play eagerly; others suggest that it was all the doing of the commissioner, Bert Bell. Regardless, football was played.
The first task of the players was to clear the tarpaulin off the field. The ground crew alone couldn't do it, so the players were asked to help. Eagles end Dick Humbert recalled:
"They got the Cardinals out, all the football team, and they got all of us out before we went out and warmed up. And what had happened was we started rolling the tarp off, and as you can imagine, every time you rolled it a yard or two, you picked up snow and it got bigger and bigger. Just like a snowball rolling out ... Well, we got rolling it off and, man, you just couldn't roll it. We were huffing and shoving it.
"My friends who were at the game said it was the most beautiful sight you ever saw. We had the Eagles down there with their silver and gray uniforms on, and they had the Cardinals out there in their Cardinal and white, and then they had the snow. ... And we were all down in there with our shoulders on this big tarp, moving it. And we moved it almost off the field. Well, we got it off the sidelines."
The best efforts of the two teams had made it possible for the game to be played, though the field was again covered with snow by the time the game started. Yard markers were not visible. Bert Bell ruled that while the 10-yard chain would be used, there would be no measuring; referee Ron Gibbs was to be the final judge of all first downs. The sidelines were marked with ropes tied to stakes. Three alternate officials, in addition to the regular five, were utilized.
The stands, meanwhile, were filling up as fans fought their way through the storm to get to Shibe Park. A total of 28,864 ultimately showed up. A half-hour after its scheduled start, the 1948 championship game got under way.
The Cardinals received the opening kickoff and didn't get anywhere. Ray Mallouf punted and the Eagles took over at the 35. The snow had not let up, but the Eagles decided to try a special pass play, designed by ex-Eagle Allie Sherman, who had become the player-coach of the Paterson Panthers in the American Association. Dick Humbert was to head up field and turn in, drawing the attention of Cardinals defensive back Marshall Goldberg. Then Jack Ferrante was to head straight down field, and Tommy Thompson was to hit him.
"Thompson," wrote Louis Effrat of the New York Times, "fired a long pass to Jack Ferrante who, though covered by two defenders, caught the ball on the Cardinal 20. His face in the snow when he fell, Ferrante was the first to untrack himself, and while the two Chicagoans sprawled in the snow, he picked himself up and mushed into the end zone."
It looked as if the Eagles had drawn first blood, but the play was called back. Lost in the snow was a white penalty flag; the call was offsides. Ferrante marched back up the field and demanded to know who was offside. The official, Charlie Berry, told him: "You."
"Oh man, was I mad at that," recounted Ferrante. "Charlie Berry ... he was the official. He said I was offside. But I doubt very much I was offside because, playing in the snow, where could you line up? I lined up next to where the tackle lined up and we were lined up on sort of an angle. There was no line; you couldn't see where were you were lining up. ... I was so mad because we had practiced that play for weeks."
Whether or not Ferrante was offsides, that play was about it for the passing offense that day. Seven passes were completed that day, but only four of them were caught by receivers on the same team as the quarterback. Net passing yardage for the game was 42.
What followed, for most of the first three quarters, was a seesaw battle up and down the field. The Cardinals never got closer than the 30-yard line. They reached that spot late in the first quarter and tried a field goal, which the usually accurate Pat Harder missed. From that point on, the Cardinals did not come close to scoring.
The Eagles were able to move the ball somewhat better. In the second quarter, the Eagles recovered a fumble by Elmer Angsman on the Chicago 21. The Cardinals, however, got the ball back as Red Cochran picked off a Thompson pass. A few plays later, Mallouf punted and Eagles defensive back Pat McHugh returned the ball to the 21. The Eagles got to the 8, but were unable to get into the end zone. Cliff Patton then missed a field goal. At the half, it was a scoreless tie.
It became clear that a big break would be needed to win the game. At the start of the second half, the Cardinals got one as Steve Van Buren fumbled the ball at mid-field. The Cardinals got to the 31 and were stymied. Later in the third quarter, a hand-off from Mallouf to Elmer Angsman was botched, and Bucko Kilroy recovered at the 17. The Eagles had their chance.
"It wasn't Ray Mallouf's fault," Cardinals coach Jimmy Conzelman said afterward. "It wasn't anybody's fault. It was a little mix-up in a hand-off."
On their first play, Eagles halfback Bosh Pritchard carried to the 11. On the next play, the first play of the final quarter, Joe Muha gained three yards. Thompson followed with a three-yard gain that gave the Eagles a first down. The Eagles then turned to Steve Van Buren. He took the ball, headed behind Al Wistert, and crashed into the end zone. Patton converted the extra point and the Eagles had a 7-0 lead.
From then on, it was Thompson's show. Late in the fourth quarter, when the Cardinals had the Eagles backed up to the 7 and were eagerly anticipating another shot at the end zone, Thompson smashed 18 yards on a quarterback sneak. After that, he gave the ball to Pritchard and Van Buren and let them eat up the clock.
The Cardinals finally stopped the Eagles and got the ball back, but lost it again quickly as defensive back Ernie Steele picked off a pass by backup quarterback Charley Eikenberg. The Eagles then ran out the clock as Thompson - carrying the ball three times himself - directed his team to the Cardinal 2, where the game ended. By then, Patton recalled, there was 8 inches of fresh snow on the ground.
"We knew a break would win the game," Conzelman said. "The Eagles got it and capitalized. They outplayed us and the better team on the field won."
Thompson, Van Buren, and Pritchard had combined to carry the ball 53 times for 215 yards. In comparison, the Cardinals had gained only 96 yards on the ground, with the dangerous trio of Charley Trippi, Harder, and Angsman being held to about 30 yards each. The Eagles' defensive front had held.
Eagles coach Greasy Neale was unstinting in his praise of Thompson, who had run for 50 yards himself. Thompson, "was the key," Neale said. "He called almost every play and called them right." Thompson, meanwhile, joked that he was going to become a running back next year. "That Steve Van Buren can't go on forever."
The 1948 championship game remains the only NFL title game ever played in a blizzard. Many of the Cardinals were bitter that they were dethroned under such abominable conditions.
"The game should never have been played," recalled the Cardinals' Goldberg. "The field was in no condition to play. There were no sidelines, no end lines; the goal lines were completely obliterated. And, it was just a miserable, such a miserable day that there was no possible way that a decent football game could be played, especially a championship game."
But the Eagles, who almost to a man say they would have beaten the Cardinals in the 1947 title game if the footing at Comiskey Park had been better, felt that they had earned every inch of their victory. This was more than just another free dinner at Bookbinder's; this was their destiny, the NFL championship.
"I know when the day came to play the championship game in '48 and it was snowing like a bitch, Greasy called all of us in the dressing room and almost cried," recalled back Jim Parmer. "We had a chance to put the game off until the next week but we were getting pretty close to Christmas and the players voted to play it that day. And Greasy almost had a fit. He said, 'You dumb son-of-a-bitches, you'll lose this ballgame in this snow' and just raised hell with us, but we went ahead and played it. And we won it."
There's a classic photograph of the team in the locker room after the game. Neale and Van Buren are in the center of the locker room, with Van Buren holding the game ball. Van Buren has a slight grin, and Wistert is at Van Buren's side, beaming with pride. The trio are surrounded by a sea of faces, all grinning a grin of glory. Neale looks like the proudest father in the world.
"The experience and the memories of, and the honor, of playing on a world championship football team," recalled Parmer, "is something that I, if I thought all day long, I couldn't describe it. It's something that ... means more to you than you would be able to put in words."