The Philadelphia Bell, Papergate, and Possibly the Most Disastrous Pro League Ever

It was a soggy, rainy night at Franklin Field, and almost everyone in Philadelphia had found something better to do. A mere 1,293 fans were on hand to watch the Philadelphia Bell take on the Charlotte Hornets, and those fans were treated to a sloppy, turnover-filled game that ended with the Bell ahead 18-10. There wouldn't be much time for the home team to celebrate, however. The World Football League would go under 4 days later. It was the last game the Bell would ever play.

The team had started with so much promise the year before. The owners, Al Sica and John Bosacco, convinced Jack Kelly, Princess Grace's brother, to be their president. They signed King Corcoran as their QB, a playboy whose cocky swagger and eccentric dress had given him the nickname "the poor man's Joe Namath." At wide receiver, the squad signed a former track star at St. Joe's by the name of Vince Papale.

They decided to play games their first season JFK Stadium. It was considered a strategic error. JFK had seating for 100,000 people, and the puny crowds the pundits were predicting would look even tinier in such a massive stadium. But those pundits were proven wrong when over 55,000 fans showed up to cheer the Bell on to a 33-8 victory over the Portland Storm (a team that had a young linebackers coach by the name of Marty Schottenheimer).

Two weeks later, the Bell returned home, and a crowd of 64,719 showed up to see the Bell battle the New York Stars. The game was a thriller, with the Bell missing two field goals in the final three minutes and falling 17-15. Nonetheless, the enormous crowd had the city abuzz and the World Football League looking like a real challenger to the NFL. Then, a few weeks later, it all fell apart.

Reporters began asking questions when a mere 12,396 fans showed up for the Bell's next home game. It turned out that the Bell had been selling many of their tickets at a remarkably cheap discount, and in fact gave tens of thousands of tickets away to local businesses to give to their customers. When the league was forced to pay city taxes on the tickets, the actual figures for paid attendance for those two games was a paltry 13,855 and 6,200. Bell Executive Vice President Barry Leib confessed, What can I say? I lied. I never thought those figures would come out."


Bell star RB Claude Watts runs a sweep left.

A few days later, Jack Kelly held a press conference at the Warwick Hotel and announced his resignation. The team, and the league, never recovered from a scandal that was quickly dubbed "Papergate".  The league began a downward spiral, but the stories of the characters that played, coached, and owned teams in the league became legendary.

Jacksonville Sharks owner Fran Monaco borrowed $27,000 from his head coach Bud Asher, then quickly fired him. Several players on the Hawaiian Islanders allegedly got cut without getting the money owed them, and therefore couldn't afford flights back to the mainland. The Charlotte Hornets had their uniforms seized after a game with Shreveport Steamer. The Hornets, who had bounced out of New York midway through the season and headed south, had been followed by a cleaner who claimed the team owed him over $26,000. Team owners had to post bond for the uniforms. The Detroit Wheels were coached by a screwdriver salesman.  

The Memphis team was known as the Grizzlies, and had an actual grizzly cub as a mascot. At one game, the cub came across an electrical wire and began to chew on it. Eventually, it got to the core, and received a shock that not only knocked the poor bear on its also shorted the stadium scoreboard. In Houston, the local sheriff showed up with a warrant for renowned wildman John Matuszak (who would later win two Super Bowls with the Raiders and star as Sloth in the Goonies). Matuszak had blown off his contract with the Oilers to play for the WFL's Texans. The coach allegedly told the sheriff he would give him a game helmet if he would just let the Tooz play a couple of series. The sheriff relented, and Matuszak was served papers after playing 7 plays, one of them a sack.


Bell QB and underground sports legend King Corcoran.

King Corcoran would recall shortly after the league folded in 1975, " Once we flew commercial to Portland and the flight back made eight stops. It was brutal. Then we got on a bus in Philadelphia and it broke down and we had to get out, carry our bags and hitchhike."

The insanity continued at the "World Bowl". The game was initially supposed to be played in Jacksonville, but when the Jacksonville team folded, the league moved the game to Birmingham. The Birmingham Americans would face the Florida Blaze. They were two of the best teams in the league. However, they weren't the best compensated; players on both teams hadn't seen a single paycheck in over a month. The Americans held on for a dramatic 22-21 win. After the game ended, federal agents arrived and seized the Americans' helmets and uniforms, hoping to recoup part of what their owner owed the IRS. 

The Bell had lost $2 million in 1974, but incredibly were one of only two franchises that decided to move forward in a restructured WFL in 1975. They made history shortly before the '75 season began: after head coach Ron Waller quit, they hired Willie Wood, former star of the Green Bay Packers. He was the first African American ever hired as coach of a professional football team. The team also decided that it's low attendance wouldn't look quite so paltry at Franklin Field, and decided to stop playing at JFK.

A few months later, with the writing on the wall, in front of a miniscule crowd at the hallowed Franklin Field, the Philadelphia Bell played their final game. The league owners decided, a few days later, to scrap the league. Bell head coach Willie Wood was emotional when he spoke about the end of the league. "I can't say I was shocked by what has happened. But I suddenly realized how hard I've been rooting for this underdog. I suddenly realized a whole lot of good people are out of work. I suddenly realized a great idea had gone to dust."

You can grab your Philadelphia Bell shirt by clicking above or by swinging by our store, Shibe Vintage Sports, located at 13th and Walnut in Center City. Be sure to like us on facebook and follow us on twitter!

The (Crazy) First Year of the Philly Spectrum

In February of 1966, the NHL awarded the city of Philadelphia an expansion team, on the condition that they have a new place to play by the time the 1967 season began. Ground was broken on June 1, 1966, with Flyers part-owner Jerry Wolman and Philly Mayor James Tate doing the honors. Wolman, Ed Snider’s 41-year old brother-in-law who also owned Connie Mack Stadium and the Eagles, was the money behind the Spectrum.*

A complex financial agreement resulted in Wolman getting the arena and then selling it to the city for $1. Wolman, who also owned the Eagles and Shibe Park, would pay Philly $60,000 in annual rent in return for a 50-year lease. The sweetheart deal carried with it an ultimatum: Wolman had to get the arena done in 16 months, or Philly wouldn’t get an expansion hockey team.

As the arena came closer to completion, Wolman began to run out of money. To come in under budget, he got a building code variance on the roofing material. It was a decision that would come back to haunt him, the Sixers, the Flyers, and Philadelphia sports fans.

The first event at the Spectrum was a Jazz Festival in September 1967 featuring Sarah Vaughn, Dizzy Gillespie, and Stan Brubeck. The first sporting event was a Joe Frazier fight against tomato can Tony Doyle in October. Frazier had little trouble knocking out the Utah native in the 2nd round. After the fight, Frazier told reporters that he had heard that Doyle’s wife had just had twins. “I figured, let’s get him home to see them.” The win moved the brash Philadelphian to 18-0 and cemented his status as the heavyweight district’s #1 contender.

On October 18th, Wilt Chamberlain and the Sixers, happy to no longer be playing in the Philadelphia Civic Center but rather in a state of the art arena, made their debut with a convincing 16 point win over the Lakers. The next night, the Flyers played their first ever home game, holding off the Penguins 1-0. Beers at those first games costed ten cents, with premium beers costing an outlandish forty cents.

20130807_inq_o-wolman07-aThe arena was off to a hot start, but in February of 1968, the roof caved in. Literally. High winds ripped a huge chunk of the roof off of the Spectrum shortly before an Ice Capades show, and the crowd found themselves staring up into the sky. (Showing a rather remarkable sense of humor, the Ice Capades band began playing “Into the Wild Blue Yonder”.) It was quickly patched up, but two weeks later it blew off again. This time Mayor Tate came down from City Hall to examine the damage, and closed the arena.

Philly politics took a fix that should have taken 10 days to repair into a month, as arguments erupted about who was going to pay for the repairs. Arlen Specter, who had narrowly lost to Tate in the recent mayoral election, sent his own investigators to the Spectrum, and announced that it had been built without the proper permits. The roof became a political football.

As Tate and Specter were trading barbs in the paper, the Flyers and Sixers were forced to play home games on the road, the Flyers playing home games in Quebec (where their farm team, the Quebec Aces, called home), the Sixers returning to their old haunt, Convention Hall.

“The Spectrum wasn’t a very valuable property back then,” co-owner Ed Snider would recall years later. “The roof had made it a national laughingstock.”

nsapnl36l_extrIt could have have hardly been a more inauspicious start. But as we all know, the roof was finally fixed, and the Spectrum recovered from its early disasters to become one of the most historic venues in America. It would go on to host Stanley Cup Finals, Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley concerts, the greatest game in NCAA tourney history, and some of Dr. J’s most memorable dunks. It was a raucous yet warm venue that catered to the everyday fan, and not the well heeled like most modern arenas. Fans were very close to the action, almost every seat was a good one. As a result the home court and home ice advantages were undeniable. The Sixers won 65% of their games there, while the Flyers won 61% of their home tilts. Perhaps former Flyer Dave Poulin said it best, “The Spectrum is a unique, tiny building that somehow enabled the fans to be closer to you physically and as a result were much closer to you emotionally.”

You can wear a piece of the Spectrum’s remarkable history with this incredibly comfortable Spectrum shirt created by local artist Jon Billett. It’s an incredibly comfortable tri-blend shirt, and is part of our stadium series that also includes Shibe Park and Palestra shirts.

READ MORE: A very interesting story in the SI Vault about the political debate that erupted after the roof came off.

*Shortly after the SPectrum was completed Wolman ran into financial difficulties after the John Hancock Tower in Chicago, which he financed, turned into a white elephant. He could get financial help if he could sell the Flyers. To do that, he needed Snider to sell his shares. Snider refused, and Wolman was driven to bankruptcy. Snider then tried to buy the Eagles from Wolman for a song. Wolman needed the money, but refused to sell to Snider. He eventually sold to Leonard Tose. Wolman and Snider never spoke again. You can read more about it here.

Penn vs. Oregon: The 1917 Rose Bowl

Oregon's Shy Huntington runs around the right end.

The Oregon Ducks won their third Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day over Florida State. Their first win in the Rose Bowl came against a local squad, the powerful Penn Quakers.

The Quakers were led by quarterback Bert Bell, who would later found the Philadelphia Eagles. The Webfoots were led by brothers Hollis and Shy Huntington. Shy was not only the QB, but also a star defensive back, and had been named All-American.

The Quakers came into the game heavily favored, as the East was known for a more physical brand of football than the West. The Quakers also featured four All-Americans. Before the game, Oregon coach Hugo Bezdek lamented, “I’ve got only overgrown high school boys, while Penn can field a varsity of big university strength. We haven’t a chance.” As humble as Bezdek was, Penn’s coach Bob Folwell was equally as boisterous: “We are going to put a team on the field that won’t be licked and consequently can’t be licked.” Aw snap!

Penn's backfield, from L to R: QB Bert Bell, FB Ben Derr, and HB Joe Berry (Berry would later play 13 games in the Major Leagues.)

Penn’s backfield, from L to R: QB Bert Bell, FB Ben Derr, and HB Joe Berry (Berry would later play 13 games in the Major Leagues.)

It was a very different brand of football than we watch today. The forward pass was nothing more than a gimmick. In fact, if a team passed into the end zone and the ball fell incomplete, the other team got possession. The QB had to be at least 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage when passing. You could only throw the ball once per series of downs. The ball was stubby and nearly round, much closer to a rugby ball than a modern football.

It was also a very different world. Many of the players on the field that day would later serve in WWI, including Bert Bell. It took the Penn team almost two weeks to make the cross-country trip. And there was no radio yet, so it was impossible to hear the game live. But it was possible to watch it live…sort of. In Eugene, a vaudeville theatre advertised that they’d be carrying the Rose Bowl live, and an overflow crowd packed the theatre to “watch”. Here’s how: there was a guy backstage who received play by play via telegraph. He then relayed that info to an announcer onstage, and there was a large plywood board onstage that looked like a football field, similar to the one below.

football field

There was then a production of the game onstage. There was a system of ropes and pulleys that sent the ball back and forth across the field as the announcer described the action he was receiving from the telegraph operator. (You can learn more about this contraption in an excellent piece on The telegraph operator, Mac McKevitt, would describe the excitement of that game in a 1931 newspaper piece:

ShyMcKevitt took the results of that game play-by-play off the wire and gave them to the announcer at the Heilig theater. The house was packed, Eugene fans were standing in the aisles and clear back to the top of the balcony. The little gridiron was rigged up on stage, and the miniature football was being worked back and forth with the plays. “Mac” remembers getting the message and giving it a word at a time to the announcer: “HUNTINGTON …. MAKES …. TOUCHDOWN!” Pandemonium broke loose, and Mac couldn’t find out whether Oregon converted the [extra] point because the place was so full of noise that he couldn’t hear the ticker, even with his ear down against it. McKevitt was sitting on the stage, with the footlights turned on, and he said as he looked out over the glare of the lights, the theater looked like a giant fountain with hats, coats, sweaters, everything being thrown into the air.”

The Huntington in question was the Oregon stalwart Shy, who would turn out to be the star of the game. The QB would run for 69 yards and a TD on offense, throw for a TD, secure three second half INTs on defense, and the Webfoots pulled off a 14-0 upset.

It was a turning point for college football, as it proved that West Coast teams, which had been held scoreless in the previous two Rose Bowls, could compete with the East Coast teams. As for the two teams involved, it would be Penn’s first and last appearance in a bowl game, though they would be named co-National Champions in 1924 along with Notre Dame. Oregon would lose their next four appearances in the Rose Bowl before finally getting over the hump in 2012.

A Remarkable Eagle You Should Know: Nick Basca

bascaOn December 7th, 1941, the Eagles took on the Washington Redskins at Griffith Stadium in the nation’s capital. They fell 20-14. Throughout the game, the players noticed that the PA had made numerous announcements paging all military personnel, but weren’t sure why. One of those players was Eagles rookie Nick Basca, who sent two extra points through the uprights. Later that afternoon it became apparent why the military had been paged during the game: the United States was at war. Three days after the Day That Lived in Infamy, Nick Basca  enlisted in the army. He would never play in another NFL game.

Micheal Basca was born on December 4th, 1916 (some sources say 1917) in Phoenixville. As a young boy, he ran around town doing odd jobs for a nickel and got the nickname “Nickels”. It was later shortened to Nick. He was short and bashful, but on the football field the son of a coach was a beast. His senior season, the quarterback led his team to a 9-0 record and a Chester County Title. After some time at a preparatory academy, he attended Villanova. Again he excelled, making the all-state team and starring in the North-South game his senior year.

NFL teams were concerned with his small stature (5’8″, 170), and he went undrafted. But the Eagles quickly grabbed the local hero, and he made the team as a running back and kicker. He showed flashes of potential on offense, scoring a touchdown against the Lions and rushing 15 times for 44 yards. He also made all 9 of his extra point attempts and a field goal to boot.

nick_shadowHe became a tank commander in Patton’s third army. He landed in France a month after D-Day and his division began aggressively attacking the Germans, trying to make their way to the city of Nancy. On November 11, 1944, the Americans received fierce resistance in the town of Obreck, near Nancy. A German 88mm round hit Basca’s tank. He was killed instantly.

Two of his brothers also served in the war, with Steve Basca receiving three purple hearts. Villanova’s Homecoming weekend was called Nick Basca weekend until the program discontinued in 1980 (the football program was revived in 1985, but Nick Basca weekend wasn’t).

A History of Thanksgiving Pro Football in Philadelphia

Quick note before you begin reading: Shibe Sports at 13th and Walnut will be having a blowout sale all weekend. 30% off everything between 9-12 on Friday, and 20% off everything for the remainder of the weekend! If you’re a fan of the history of Philadelphia sports, you’ll love the store. In addition to running this site, I’m also one of the owners.

This year will mark the 7th time the Eagles have done battle on Thanksgiving Day. Before them the Yellow Jackets actually had a Thanksgiving Day rivalry. Here’s a brief synopsis of every Thanksgiving Day NFL game played involving one of the two Philly teams.

1924-The Frankford Yellow Jackets defeated the Dayton Triangles, 32-7. In the pick below player/coach Guy Chamberlin and Johnny Budd chase down the Triangles Faye Abbot.


1926– The Yellow Jackets knocked off the Packers, 20-14, in front of a packed stadium of 12,000 people. The Jackets would go to on to finish the season 14-1-2 and win the NFL championship. They’re the last team to win an NFL title and later fold. The game also marked the start of a Thanksgiving Day rivalry with the Packers that would last until 1930. Here’s a great pic of that 1926 championship team.

1927-The Packers returned the favor, winning 17-9. You can read more about the Packers-Yellow Jackets Thanksgiving rivalry here. (The games were all played in Frankford. Once November hit, the Packers would play most of their games on the road.)

1928-The Yellow Jackets edged the Packers 2-0, the only score coming on a bad snap during a botched punt attempt by the Packers.

1929– Hard to believe that the 1929 game could be lower scoring than the 1928 affair, but it was. 0-0 was the final. The Yellow Jackets got the ball down to the 2-yard line at one point, but couldn’t punch it in. The tie would be the only blemish on the Packers 12-0-1 championship season.

1930– The Yellow Jackets franchise was starting to fall apart, and the Packers were on their way to a 2nd straight NFL title. The result of this game was never in doubt. The Packers, led by QB Red Dunn, won 25-7.

A fire to their stadium right before the 1931 season forced the Yellow Jackets to scramble to find places to play. Playing outside of Frankford meant that their fans couldn’t make it to the games, and fans in other parts of town didn’t come out to support a team from Frankford. The team folded midway through the 1931 season. Two years later the lesson was learned…don’t just represent a small section of the city, represent the whole city. The Philadelphia Eagles were born. They would play on Thanksgiving far less frequently than the Frankford Yellow Jackets did.

1939– The Eagles defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates, 17-14, on Thanksgiving Day. It would be the Eagles only win all season. Their young QB Davey O’Brien led the way with 208 yards passing.

1940– The Steelers (having changed their name from the Pirates) got their revenge, knocking off the Eagles 7-0. The Birds would finish the season 1-10. Of course, these two teams would join forces a few years later.


1968– The Eagles would finally play on Thanksgiving 28 years later. Once again they were one of the worst teams in the league, heading into their Thanksgiving Day tilt with an 0-11 record. A torrential downpour over the previous 36-hours turned the field into a swamp. The Eagles won the game 12-0 on four Sam Hall field goals, a rare bright spot in a disastrous season, one best remembered for the “Santa game”.

1989– This one is deserving of it’s own post, which I may do later in the week. The Bounty Bowl ended with the Eagles winning 27-0, the team trying to injure Luis Zendejas, and Jimmie Johnson screaming about Buddy Ryan’s big fat rear end. Here is Jimmie Johnson talking about that game a few years ago.

2008– The Eagles entered this game against the Cardinals with some quarterback controversy. The week before Andy Reid had benched a struggling Donovan McNabb against the Ravens and played Kevin Kolb. He didn’t announce McNabb as his starter until late in the week. McNabb seemed rejuvenated, and his 4 TD passes led the Eagles to a 48-20 win. Of course, these same two teams would meet in the NFC championship game later that season, and the Cardinals would knock off the Eagles 32-25.

2014- The Eagles both came into this game 8-3, with first place in the NFC East on the line. The Eagles, led by backup QB Mark Sanchez, dominated from the outset. Tony Romo, meanwhile, floundered against the Eagles defensive line which dominated the game. The 33-10 win established the Eagles as the class of the NFC East. It also marked the high water mark for the Chip Kellie regime. At that point, the Eagles had gone 19-9 under his tutelage, and the local press was singing his praises. Then the wheels came off. The Eagles would lose to the Seahawks a week later, then fall to the Cowboys in a rematch, before finally falling to the 3-11 Redskins and being eliminated from playoff contention. Since that Cowboys win, the Eagles have gone 5-9 and now the local media is calling for Kellie’s head.

And so the Eagles head to Detroit for only their 7th Thanksgiving Day game in 82 years. The same number that the Yellow Jackets played over a 7-year stretch. Let’s hope the Eagles improve upon their 5-1 Thanksgiving Day record.

The Strange and Fascinating History of the Phil-Pitt Steagles


You can buy this new Steagles shirt at Shibe Sports, on 13th and Walnut.

You can purchase the unique Steagles shirt to your left by clicking here. Get free shipping by using discount code “birds”. 

Both the Eagles and the Steelers (initially called the Pirates) were born on July 8th 1933, a few months after Pennsylvania voters repealed the law banning sports on Sundays. The Pirates were brought into existence by Art Rooney, while the Eagles were created by a syndicate headed by Bert Bell. Both teams were a disaster on the field and off: they lost almost every game they played and hemorrhaged money. The other Eagles investors dropped out, and Bell was left as the teams coach, owner, GM, scout, and ticket salesman. (By the late 30s, he would actually hawk tickets to Eagles games on Philly street corners. Can you imagine Jeff Lurie or Chip Kelly doing that today?).

The Birds played at the 102,000 seat Municipal Stadium (later known as JFK) with over 100,000 people disguised as empty seats. They won one game in 1939 and again in 1940: both of those wins were against the equally pitiful Pirates (In 1939, the Eagles lone win was against the Pirates and the Pirates lone win was against the Eagles). In 1940, the Eagles averaged less than a yard per carry.

Things weren’t much better for the Pirates, and in 1940, things got so bad for the Pittsburgh team that Art Rooney sold them to a 26-year old steel heir living in New York named Alexis Thompson, who planned to move them to Boston and call them the Ironmen. Rooney then bought a half interest in the Eagles, and Rooney and Bell decided to field a combined PA team known as the Keystoners that would play half of their home games in Pittsburgh, and half of their home games in Philly. But Thompson changed his mind about moving and decided to keep his team in Pittsburgh, foiling Bell and Rooney’s dream of the Keystoners (There would later be a PA soccer team called the Keystoners, or “Stoners” for short).

packsteaglesNot wanting to set up headquarters in Philly and having some regrets about leaving his hometown, Rooney asked Thompson if he would simply swap teams: Thompson would move his new Steelers to Philly to become the Eagles, and Bell and Rooney would take their players to Pittsburgh and come up with a new team name. Thompson agreed. So the players on the 1940 Eagles became members of the 1941 Pittsburgh team, and members of the 1940 Pittsburgh team moved to Philly and became the Eagles. Make sense?

To further confuse matters, Rooney decided he wanted a break from the past and held a contest to come up with a new name for his team. The winner was Steelers. The two teams actually went head to head in week 2 of the 1941 season, with the Eagles prevailing, 10-7. It would be one of two wins the Birds had all season. The Steelers had one. A change of scenery didn’t seem to do the players on either team much good.

Two seasons later, both teams still stunk, but the Steelers were in a further bind: most of their players had been drafted into the armed forces due to WWII, and with only a few weeks to go before summer practice, they had six players under contract*. That’s when Rooney and Bell decided to revisit their idea of a few years previous and combine the two teams. Thompson wasn’t crazy about the idea but agreed, and the “Phil-Pitt Combined” were born (they were never officially called the Steagles. The Philly press still called them the Eagles, but a writer for The Pittsburgh Press named Chet Smith coined the term and the name stuck). They were scheduled to play four home games at Shibe Park and two home games at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. They wore the Eagles kelly green.

The team was co-coached by Steelers coach Walt Kiesling and Eagles coach Greasy Neale. The primary problem with this arrangement was that the two men hated each other. They decided to split the team, with Neale coaching offense and Kiesling coaching defense. According to former Steagle Jack Hinkle,”There was a big blow-up about halfway through the season when Neale called one of the Steelers a ‘statue of s**t.’ Kiesling pulled all of the Steelers off the practice field.”


Art Rooney (left) and Bert Bell.

Despite the awkward arrangement, the team was fairly successful on the field, going 5-4-1. It was the first winning season for the Eagles franchise ever, and they actually defeated and tied eventual division winner Washington. The team played well and Rooney and Bell probably would have been up for reuniting when the leagues asked them to in 1944. Thompson was not. The rift between Kiesling and Neale was too wide to repair, and Thompson had supplied most of the manpower for the 1943 season and didn’t want any more credit going to Bell and Rooney.

The Steelers instead teamed up with the Chicago Cardinals in 1944 to become “Card-Pitt.” The team was awful, and sportswriters called them the “Carpets”, since everyone walked all over them. They finished the season 0-10. The Eagles, meanwhile, drafted Steve Van Buren in the draft that year, and went 7-1-2, missing the playoffs by a mere half game. The year as the Steagles would set into motion their greatest run in team history, as they would finish 1st or 2nd in the division in the following six years, appear in three championship games, and win two of them.

Thompson would sell the team a few years later and die of a heart attack at the age of 40. Rooney would continue to own the Steelers until 1974 when he handed it off to his son Dan. Dan’s son Art II now runs the team. Bell relinquished his role as c0-owner when he became NFL commissioner in 1945. He was still commish in 1959 when he died of a heart attack…while attending a game at Franklin Field between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles.

*The vast majority of NFL players who weren’t at war didn’t serve because they were either too old or classified 4-F. The Steagles leading receiver in 1943 was Tony Bova, who was blind in one eye and partially blind in another.

You can read a more in-depth report about the Steagles here, and there is also an excellent book on the topic. You can watch a short video history of the team, featuring Ray Didinger, here. The Steagles shirt is a Shibe Vintage Sports original. You will not find it anywhere else.


The Stars Win the 1984 USFL Championship

On July 15th, 1984, the Philadelphia Stars met the Arizona Wranglers in Tampa, with the USFL Championship on the line. The Stars had lost the championship game the year before, 24-22, in a thriller against the Michigan Panthers, and they did not want to get denied again. They stormed through the regular season, finishing a league best 16-2, then easily dispatched of Brian Sipe, Herschel Walker, and the New Jersey Generals in the first round of the playoffs, 28-7. In the Eastern Conference Finals, they cruised past the Birmingham Stallions, 20-10.

The Wranglers had a tougher road into the finals, finishing the season 10-8, then knocking off two future Hall of Fame QBs in the playoffs, Jim Kelly of the Houston Gamblers and Steve Young of the LA Express.

The Stars were led by their superstar running back, Kelvin Bryant, who had outgained Herschel Walker that season, running for 1406 yards and 13 TDs. At QB, they had the solid if unspectacular Chuck Fusina, who looked for receivers Scott Fitzkee and Willie Collier. The Stars had a terrific O-line, anchored by Irv Eatman and Brat Oates. Their defense, known as the Doghouse Defense, had allowed a stingy 12.5 ppg in the regular season.

Tampa Stadium was packed, and the 52,662 fans on hand were about to be treated to a clinic. On their first possession, the Stars methodically moved downfield, grinding up 66 yards on 10 plays before little used Bryan Thomas scored on a draw from 4 yards out to make it 7-0. After their defense shut down Greg Landry and the Wranglers offense, the offense went back to work, moving 54 yards in 9 plays before a Fusina QB sneak made in 13-0. The 2nd quarter was more of the same, but two Stars fumbles and a missed FG meant that Arizona was only down 13-3 at the half, despite being outgained, 249 yards to 49.

allen_harvin_1984_07_15The second half saw more of the same, with the Stars dominating in every phase of the game, and when the final gun sounded, the Stars were USFL champions, having won by a score of 23-3. The Doghouse Defense had allowed Arizona a mere 119 yards of total offense and less than 17 minutes Time of Possession. Kelvin Bryant had rushed for 115 yards despite a bad toe, and Chuck Fusina was named MVP after a methodical game at QB.

The team would have a parade at LOVE Park the following week. It would be their last game as the Philadelphia Stars. The owners, spurred on by Donald Trump, made the fatal error of voting to move to the fall in 1986. KNowing he couldn’t compete with the Eagles, owner Myles Tanebaum moved the team to Baltimore that offseason. They would win a title as the Baltimore Stars in 1985 (despite practicing and maintaining their headquarters in Philly), but the league would fold before the 1986 season.

The Stars would finish as the best team in USFL history with a 48-13-1 record, and there were some who thought they could have competed in the NFL. In fact, legend has it that Tanenbaum and Tose once ran into each other at Old Original Bookbinders. Tanenbaum challenged Tose to a game between the Eagles and Stars. Tose wanted to bet $1 million on his Eagles. Tanenbaum replied, “Leonard, if I thought you were good for the money I’d do it in a heartbeat.” The two men had to be seperated, and sadly, the two teams never played. Sadder still, the most succesful pro sports team in Philadelphia history only called Philly home for two years.

If you want to learn more about the Stars, I highly recommend this piece in Jerseyman Magazine.  

Eagles vs the Saints in the Wild Card…in 1993

Heading into the 4th quarter of the January 3rd, 1993 NFC Wild Card game between the Saints and Eagles, things were looking dim for the visiting Birds. The offense had sputtered for three quarters, and the Birds trailed the Saints, 20-10. Worse yet, the Saints D was the best in the NFL, surrendering a measly 12.6 ppg for the season, which would be the lowest average of any defense in the 1990s. The Superdome was rocking: the home team had NEVER won a single playoff game in franchise history, and they were 15 minutes away from their first.

On the Eagles side of the field, it was their superstars Randall Cunningham and Reggie White who were trying to get off the schneid. The two men had never won a playoff game, and the 29-year old QB had gone 0-3 with 0 TDs and 5 INTs while the offense had sputtered to 8 points a game in three playoff appearances.

With 10:37 left in the game, the Eagles faced a 3rd and 10 from the Saints 35. Randall lofted one into the left side of the end zone. Fred Barnett, who made his one and only Pro Bowl that season, made a spectacular leaping catch over cornerback Reginald Jones, and the Eagles had cut the lead to 20-17. Moments later, while rolling out to his left, Saints QB Bobby Hebert made an awful pass that settled into the arms of Seth Joyner. The Eagles leaned heavily on Heath Sherman in the ensuing short drive, and it was capped by a Sherman 6-yard run around the left end. The Eagles, seemingly dead in the water only minutes before, now took the lead, 24-20.

medium_bobby-hebert906Momentum had clearly shifted, and the Saints meltdown continued on their next drive. On 3rd and 25 with the home team on its own 5-yard line, Reggie White bullrushed his way into the backfield and sacked Hebert for a safety. A Roger Ruzek field goal on the ensuing drive made it 29-20. Bobby Hebert’s nightmarish 4th quarter continued, as a pass into the flat was picked off by Eric Allen and taken 18 yards to the house. Final score: Eagles 36-Saints 20. The Birds had scored a remarkable 26 points in the final 11 minutes of the game. It was a shocking comeback, as the Saints hadn’t given up 26 points in an entire game all season. But the comeback was somewhat overshadowed by events earlier that same day: the Bills had overcome a 35-3 Oilers lead to pull of the greatest comeback in NFL history.

The Eagles season only lasted one week longer. The next week they fell to the Cowboys 34-10. The win over the Saints was, remarkably, the only playoff victory Randall and Reggie ever had as Eagles.

RELATED: Highlights of that game.

Boxscore of the game.


Eagles Coach You Should Know: Jim Trimble, the Co-Creator of the Modern Goal Post


In 1951, the Eagles hired Bo McMillan to be their head coach, and McMillan hired an assistant named Jim Trimble to help him out. But two games into the 1951 season, McMillan was diagnosed with stomach cancer and had to step down. He handed the reins over to  Wayne Millner. Millner coached the 1951 team to a 4-8 record, then stepped down two weeks before the 1952 season. Up stepped the unheralded Trimble, who struggled early on, as the Eagles fell to the Giants 31-7 and the mighty Browns 49-7. Afterwards, Philadelphia Bulletin writer Hugh Brown wrote, “The Eagles of 1952 are probably the worst football team to ever wear the Kelly green.”

Trimble posted the article in the locker room, and the team quickly got their act together. They then won 5 of their last 7 games to finish with a 7-5 record in 1952. The turnaround earned the 34-year old coach the NFL Coach of the Year Award.  The next two years, they also won 7 games but finished 2nd to the Browns each year. In 1955, the team got stung with injuries and finished the year 4-7-1, losing 5 of those games by a touchdown or less. He was fired after the season, stating afterwards that, “I was completely stunned…It is the first time I ever lost a job.”

He was scooped up by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL in 1956, and led them to a Grey Cup victory in 1957. He would later coach the Montreal Alouettes as well. But his impact on football wasn’t just as a coach. In 1966, he, a man named Joel Rottman, and an engineering friend, Cedric Marsh, took out a patent on a new type of goal post, known as the “sling shot”. Until then, goal posts were H-shaped and placed on the goal line. Trimble and Rottman’s design was the Y shape that is used almost exclusively today.

He would also work in the New York Giants organization from 1967 until 1991. Trimble passed away in 2006 at the age of 87. Below is a very cool interview of him in 1954.

The Time Jeff Lurie Interviewed Three Future Super Bowl Winners, and Didn’t Hire Any of Them

Vermeil-EaglesWith the Eagles on the hunt for a new head coach, I thought we’d take a look back at one of the most fascinating coaching hunts in Birds history.

On May 6th, 1994, a year after failing to buy his hometown Patriots, Jeff Lurie bought the Eagles from Norman Braman. At head coach he inherited Rich Kotite, coming off an 8-8 season. It was too close to the new season to fire him and start over, so Lurie reluctantly kept him on board. The Eagles surprisingly started the next year 7-2 under Kotite. Nonetheless, Lurie announced after the hot start that he would not be renewing Kotite’s contract, and Kotite made it clear that he was going to start looking for a new job. All momentum the team had built up was lost, as they dropped their next 7 games, and Kotite quickly got the ax. Lurie then turned his attention to a former Eagle coach in the hopes of returning the team to glory…Dick Vermeil.

Vermeil had quit coaching following the 1982 season, citing burnout. For the next 12 years he was an analyst on television. But like most coaches, he had the bug, and he almost took an offer from the Falcons in 1986 (When things fell through with Vermeil, the Falcons took former Eagle coach Marion Campbell instead).

Vermeil met with Lurie a few days before the Eagles last regular season game of 1994. By January 13th of 1995, it looked like a deal was imminent, according to the Daily News.

After weeks of anticipation, questions, delay, no comments, media speculation and a Monday breakdown at the negotiating table, a source close to the negotiations told the Daily News yesterday that, barring unforeseen complications, an agreement is “not too far away…These things just take time, and I’m confident that it will eventually happen, but at its own pace. No one is trying to force anything.”

Two days later, things completely broke down. Apparently Lurie got nervous about the fact he was hiring a guy who hadn’t coached since 1982, and who wanted to not only be coach but GM. “Understand this was a risky offer,” Lurie told the Reading Eagle after negotiations broke down, “Because it was an offer to someone who hadn’t coached in 12 years, but yet someone I had great hope and respect for.”

Lurie continues, “He’s an intense competitive guy, and I think he was bitter that we were unwilling to really meet his requirements. I just don’t think that would have been responsible for this football team to put us in the situation where we just didn’t know how well Dick would do.”

Vermeil had a different take on why things broke down. “In nine hours of meetings-three, three-hour meetings, every time I mentioned football things, he said, ‘I’d like to be collaborated with, but the final decision will be yours’. And then when it (the contract) became written, it just wasn’t that way.”

And so the coaching search continued. Later that same week, the Milwaukee Sentinel reported, “Mike Shanahan appears to be the man at the top of Lurie’s head coaching wish list now that Dick Vermeil has been erased from the picture.”

tony_dungy_1992_11_29-1But on January 31st, 1995, Shanahan was hired by the Broncos. Eagle fans were getting restless. Lurie was flying from town to town, interviewing seemingly every coach in the country. But at this point it was down to three men: Gary Stevens, offensive coordinator for the Dolphins; Tony Dungy, defensive coordinator for the Vikings (right); and Ray Rhodes, defensive coordinator for the 49ers. Sal Pal reported that Stevens appeared to be the frontrunner.

Lurie met with them all in Miami. He had a meeting with Dungy for 6 hours. It went extremely well, but he was still a longshot. Lurie and Stevens met on the afternoon of Tuesday, February 1st, and it seemed like things were set in stone. On February 2nd, Kevin Mulligan of the Daily News reported that “sometime today – barring breakdowns in the contract-writing process – Stevens is expected to have a new title: Philadelphia Eagles head coach.”

But as Mulligan was going to press at around midnight, Lurie was having a late-night meeting with Rhodes that lasted until 2:45 a.m. Wednesday morning. After the meeting, he made his decision. Ray Rhodes would be his guy. He spoke with Rhodes’s agent on Wednesday and started hammering out a deal. By Wednesday afternoon, Ray Rhodes was the Eagles new head coach, signing a 5-year, $5 million salary.  He would last 4 years in Philly, going 29-34-1. After a great start, going 10-6 and winning Coach of the Year, things went downhill rapidly, and he was fired after a disastrous 3-13 season in 1998. He is currently a defensive assistant for the Browns.

Gary Stevens would never become an NFL head coach, remaining Dolphins Offensive Coordinator until he was fired in 1998. He never coached in any capacity in the NFL again. Mike Shanahan was a long shot for the Birds, as most people figured he would take the Broncos job. He did, and led them to two Super Bowl wins. Dungy would remain Vikings coordinator for one more year before he was hired to  be head coach of the Buccaneers, and after turning that franchise around, he later won a Super Bowl with the Colts. And Dick Vermeil would return to coaching with the Rams in 1997, and lead them to a Super Bowl victory in his third season as coach. Pretty amazing that Lurie interviewed three guys who would go on to win Super Bowls, and didn’t hire any of them. Doesn’t give me a ton of confidence this time around.