On 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.
He 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).
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and the Steelers (initially called the Pirates) were born on July 8th 1933, a few months after Pennsylvania voters repealed the law banning sports on Sundays.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).
Not 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.”
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.
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.
Momentum 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.
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.
It’s looking right now that the Eagles might honestly not win another game this year. If that is in fact the case, they will end the season with 12 straight losses. That would bring them close to the team record, and it would set a record for most consecutive losses in one season.
1936 was the first year that the NFL had a draft, which was done on the insistence of Eagles owner and coach Bert Bell (left), whose team had gone 2-9 the year before. Bell not only made the first selection of the draft as owner of the Eagles, he acted as emcee for the evening, as the draft was held at the Ritz Carlton in Philadelphia!
With their first pick, the Eagles selected the first ever winner of the Heisman Trophy, Jay Berwanger. (Incidentally, with the 3rd pick of the draft, the Pittsburgh Pirates selected a player named William Shakespeare, who had possibly the greatest nickname in NFL history: “The Merchant of Menace”). But the Eagles couldn’t meet Berwanger’s money demands, and he was traded to the Bears (he never signed with them either). Much like the Eagles now, whose inability to sign even moderately effective offensive lineman has cost them the season, in 1936 their inability to sign a player of Berwanger’s ability hurt them greatly, both on the field and at the box office.
The season started promisingly enough, with a 10-7 win over the New York Giants at Municipal Stadium (below right). Then things went downhill, and fast. In their next 5 games, they were outscored 101-3. Finally, in week 7, they scored their second TD of the season, but still lost to the Boston Redskins, 17-7. The next week, they cracked double digits again, again versus the Giants, but lost a shootout 21-17. They then went on to score a total of 2 TDs for the rest of the season to finish 1-11, with 11 straight losses. They were outscored that season 206-51, with over half of their points coming in two games against the Giants.
Their stats for the 1936 season are absolutely hilarious. They had 8 different players throw at least one pass that season. These QBs combined to complete 22.9% of their passes for 603 yards, with 3 Touchdowns and 36 interceptions. The Eagles completed 39 passes that year, and threw 36 interceptions. Not a good year for the likes of Swede Hanson, Stumpy Thomason, and Reds Bassman. The leading receiver on that team was Eggs Manske with 325 yards. Hanson led the team in rushing.
1937 started out no better. They lost their first 3 games, then broke their losing streak at 14 with a thrilling 6-6 tie against the Chicago Cardinals. They would lose the next week, then finally go into Washington, where the Redskins were playing their first season after moving from Boston, and win 14-0. They would finish the 1937 season 2-8-1.
Their first decade as a franchise (1933-1942) has to be some sort of record for futility. They went 23-82-4 (23.8%). The 14 game losing streak was no apparition. Let’s hope the Eagles current losing streak is just a sign of a bad season, not of a franchise heading backwards to 1930s levels of ineptitude. And let’s hope we can sign this year’s first round draft pick. (Special thanks to Reuben Frank who told me on twitter what the longest losing streak in Eagles history was.)
The November 24th, 1996 matchup between the Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles was one of the most exciting games in Eagle history, featuring thrilling special teams play, two improbable comebacks, and 37 points scored in the last 11 minutes of the game.
The Eagles came into the game 7-4, but after a scorching start under coach Ray Rhodes and Ricky Watters they had lost their last two contests. The Cardinals had won two in a row and with a 5-6 record were trying to make a late push towards the playoffs.
The first three quarters were fairly uneventful. Ricky Watters scored a TD for the Eagles in the first quarter, rookie Leeland McElroy had answered for the Cards in the 2nd, and otherwise Gary Anderson and Kevin Butler exchanged field goals. The Cards held a 16-13 lead entering the 4th, but then Boomer Esiason hit Pat Carter with a 6-yard pass to give the Cards a 22-13 lead with 10:58 left. Just over two minutes later, Ricky Watters went around right end from 4 yards out to pull the Eagles within 2.
Boomer Esiason then led the Cardinals on a methodical drive down the field and hit Larry Centers (remember how awesome that guy was on such terrible teams?) for a 4 yard score to give the Cardinals a comfortable 29-20 lead with 2:45 left in the game. Then things got crazy. Derrick Witherspoon (below right) returned the ensuing kickoff 95 yards to the house to pull the Eagles within 2. The Birds then attempted an onside kick. It went out of bounds, but fortunately for them one of their players was onsides. Due to a strange quirk in the NFL rulebook, it meant they got to kick again. This time the ball bounced out of the hands of the Cards Anthony Edwards and was scooped up by Johnny Thomas of the Eagles. He would have scored a TD on it, but NFL rules don’t allow recovered onsides kicks to be returned (boo! Lame rule.) The Eagles then moved into field goal range while running out the clock. The Cards answered by burning all 3 of their timeouts. Finally, Gary Anderson nailed a 32 yarder with 52 seconds left to give the Eagles a 30-29 lead.
The Cardinals got the ball back on the 35-yard line and Boomer Esiason went to work. With no timeouts remaining, he kept hitting receivers along the sidelines, confounding Eagles cornerbacks Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor. Finally, with 14 seconds left, he hit Marcus Dowdell from 24 yards out to give the Cardinals the win. It was one of Dowdell’s 3 career TDs. Esiason had led the team 65-yards down the field in 38 seconds with no timeouts left. It was a total collapse by Philly’s secondary. Boomer ended up throwing for 367 yards that day, 180 of them in the 4th quarter.
Ray Rhodes was crushed, saying he was at “an all-time low.” The defense took out their frustration on the Giants the next week, allowing an incredible 121 yards of total offense to New York. They would rally to finish the season 10-6, and lose to the Niners 14-0 in the playoffs. The Cardinals would only win one more game all season.
RELATED: Eric Allen’s incredible INT return against Boomer Esiason, one of the most thrilling plays in Eagle history.
He smiled too much. He didn’t run enough. He played the air guitar. He threw up at the Super Bowl. He was passive aggressive. He didn’t lead enough 4th quarter comebacks. He told your boss not to give you that promotion. He convinced Napoleon to attack Russia in the winter.
If you ever needed anyone to blame for anything for 11 years, McNabb was a handy target. Part of that had to do with how tough it is to be QB in Philly, part of it has to do with a pricklish personality that never allowed him to “get” Philadelphia, and part of it (“he smiles too much”) was sheer nonsense.
But even if I concede everything that drives people crazy about McNabb, there is still simply no debate that “Five” is the greatest QB in Philadelphia Eagles history. And it’s not close. He has the record for Most completions, most yards, and most TDs. He played in 6 more games than the beloved Ron Jaworski and threw 41 more TDs and 51 less INTs. He had a winning percentage of 65.2%, while Jaws was just over 50%. He threw 66 more TDs and 5 less INTs than Randall, whose winning % was around 59%.
What makes these numbers even more impressive is the fact that, with one single notable exception, McNabb was playing with receivers who never approached the level of skill of Mike Quick, Harold Carmichael, or even Keith Jackson. Due to the Eagles insistence that “the system” was more important than anything else, McNabb spent season after season passing to James Thrash and Todd Pinkston. Just how good was McNabb? The mindblowingly bad Thrash played with the Redskins for nine seasons and caught for 1620 yards. In just three years with McNabb, he caught for 2026 yards. Coincidence, or an example of a great quarterback making a terrible player better? (As for Pinkston, once the Eagles let him go, not a single team showed interest.) In the one single season during his prime that McNabb had an unequivocally great wide receiver, he had the greatest season any QB in Philly has ever had, throwing for 3,875 yards, 31 TDs and a mere 8 INTs, while leading the Eagles to a 13-2 record in games he started, best in team history.
McNabb then threw for 357 yards in the Super Bowl (the most anyone not named Kurt Warner has ever thrown in a Super Bowl) against a Patriots team that was cheating so hard they made the Black Sox look like choir boys,but it was allegations of McNabb (maybe?) throwing up in the end that became the story of the 2004 season. Despite all the yards, and despite the fact that he shredded a Pats defense had completely shut down Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning in the two games previous, McNabb’s Super Bowl, and season, were seen as a failure.
In addition to his questionable attitude, the other thing working against McNabb was the fact that he came along at roughly the same time as Brady and Manning. McNabb was not as good as the other two QBs that came along at the same time, and so, by some sort of twisted logic, he sucked. It was absurd and irrational, but Eagles’ fans pride themselves on their passion, not their rationality. McNabb never understood that (as opposed to local icon Brian Dawkins, who understood it implicitly), and his lack of understanding of their rather diminished his accomplishments in the eyes of many Eagles fans.
Now that time has passed, it is time to re-evaluate McNabb’s value as an Eagle. His stats (and his close-but-no-cigar career) compare favorably with the undeniably great Jim Kelly. Kelly played 11 seasons with the Bills, McNabb played 11 for the Eagles. Kelly played in 160 games, McNabb in 148. McNabb passed for 2 more yards per game, Kelly threw slightly more TDs per game (1.48 to 1.46), and McNabb threw 75 less interceptions than Kelly despite playing in 12 fewer games. (And don’t forget that Kelly was throwing to Andre Reed and James Lofton, not Pinkston and Thrash.) McNabb also ran for 3249 yards for the Birds, while Kelly ran for 1,049 for the Bills. Kelly went 9-8 in the playoffs. McNabb went 9-7. Jim Kelly is a God in Buffalo. And yet, here in Philly…Until more people in Philadelphia can separate McNabb’s incredible career from their own personal feelings for him, he will remain one of the most underrated athletes in Philadelphia history.
The defining moment of Ricky Watters career in Philadelphia came in his first game as an Eagle. On September 3, 1995, the Eagles opened up the season at home against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. During the second-half, Ricky Watters alligator-armed not one, but two Randall Cunningham passes over the middle of the field. It didn’t help that the Eagles lost 21-6, and Watters was held to 37 yards rushing with two fumbles. Sure, Watters was booed by the hometown fans for not sacrificing himself for the team, but those boos were nothing compared to the aftermath of Watters’ postgame comments to the media.
Watters was honest, maybe too honest:
“Hey, I’m not going to trip up there and get knocked out. For who? For what? I mean, there’s another day. I’m going to make a whole lot of plays. I made a whole lot of plays where I was at before. I’ve always made plays.”
“For who? For what?” Those four words damned Ricky Watters in this town. He had committed a cardinal sin. The fans and the media jumped on Watters. The Inquirer labeled it “Wattersgate.” His words were spread in large print on the back cover of the Daily News. No matter what Watters did from that point forward, he didn’t have a chance to be accepted in Philadelphia as one of our “Philly guys.” And it’s a shame, because his on-the-field play stood in stark contrast to that comment.
His numbers are staggering. After scoring three touchdowns in a winning-effort for San Francisco in Super Bowl XXIX, Watters came to Philadelphia as a free agent. It didn’t take long for him to make an impact. In 1995, he rushed 337 times for 1,273 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also added 434 yards on 62 receptions. In ’96 he amassed 1,855 yards from scrimmage with 13 total touchdowns. In ’97, he had 1,550 total yards and 7 touchdowns. He never rushed for fewer than 1,110 yards and never caught fewer than 48 passes. From ’95-’97, he carried the ball 975 times, more than any other player in the NFL. In ’95 and ’96 he was selected to the Pro Bowl team and named All-Pro.
Even though he spent just three seasons in Philadelphia, Watters ranks 6th in franchise history in rushing and 5th in rushing touchdowns. He is the Eagles all-time leader in rushing yards per game.
Based on his numbers, Watters is clearly one of the best running backs in Eagles history. But he didn’t let his numbers speak for themselves, and so he lands on this list as the 4th Most Underrated Athlete in Philadelphia Sports History.
The correct answer to this awesome trivia question? Walt Masters, born on March 28th, 1907 in Pen Argyle (near Easton). Masters was a Philly boy, though, graduating from West Philly High School and then attending the Wharton School at Penn. He played baseball and football at Penn, and was a star at both.
Masters made his MLB debut for the Washington Senators on July 9th, 1931, when he pitched an inning in a 14-1 blowout over the Red Sox. He pitched twice more that year, and then disappeared from baseball. He was also making money as a semi-pro football player, and baseball didn’t allow people to play other sports in the US. Masters tried to get around the rule by moving to Canada and playing for the Rough Riders (those Penn kids are a sneaky bunch aren’t they?) But the Rough Riders wouldn’t let him play football because they were amateurs and he had gotten paid for baseball, so he coached football and played baseball for an Ottawa team for a few years. He returned to Philly in 1936 and played briefly for the Eagles at QB. He went 1-6 for 11 yards with one INT, and ran 7 times for 18 yards. After the season, he signed with the Phillies and was on the team briefly in 1937. He didn’t have much more success on the diamond, where the pitcher appeared in one game and got blasted for 4 earned runs in a single inning of work against the Reds. Two years later, he would reappear on the Philadelphia A’s (making him also the answer to the question, “Who is the only player to play for the A’s, Phillies, and Eagles?”) He pitched in 4 games and finished the year with a 6.55 ERA.
During the war, former sports stars were in high demand, so in 1943 the 36-year old Masters played a few games for the Chicago Cardinals. He wasn’t very good, going 17-45, 249 yards, with 2 TDs and 7 Ints. He tossed 7 more passes for the Cards in 1944, and then was out of pro sports for good. He returned to Ottawa, where he played both football and baseball. He then worked in public relations for a company specializing in cleaning buildings in Ottawa. He died in Canada in 1992 at the age of 85.