Indoor football in the NFL is not uncommon as we approach the 100th birthday of the league in a few days. However, this was not always the case. The Houston Astrodome was the first domed stadium in the NFL, home to the Oilers from 1968 – 1996. Pro Football’s first indoor game was at the Madison Square Garden in New York City.
This week’s episode of When Football Was Football takes us to indoor football in the city of Chicago, a hotbed for football in the early days (as it is still today).
Joe Ziemba is the host of this show, and he is an author of early football history in the city of Chicago. Here, you can learn more about Joe and When Football Was Football, including all of the episodes of the podcast.
A Strange Concept
It was a strange concept for the world of professional football in Chicago back in 1930. With the Bears fueled by the talented backfield of Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski and the Cardinals boosted by the celebrated Ernie Nevers, there was plenty of star power on both sides of the city.
Yet, the 1930 season concluded with neither the Bears (9-4-1) or the Cardinals (5-6-2) capturing the NFL title won for the second straight year by Green Bay. The two teams did meet for the final time during the regular season on Thanksgiving Day, with the Bears edging out their rivals 6-0.
Before that contest, Cardinals’ owner Dr. David Jones challenged George Halas and the Bears to play the game for charity. While that suggestion failed to materialize, the two clubs later agreed to play an exhibition game on December 15 that would benefit charitable causes.
Because of unsavory weather conditions being forecast, the leaders of the two organizations, Dr. Jones and George Halas, further agreed that the game would be played indoors at the Chicago Stadium.
While this idea in itself was exciting, it did pose a couple of major problems in that the Chicago Black Hawks hockey team was in the middle of its season and the stadium was the Black Hawks’ home ice—literally!
The floor was covered in ice which was certainly not the best surface for a football game! In addition, no one had the faintest idea of how to stage a pro football game indoors. It simply had not been done in Chicago in recent memory.
But there was some precedence for such an event. Chris O’Brien’s old Racine Cardinals had played several games indoors at the Dexter Park Pavilion, which would later be the location of the International Amphitheater. The great Paddy Driscoll played his first game with the Cardinals on January 4, 1920, in a semi-final game of the Chicago Football League at Dexter Park.
Even before that, the Cardinals butted heads with Driscoll on December 23, 1917, when the Cards played a scoreless tie with Driscoll’s Evanston, IL team. The Munster (IN) Times reported that Driscoll was a casualty in this game when “he struck his head against the wall early in the game, and when the half was over could not recall a play he had made.”
Another drawback of the indoor competition was the low ceiling. The Times blamed the looming ceiling for the sad day experienced by the kickers by reporting:
“The low ceiling interfered somewhat with the footwork and both teams missed all their kicking attempts,” including a 60-yard drop kick attempt by Driscoll on the very last play of the game.”
Back to the Beginning
But let’s go back even further to 1896 when the Chicago Coliseum began hosting indoor football games between colleges. Located at 63rd near Stony Island on Chicago’s south side, the Coliseum was near the campus of the powerhouse University of Chicago team.
Chicago defeated Michigan 7-6 at the Coliseum on Thanksgiving Day in 1896, and then on December 19, the facility welcomed an interesting pair of foes at the University of Wisconsin and the Carlisle Indian School. Wisconsin’s season had long been over, but the Badgers were attracted by a nice payday when over 10,000 showed up to watch the game. While Carlisle won the contest 18-8, the indoor battle was not without its challenges.
According to the Chicago Chronicle, a lofty punt found itself wedged in the rafters: “This extraordinary proceeding elicited prolonged shouting from the crowds.” Apparently, no one had bothered to bring another football so the Chronicle stated: “A young lad finally was found who tripped along over the iron rafters and, securing the prize, tossed it down to the players waiting to renew the struggle.”
So, 34 years later, the pros tried their hand once again at the indoor game. The first problem to be solved was the solid ice over the concrete floor, especially since the Black Hawks were scheduled to play the night before the football game.
Immediately after the conclusion of the hockey game, the ice would be melted and the entire floor drained. Since the game could not be fought on the hard floor of the stadium, truckloads of dirt would be hauled in during the night to provide a depth of six inches over the 47,500 square feet of space. That left just one more challenge, but it was a big one!
There was no way that a regulation-sized field of 100 yards could fit into the stadium. What could they do?
Getting the Indoor Stadium Ready
In order to accommodate the cozy indoor surroundings, several rules were adopted:
- The field would be eighty yards long and kickoffs would be made from the goal line. To justify the shorter field, the offense would have twenty yards subtracted on each drive before crossing mid-field.
- A white football would be used to increase visibility for both the players and the fans.
- No drop or place kicks for field goals would be permitted.
- There would be no restrictions on punting since there would be at least ninety-four feet of the open area above the playing surface. On the other hand, there would be no wind to affect the kicks!
Onto the Game
The charity selected to benefit from the contest was the Illinois governor’s fund for unemployment relief, a noble cause during the economic depression. Yet one could reason that few dollars would be raised if attendance was low, a realistic assumption for a football game scheduled for December 15 in Chicago.
Attendance had been severely limited a few weeks earlier by the frigid temperatures on Thanksgiving Day.
The response to the indoor game was surprisingly strong. Approximately ten thousand fans jammed into the stadium and witnessed a solid game won by the Bears 9-7. There were some unusual circumstances due to the indoor field, however.
With cardboard side walls surrounding the field, no yard markers were visible to the fans. The fans seated on the sidelines had obstructed viewpoints due to the sidewalls, and the players often found the temporary field to be a bit slippery.
Overall, it was a nice change of pace for all involved, a successful event for charity, and a challenge for some of the stadium regulars. For example, the Tribune noted that the path of Ernie Nevers’s extra point kick attempt in the fourth quarter would follow a path that would intersect with the stadium’s magnificent pipe organ:
“Nevers then kicked from placement directly at the world’s greatest pipe organ, the bull’s eye for the seventh point, and it was good, although deflected by Ralph Waldo Emmerson, the organist.”
Everyone had such a great time that there was talk of doing it again, although the most significant influence of this game would be two years later when the Bears would play for the NFL title in this same location.
Aside from deciding the 1932 NFL champion, the game would also inspire some much-needed rules changes that would finally separate the pro game from its collegiate counterparts.
In 1932, the NFL had not yet adopted a playoff format. The championship crown was simply awarded to the team with the best winning percentage at the conclusion of the season. Tie games were ignored in the standings so when the Bears finished 6-1-6 and the Portsmouth Spartans 6-1-4, it was decided that the two clubs would meet for the title in Chicago on December 18.
The game would count in the regular-season standings, so the loser of this match would fall to third place behind the dormant Packers (10-3-1).
Then, two days before the game, the battle was switched to Chicago Stadium after gloomy—and frigid—weather reports were received. Both clubs also knew that attendance would likely be limited due to the expected winter climate.
With the memory of the well-attended indoor game with the Cardinals two years earlier, George Halas had openly pre-planned for the possibility that the contest would need to be moved indoors. Once again, the game would be played on a shorter 80-yard field (the Chicago Tribune claimed it was only 60 yards), but the dirt was already in place due to a just-completed visit by the circus.
Unfortunately for the players, a few other souvenirs were left mixed in with the soft dirt by the circus animals! In the end, over 11,000 fans witnessed the game, which was a solid crowd for mid-December in Chicago.
In order to make the playing of the game more reasonable on the miniature field, a couple of key changes were implemented. Perhaps the most important was the decision to move the ball in ten yards from the out-of-bounds line, which looked suspiciously like a four-foot wall. This allowed plays to be initiated with some breathing room on both sides of the ball.
During the regular season, the ball was placed fairly close to the sidelines on out-of-bounds plays…more on that later. Another innovation was the placement of the goal post right on the goal line (although field goals were not allowed in this game).
The Bears managed to capture the title with a tight 9-0 decision. After three scoreless periods, the only touchdown of the game occurred when the Bears’ Bronko Nagurski faked a plunge into the line, and then pulled up and tossed a two-yard scoring pass to Red Grange.
Portsmouth coach Potsy Clark wasted little time in expressing his displeasure after the play since the rules at the time mandated that a pass could not be thrown unless the passer was five yards behind the line of scrimmage. According to the Chicago Tribune:
“The touchdown immediately was protested by Coach Potsy Clark of Portsmouth, who rushed to the field shouting that Nagurski was not five yards behind the line of scrimmage and that the forward pass was illegal.”
Referee Bobby Cahn of New York ruled that Bronko had complied with the rules.” And that was that…
New Rules and Into the Future
A couple of months later, the NFL implemented some significant rules changes that finally opened up the offenses and brought some differentiation from the college game. As George Halas told us in his autobiography:
“At the league meeting two months later, we made three fundamental rules changes: 1. Passing was permitted anywhere behind the line. Potsy Clark’s attitude was common. ‘Nagurski will pass from anywhere so why not make it legal.’ 2. An out-of-bounds ball was moved in 10 yards, eliminating the usual waste of a down to gain room to maneuver (this, of course, was the birth of hash marks). 3. The goalposts, which had been moved 10 yards behind the goal line three years earlier following the colleges, were restored to the goal line.”
These changes led to more scoring and fewer tie games, which had plagued the league since its inception.
Two other imminent alterations would also eventually help propel the popularity of pro football when the league finally established two divisions in 1933 with the winners meeting in a post-season championship game. And, the physical size of the football itself was reduced in 1934, making it easier to pass.
Today, indoor football games are common and take place in stadiums designed for the sport. We hope you have enjoyed our stroll back in football time when indoor games were both a novelty and a challenge, but those first two NFL indoor battles at Chicago Stadium will always be remembered as the pioneers of something that was once thought to be both improbable as well as impossible.
Please join us next time for a special episode honoring the 100th Anniversary of the founding of the National Football League.
Interested in more from host Joe Ziemba? You can see him on the other side of the mic as a guest on The Football History Dude podcast talking about the history of the Chicago Cardinals and his book When Football Was Football.
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