The Strange, Sad, and Curious Case of Johnny Grigas

Back in the 1960s, a short-lived television program debuted that was simply called “Branded.” It was the story of a wounded soldier in the 1860s who fought bravely and survived a dreadful battle, only to be “branded” as a deserter since he was the lone survivor.

Despite his previous heroics in battle, all of that positive activity was wiped out in the minds of others. Our anti-hero was now simply known as a coward and a deserter, whether he deserved it or not.

Let’s move forward to the fall of 1944 when a reliable fullback for the Chicago Cardinals suddenly found himself “branded” as a deserter, again, whether he deserved it or not. So, let us introduce you to our anti-hero of the NFL: his name was Johnny Grigas, the topic of this week’s episode of When Football Was Football.

Click below for the full article.

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.

Joining the Chicago Cardinals

After an All-American career at Holy Cross ending with the 1942 season, Grigas was determined to join the military during WWII and reported to the Boston induction center for his physical and further orders.

For some reason, Grigas failed the required physical, although doctors indicated that his ailment would not prevent him from pursuing a pro football career.
Grigas was a second-round draft choice of the Chicago Cardinals in 1943. He topped the club in rushing with 333 yards in 1943, then stayed with the Cardinals as the winless team merged with Pittsburgh in 1944 to form the woeful Card-Pitts creation.

The combined team suffered through another 0-10 season, but Grigas paced the NFL in rushing through most of the season. After picking up 123 yards in a 21-7 loss to the Lions on November 12, Grigas was the leading rusher in the NFL. He also starred on defense and usually played all 60 minutes for the Card-Pitts.

Grigas Commits An Unthinkable Offense

Then, on December 3, 1944, the talented Grigas did the unthinkable and failed to show up for the final game of the season against the Chicago Bears…

The Mason City (IA) Globe basically described Grigas as a deserter while the headline of the Fresno (CA) Bee stated: “Hard Work Bores Grigas, So He Quits.” While Grigas was idle, the Bears blasted their opponents 49-7 and even took the time to rub the outcome in the faces of the Card-Pitts by sending in 235 lb. center Bulldog Turner into the Bears’ backfield late in the game.

Turner responded by scoring on an 18-yard run. The loss capped the winless campaign for the Card-Pitts and left everyone asking: what the heck happened to Johnny Grigas?

After all, Grigas had participated in the final team practice on the day before the Bears’ game and appeared ready to reprise his iron man role for the club. But his teammate, end Don Currivan, noticed that for some reason, Grigas seemed a bit down after the practice.

Said Currivan: “I tried to shake him out of it. I bought two tickets for the hockey game and suggested that he accompany me. We got within a short distance of the Gardens when he said, ‘The heck with it. I’m tired. I’m going back to the hotel to get some sleep.’”

Grigas Is Gone!

Currivan then attended the hockey game and when he returned to the Webster Hall Hotel, Grigas was sound asleep. However, the next morning, Grigas was gone and Currivan revealed that Grigas had left him a brief letter that said:

“Dear Don: Did not want to wake you up. Funny thing: everything seems so mixed up. I’m going home now. Can’t change my plans. Take care of my bags. Best of luck. Johnny”

The absence of the triple-threat Grigas during the game crippled whatever chance the Card-Pitts had in hopes of knocking off the Bears. Johnny Popovich started at fullback in place of Grigas but was soon replaced by end Tony Borva, who had never played in the backfield before.

The 49-7 collapse was the worst beating suffered by the winless combined team in 1944. Shortly after the contest, Pittsburgh owners Art Rooney and Bert Bell announced that their club would forge ahead by itself in the future after merging with other teams for two seasons.

Said Rooney: “We have the best of feelings toward the Cardinals. They have fine management and relations were most friendly. The whole bunch from Chicago were fine fellows, but we all know now that these combines just don’t work out.”

Meanwhile, Grigas was the object of barbs and insults from newspapers and other media due to his disappearance. To the media, Grigas was simply a football man who quit on his team. In reality, Grigas was far from a quitter. He was a determined football star who simply was beaten up by playing 60 minutes, frozen fields, little blocking protection, and irksome injuries.

He explained his absence in an open letter to his coaches and teammates by noting: “I tried to win and worked hard, but the workhorse, as I was termed by the newspapers, is almost ready for the stud farm.”

Grigas added: “The human mind is the faculty of the soul, which is influenced by the human body. When your mind is changed because of the physical beating, week in and week out, your soul isn’t in the game.”

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    The Effort of Grigas

    No one could deny the efforts of Grigas on the field, especially since he was the sole offensive firepower on a winless team. While his letter helped ease some of the verbal assaults, Havey Boyle of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette urged caution when considering the Grigas situation. Boyle wrote:

    Outside observers will go a little slow in putting the backfield star in the grease as a result of his action for certainly the tone of his letter indicated that whatever his physical condition for the final contest he was not geared psychologically to give out with his best.

    In January 1945, Coach Phil Handler of the Cardinals shared some additional insight with the Detroit Free Press that helped to further clarify the actions of Grigas:

    Grigas worked days in a steel mill at a job where he had to stand all the time. The team practiced at night and because of a shortage of backs, Grigas had to work out both on offense and defense. Then Sundays he played sixty-minute football. The strain was too great, and he finally gave up.

    Eventually, the mocking of Grigas disappeared. It turned out that he was working full-time in an industrial plant in Cambridge, MA that supplied products for the military. In fact, Grigas requested that the Card-Pitts make special travel arrangements for him after away games so that Grigas would not be late for work on Mondays, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

    “When the club played away, train reservations were always made so that Johnny could get back to his job even when the rest of the squad remained away an extra day.”

    Of course, Grigas could have avoided any scorn or embarrassment by simply playing in the final game of the year. But in truth, a closer review of his letter to management reveals a man on the edge and one who felt wedged into a corner with nowhere else to turn. Grigas stated:

    My action, for what I just did, may not be the best in regard to good, ethical business. Think what you may of me, but I sincerely believe that in all justice, it is for the best…

    In closing, all I can say is that I’m deeply sorry—but these are things which can’t be explained. Good luck, and may the team win just this one.

    The Real Grigas?

    Later, reporter Jerry Nason of the Boston Globe finally rectified his viewpoint on Grigas in January of 1945:

    Grigas is no prima donna. He’d been working days in a steel mill. Practiced football nights, and played 60-minute football on Sundays…it was too much of a grind, week after week—especially when those football fields started to freeze into the texture of the sidewalks of New York.

    From the disappointment of being classified as 4-F for military duty, Grigas secured that full-time job supporting the war effort, standing on his feet all day (including overtime), took over an equally full-time responsibility on the football field, endured long and restless train trips, and absorbed the pressure of being the “workhorse” for a very ugly NFL team.

    All of these factors helped contribute to the intriguing, and questionable, a decision made by Grigas on that final day of the 1944 season. 

    Despite the stain of missing that last contest, Grigas still led the NFL in all-purpose yards, finished second in rushing, and was named to the All-NFL team. On September 7, 1945, Grigas and Currivan were both traded to the Boston Yanks.

    He played three more seasons in the NFL but was never able to duplicate the statistical success he achieved with the Cardinals…

    On a more positive note, following the Grigas incident, newspapers first began to encourage the NFL to monitor injury situations, especially for possible concussions.

    Thank you for stopping by and please join us for our next episode when we examine a pair of early indoor football games that changed the look of the NFL forever…

    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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