It’s summertime and like most years, we look forward to the opening of training camps and the excitement of what the new football season will bring!
But for many years, the advent of summer indicated that preparations were beginning for the annual NFL College All-Star football game in Chicago. This extravaganza, held each August in Chicago at Soldier Field, drew huge crowds when it pitted the defending champions of the National Football League against a squad of newly graduated collegiate seniors who were selected for the team via a nationwide vote by fans.
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.
NFL College All-Star Game is Born
The game was the brainchild of Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward and was officially known as the Chicago Charities College All-Star Game. Ward initially announced the creation of the inaugural contest on July 6, 1934 which would feature the NFL champion Chicago Bears and the concept was welcomed with mixed results.
For example, veteran collegiate coach Clark Shaughnessy noted: “I can’t think any college group can whip the Bears, but you can never tell.” Meanwhile, the great Red Grange of the Bears, now in the twilight of his career, was asked if he was anxious to play the All-Stars and he responded by stating: “Bring em on. What a treat. This will be America’s team—the people’s choice and there can be no question of the superiority of professional football after we whip them.
All I can say is I hope the old bones stand up against those young punks.” That very first game ended in a scoreless draw, although it attracted an impressive 79,000 attendees. The first college win came in 1937, with a 6-0 win over the Packers on a TD pass caught by future Chicago Cardinal Gus Tingley.
1948 NFL College All-Star Game
By 1940, the Tribune claimed that nearly 400 newspapers and radio stations would participate in the all-star player election activity. Fans could mail in their votes (11 players at a time) or vote in person at an election center in 47 states. The yearly clashes between the two squads were fairly equal with the NFL losing a pair of 16-0 games in both 1946 and 1947, leading to speculation that the professional version of football was still not superior to the collegiate edition.
So, when the Chicago Cardinals captured the 1947 NFL title, there was considerable pressure on Coach Jimmy Conzelman and his players to reverse the recent losing streak to the youngsters in the 1948 encounter.
In addition, there was an additional professional football challenge in 1948 from Arch Ward himself, who had established the new All-America Conference with the Chicago Rockets now competing in Chicago. As such, the NFL was not only dealing with the perception that its product was not as strong as the college game, but also that the new pro circuit was ready to demonstrate it was a better reservoir of talent as well.
With the two previous all-star losses, the NFL was looking for the Cardinals to derail the recent pattern of skittish performances of its league champions and therefore position the circuit as the strongest form of competitive football. But clearly, the Cardinals were viewed as underdogs…
Over a month before the August 20, 1948 game, it was declared a sell-out; over 100,000 tickets were sold for the game in advance! In fact, the final official attendance was 101,220—the largest crowd (to this day) to ever witness a Cardinals’ game in the United States.
Both sides took this encounter very seriously with Frank Leahy of Notre Dame being tabbed to coach the collegians in a dream match-up with Jimmy Conzelman of the Cardinals. As usual, Conzelman’s initial comments downplayed the chances of his NFL champs: “We have more problems than I care to enumerate, but overconfidence isn’t one of them,” he said. Arch Ward of the Tribune countered: “The pros are desperate for victory and if the All-Star staff or players think they are in for a mild workout, they will be rudely shaken.”
Jimmy Conzelman/Frank Leahy Gear on Amazon
As an example of the extensive Tribune coverage, we even learned about the All-Stars’ appetites! In August of 1948, the 71 members of Coach Leahy’s College All-Stars were very hungry athletes. The sponsoring Tribune ran numerous daily articles on the players, including the initial food order placed by the All-Stars’ host Northwestern University: “1,500 lbs. of choice beef, 360 lbs. of chicken, 300 dozen eggs, 1,500 lbs. of Idaho potatoes and 450 gallons of milk.”
Meanwhile, the opposing coach, Jimmy Conzelman of the Cardinals, moaned: “It is a little different when a player is injured in the All-Star camp. All Coach Frank Leahy has to do is telephone for room service and [they] will carry another player to the field. With us, it’s a little different. We have about 22 men in camp with professional experience and when injuries take away about five a day, we are down to a little less than enough players to man the 11 positions!”
In an effort to adequately prepare for the All-Stars, Conzelman opened up his 1948 training camp earlier than usual on July 31st in Waukesha, WI. Although the game was a huge attraction, we must remember that it was still the opening tilt of the exhibition season. As the Cardinals prepared to meet the College All-Stars, Coach Conzelman worried that his team was not totally prepared for its adversary.
Conzelman pushed his club through two long practices each day at its training camp at Carroll College, but it was difficult to prepare specifically for a team that was put together for one game only. The importance of the game was not lost on the players, either, despite it being the opening pre-season contest. End Mal Kutner shared the anxiety of the coaching staff with the Chicago Tribune: “When I go back on defense and fail to knock down a pass in my zone, I steel myself for a remark from the coaches and I am never disappointed. Only some of the time, two of the coaches sing a duet in my direction instead of a solo. Some days you just can’t win!” Conzelman was now beginning to sense that his players and coaches were taking the game seriously…
Injuries soon became a problem for Conzelman, with over half of his roster nursing an injury or illness just two weeks before the game. Said the wily Conzelman: “The rules are pretty thorough, but they don’t exactly say we can’t equip our fellows with crutches for the game. I suppose there would be some objection if we put men in wheelchairs at the kick-off particularly if the wheelchairs were equipped with motors.”
Finally, the perplexed coach shouted to his players preceding one practice: “No contact work, and keep away from those long grass blades. They can be treacherous!”
All-Star coach Frank Leahy was concerned about the Cards’ fearsome running attack: “I read recently that the Cardinals last fall literally burned up the grass of Comiskey Park with their great speed and I surely hope Jimmy Conzelman will slow them down a bit on August 20.” Leahy’s team was loaded with many stars such as George Connor, Charley Connerly, Johnny Lujack, and Chalmers Elliott. And with 71 players assigned to the All-Star roster, Leahy had no fears of running out of fresh bodies in the warm confines of Soldier Field.
With the collegiate stars plastered all over the newspapers in the weeks before the game, Conzelman pulled off a bit of gamesmanship by not arriving with his supposedly ignored team until less than two hours before the kick-off. Jimmy was ready and began to inspire his squad during an over-the-top performance in the Cards’ locker room as captured by one journalist:
Conzelman had worked himself up into a lather of volcanic oratory. He feared the Cardinals would be knocked off by the College All-Stars and impressed his players with the fact that a hundred thousand human beings would be watching them in Soldier Field.
Conzelman paced up and down the dressing room with a rolled-up newspaper in his hand…and used the newspaper as a pointer as he singled out this player and that and told his guys that if they didn’t snap out of it, the college stars would beat them by 40 points. Just then, a drunk staggered into the Cardinals’ locker room hollering: “Where’s that great coach Jimmy Conzelman? Gimme a look at that old so-and-so!”
Conzelman whirled in his tracks and threw his newspaper at the drunk so hard that he fell down. The entire Cardinal squad broke out in hilarious laughter as their coach got up, dusted himself off, and walked out of the dressing room–his grinning players following him. That night they played one of the greatest games in Cardinal history!
And yes–the Cardinals defeated the All-Stars 28-0! Elmer Angsman and Vic Schwall scored a pair of rushing TDs to give the Cards a 14-0 halftime lead. In the second half, lineman Vince Banonis returned an intercepted pass 27 yards for another score and quarterback Ray Mallouf wrapped up the final tally with an 11-yard toss to Charley Trippi. The victory margin was the largest up to that time in All-Star history.
“The Cardinals played just like I expected,” said All-Star quarterback Johnny Lujack of Notre Dame. “It’s a rough, tough league,” his teammate Ziggy Czarobski added: “The Cards had a great team on the field. Charley Trippi and Elmer Angsman are two of the finest backs in pro football. That’s all I can say.”
One witness noted that “the Cardinals were the most perfectly coached in action,” while the Birmingham Sun wrote: “The Cardinals were out to win, but they were unmerciful. They were cool and masterful!”
The victory in the annual battle returned some prestige to the NFL, whose two previous champs had fallen to the collegians in 1946 and 1947. Meanwhile, perhaps the biggest winner of the night was the fledgling entertainment vehicle of television. The WGN broadcast team of Jack Brickhouse and Ed Cooper, along with three cameras (with “new sensitive image orthicon tubes” according to the Chicago Tribune) reached an estimated 500,000 viewers in the Midwest, and the Tribune added: “Telecasting of the game did for television what the Dempsey-Carpentier fight did for radio in 1921.”
In conclusion, the Tribune noted: “It was pointed out that football lends itself admirably to television, and that the game did a good job of interesting the general public in the new entertainment medium.” And so…the Cardinals can not only take credit for being the oldest team in the NFL, but also the one that perhaps set the stage for the behemoth known as televised football.
After the game, the tired players spent a few precious minutes with their families, who they hadn’t seen in three weeks, before boarding a bus back to Waukesha for the continuation of training camp. It was a quiet ride until the players noticed that the bus pulled up to a swank resort rather than a training camp.
Waiting for them were their families as the Cardinals’ management surprised the players and treated them and their families to a restful weekend for a job well done!
1948 Chicago Cardinal Team
Of course, the Cards went on to finish 11-1 in 1948 and a loss in the NFL title game, while the All-Star game continued for almost three more decades before a variety of obstacles (including fears of high-paid rookies being injured) forced the discontinuation of the affair. The last College All-Star game occurred on July 23, 1976, with the Pittsburgh Steelers capturing a rain-shortened battle. Overall, the NFL grabbed 31 victories, lost just nine, and two games ended in ties. The last win for the All-Stars was in 1963. Sadly, the Cardinals never returned to the All-Star Game, but the team’s lone appearance in 1948 was a memorable one that fans will long remember as “the night they played one of the greatest games in Cardinal history!”
Check out the next post from When Football Was Football covering the oldest individual record in NFL history.
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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