December 9, 2009

1934: Giants Upset Bears for NFL Title in “Sneakers Game”

The pairing for the NFL Championship game on December 9, 1934 at New York’s Polo Grounds was a rematch of the participants in the first official title game the year before, but also appeared to be a classic mismatch.

The visiting Chicago Bears, champions of the Western Division, had gone undefeated through the regular season at 13-0. Under Owner/Head Coach George Halas, they had allowed only three opponents to score as many as 10 points in a game, with Detroit (arguably the second best team in the league) achieving a high of 16 in a tough Thanksgiving Day encounter. The Bears boasted the first thousand-yard rusher in league history, rookie HB Beattie Feathers, who had compiled 1004 yards on just 119 carries (his season ended early due to injury) for a record 8.4-yard average gain. They still benefited from the power running of veteran FB Bronko Nagurski, who ranked fourth in league rushing with 586 yards and also helped Feathers with his excellent blocking. With HB Gene Ronzani contributing 485 yards at a 5.8 per carry clip, the Bears could rely on the strongest running game in the league (2847 yards and a 5.0 team average gain).

The Giants, coached by Steve Owen, had won the weaker Eastern Division with an 8-5 record. Tailback Harry Newman primarily ran the offense, behind a line led by All-Pros Mel Hein at center, G Butch Gibson, and T Bill Morgan. End Red Badgro tied for the league lead in receiving with Philadelphia’s Joe Carter (16 receptions). FB Ken Strong provided strong running and placekicking. New York had also come closest to beating the Bears during the regular season, losing just 10-9 at the same venue four weeks earlier.

On this day, the Bears were without Feathers and G Joe Kopcha due to injury, while Giants casualties included Newman and Badgro.

There were 35,059 fans present on a bitterly cold day in New York. The Polo Grounds turf was frozen, making footing difficult in many spots (particularly the half of the field that was shaded). The key to the game actually occurred when end Ray Flaherty suggested wearing sneakers to get better traction. Shortly before the opening kickoff, clubhouse attendant Abe Cohen was dispatched to Manhattan College to get sneakers.

In the meantime, the game proceeded with the Giants taking a 3-0 first quarter lead on a 38-yard field goal by Strong. However, the Bears proceeded to score 13 unanswered points. Nagurski (pictured above) plowed over for a touchdown from a yard out in the second quarter and placekicker “Automatic Jack” Manders booted field goals of 17 and 24 yards (although the usually reliable Manders missed a couple during the course of the game). Leading 13-3 after three quarters, it appeared that the Bears would successfully cap their undefeated season.

However, during the third quarter Abe Cohen finally arrived with a sack of sneakers. During a time out, the Giants players, amid much confusion, began changing into them. Halas complained to the officials, but was told that what was occurring on the opposite sideline was within the rules.

The Giants exploded in the fourth quarter thanks to the advantage of better footing. First, backup tailback Ed Danowski (pictured at left) hit end Ike Frankian with a 28-yard TD pass that Frankian had to pull away from a Bears defender as he fell into the end zone, which cut the Chicago margin to 13-10. The Bears did nothing on their next series and after a 20-yard punt, the Giants took the lead, 17-13, thanks to a straight-ahead 42-yard run by Strong.

On the ensuing series, the Giants stopped Nagurski on fourth and two at midfield and again took advantage. With momentum on their side (not to mention better mobility), New York drove downfield, with Strong scoring on an 11-yard reverse to increase the lead to 23-13 (he missed the ensuing extra point attempt).

Chicago attempted a desperation pass on first down, but Giants back Bo Molenda intercepted to set up the final New York touchdown on a 9-yard run by Danowski. The extra point was good, and the final score was 30-13 in favor of the underdog Giants. They had scored 27 points in a span of 10 minutes.

The Giants accumulated 282 total yards to Chicago’s 169 on the icy field. While both teams passed 13 times apiece, the Bears intercepted two while the Giants picked off three. Danowski had the only TD throw of the day. While individual statistics aren’t available, it was Danowski and Strong (pictured kicking below) keying the win – with some help from Manhattan College’s sneakers.