November 24, 2011
The Los Angeles Dons still held out the faint hope of securing a postseason berth as they hosted the New York Yankees in an All-America Football Conference game on November 24, 1949. With the league down to seven teams, the divisions had been discarded in favor of a format in which the top four would qualify for the playoffs.
The Dons were known for their explosive offense and, under Head Coach Jimmy Phelan, the attack had been geared to the passing of star tailback Glenn Dobbs. However, Dobbs was suffering through an injury-plagued season and much of the time it was George Taliaferro at tailback, who was an outstanding runner but mediocre passer. As a result, and despite having good receivers, the Dons were a ground-oriented team with an inconsistent defense and were sporting a lackluster 4-7 record going into the season finale.
The Yankees, coached by Red Strader, were in a far better situation. After a down year in 1948, they had benefited from being combined with the Brooklyn Dodgers for the ’49 season and also picked up some outstanding rookie talent, including DHB Tom Landry. Having converted to the T-formation, New York was lacking at quarterback, and lost star tailback Spec Sanders to injury, but still had a good stable of running backs that included halfbacks Buddy Young and Sherman Howard and FB Bob Kennedy. The Yankees were 8-3 and certain of a playoff berth, and had beaten the Dons in a 10-7 defensive battle in New York.
There were 20,096 fans in attendance for the Thanksgiving Day game at the LA Memorial Coliseum. As had been the case in the first meeting, the first three quarters were again dominated by the defenses.
In the first quarter, Landry punted to the LA 11 and it was fielded by HB Tom McWilliams, who lateraled to C/LB “Big John” Brown, who in turn made it to the New York 49 for an overall 40-yard return. FB Hosea Rodgers gained five yards and then Taliaferro put the Dons ahead with a bolting 44-yard run off tackle for a touchdown. The 7-0 score stood up until the fourth quarter, but the last quarter was an exciting one.
45 seconds into the final period, Bob Kennedy plowed into the end zone from a yard out to conclude a 12-play, 52-yard drive for the Yankees. Harvey Johnson kicked the extra point to tie the contest. On the ensuing kickoff, HB Billy Grimes fumbled the ball and DB Otto Schnellbacher recovered at the LA 28. QB Don Panciera threw to Buddy Young for a 20-yard gain. Three runs into the line gained five yards to the three yard line and Johnson put New York ahead by 10-7 with a 16-yard field goal.
The Dons regained possession at their 29. With Taliaferro running and end Len Ford making an outstanding one-handed catch, they made it to the New York 19. The drive stalled and Bob Nelson kicked a 26-yard field goal to again tie the score at 10-10.
LA tried an onside kick but it failed disastrously when end Bruce Alford recovered for the Yankees and returned it to the Dons’ 47. Highlighted by a 27-yard gain on a pass from Kennedy to Alford that put the ball on the three yard line, New York drove down the field to another one-yard TD carry by Kennedy. Johnson’s 100th consecutive successful conversion made it 17-10.
The next Los Angeles possession ended with an interception, but New York had to punt as the clock ticked down to 30 seconds. On a spectacular play, Taliaferro ran the kick back 52 yards for a touchdown, but instead of salvaging a tie, the all-important extra point attempt by Nelson was blocked by New York end Jack Russell. There were just 13 seconds left and the Yankees came away with a hard-fought 17-16 win.
The statistics were as evenly matched as the final score. The Dons edged New York in total yardage by just a single yard, 246 to 245. LA outrushed the Yankees (151 to 138) while New York had more passing yards (107 to 95) and first downs (13 to 10). George Taliaferro accounted for 112 rushing yards on 14 carries.
While it was the season finale for the Dons, who ended up tied for fifth with the Chicago Hornets at 4-8, the Yankees had one more game to play. They headed up the coast to San Francisco, where they lost to the 49ers three days later to finish in third place with an 8-4 record. They fell again to the 49ers in the first playoff round.
With the merger with the NFL, the AAFC ceased to exist, and that included the Dons and Yankees. However, many of the players on both teams moved on to NFL clubs. 19 of the Yankees made the roster of the New York Yanks (a separate franchise from the AAFC club, they had played as the New York Bulldogs in ‘49), including Buddy Young, Bruce Alford, Bob Kennedy, Harvey Johnson, and Jack Russell. The Yanks also hired Red Strader to be head coach. Several other ex-Yankees went to the Giants, most notably Tom Landry, Otto Schnellbacher, and DT Arnie Weinmeister. Don Panciera played for the Detroit Lions.
Of the ex-Dons, George Taliaferro joined several of his former antagonists on the Yanks and Billy Grimes went to Green Bay. Len Ford joined the Browns, one of three AAFC clubs (along with the 49ers and Colts) that were taken in by the NFL, and moved on with his Hall of Fame career as a defensive end. Glenn Dobbs took his passing arm to Canada instead.