August 4, 2012

1961: Jurgensen and McDonald Lead Eagles Past College All-Stars

The 28th annual installment of the College All-Star Game on August 4, 1961 presented a matchup involving a reigning NFL Champion undergoing a significant transition against a highly-regarded group of All-Stars.

The Philadelphia Eagles had won the 1960 NFL Championship, but lost both MVP quarterback Norm Van Brocklin and Head Coach Buck Shaw to retirement. Replacing Shaw was Nick Skorich, elevated from offensive line coach, while the new quarterback was the promising but untested Sonny Jurgensen (pictured at right).

Meanwhile, the All-Stars, coached for the fourth straight year by Otto Graham, contained a solid group of future pro standouts that included ends Aaron Thomas of Oregon State and Mike Ditka from Pittsburgh, quarterbacks Norm Snead of Wake Forest and UCLA’s Billy Kilmer, FB Bill Brown of Illinois, HB Bernie Casey from Bowling Green, Georgia Tech G Billy Shaw, and OT Jim Tyrer from Ohio State. On defense were DE Bob Lilly of  TCU, tackles Joe Rutgens of Illinois and Ernie Ladd from Grambling, and MLB E.J. Holub of Texas Tech.

It had been raining early in the evening of the Friday night contest, making the field soggy, and one highly-regarded All-Star was lost for the game when Navy HB Joe Bellino slipped on the wet turf while warming up and pulled a leg muscle.

There were 65,000 in attendance at Chicago’s Soldier Field and many of them booed the Eagles as they took the field, adding incentive for them to prove that they were a worthy defending champion. Still, the All-Stars came out fast as Bill Brown returned the opening kickoff 39 yards and Norm Snead fired a pass to Aaron Thomas that covered 42 yards to the Philadelphia 12 yard line. However, the drive moved backward from there and came to an end two plays later when Brown fumbled the ball away to the Eagles, with DT Jess Richardson recovering.

Taking over at his own 20, Jurgensen sparked the possession when, on a play when it appeared that he would be sacked, he improvised and instead tossed the ball behind his back to end Pete Retzlaff who went 13 yards for a first down. The Eagles capped the seven-play drive when Jurgensen threw to wide-open flanker Tommy McDonald, who leaped high to make the catch and fell on his back in the end zone for a 27-yard touchdown. Two seconds before the opening period ended, Jurgensen tossed a second TD pass, this time covering 25 yards to Retzlaff.

The All-Stars began to move in the second quarter under the direction of QB Billy Kilmer (pictured below). After tossing completions to Southern Methodist HB Glynn Gregory, Thomas, and end Fred Arbanas of Michigan State, they were at the Philadelphia 31. But once again the attack stalled and the Eagles took over at midfield.

Philadelphia’s backup QB King Hill pitched out to HB Timmy Brown for a 23-yard gain, FB Ted Dean gained four, and then Hill threw to McDonald for a touchdown and a 21-0 lead that carried into halftime.

Tempers flared several times during the game, especially right before the end of the first half in a scuffle in front of the Eagles’ bench with Grambling’s big Ernie Ladd in the middle of it.

The Eagles kept the ball mostly on the ground in the second half and slowed down the tempo, with the two quarterbacks throwing short passes when necessary. E.J. Holub intercepted a Jurgensen pass at the All-Star 36 late in the period, and while the All-Stars were unable to move the ball, Kilmer punted to the Philadelphia three yard line just prior to the close of the quarter.

The All-Stars finally got on the board in the fourth quarter as Kilmer, working out of a spread formation, threw to Gregory for an 18-yard touchdown. That capped a quick six-play, 75-yard drive. In the final seconds, lineman Dick Grecni intercepted a Hill pass and ran 57 yards for a TD. The two touchdowns came two minutes apart, but only salvaged pride for the All-Stars, with Philadelphia winning convincingly by a score of 28-14.

The Eagles had 401 total yards to 271 for the All-Stars, who were held to zero net rushing yards. Philadelphia held a much narrower edge in first downs, 17 to 16. The All-Stars intercepted three passes, to just one by the NFL champs, but lost one fumble while the Eagles gave up none.

Sonny Jurgensen completed 10 of 19 passes for 158 yards and three touchdowns and King Hill was 7 of 11 for 103 yards and a TD. Tommy McDonald (pictured below) accounted for three of the touchdowns.

Aaron Thomas was the receiving star for the All-Stars, catching 5 passes for 123 yards. Billy Kilmer was successful on 11 of his 20 throws for 173 yards while Norm Snead completed 8 of 13 for 97 yards.

“I’d like to turn around and play these guys again tomorrow night and on a dry field,” said a defiant Coach Otto Graham afterward. “I think we’d beat ‘em.”

“Our guys were concerned about being somewhat downgraded while the stars were being touted and we went out to justify our championship,” said Nick Skorich on behalf of the Eagles.

Sonny Jurgensen went on to have an outstanding breakout season, setting a record for passing yards with 3723 and tying the NFL record for TD passes with 32 (Houston’s George Blanda tossed 36 in the AFL). Tommy McDonald remained his favorite receiver, catching 64 passes while pacing the NFL in receiving yards (1144) and touchdown receptions (13). Philadelphia just missed winning the Eastern Conference for the second year in a row, finishing second to the New York Giants at 10-4.

Bill Kilmer, taken in the first round of the ’61 draft by the 49ers, went on to a long career that included stints in New Orleans and Washington as a quarterback better known for his leadership skills than passing finesse. Norm Snead, also a first round draft pick, was with Washington for three years before being dealt to the Eagles in a celebrated trade for Jurgensen. Aaron Thomas joined Kilmer with the 49ers, who took him with a fourth round pick, but spent most of his 10-season career with the New York Giants, where he caught 247 passes.