September 27, 2010

1953: Bert Rechichar Leads Re-Formed Colts to Upset of Bears

Regular season pro football returned to Baltimore on September 27, 1953 when the re-formed Colts hosted the Chicago Bears in the season-opening contest at Memorial Stadium.

The earlier version of the Colts had replaced the Miami Seahawks in the All-America Football Conference’s second season in 1947 and had joined the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers in the NFL when the leagues merged in 1950. But after going 1-11 to finish with the league’s worst record, owner Abraham Watner sold the franchise back to the league.

Fans in Baltimore pushed to regain an NFL franchise, and after the Dallas Texans folded after one abysmal season in 1952, Commissioner Bert Bell announced that Baltimore could again have a franchise if they sold 15,000 season tickets in six weeks and suitable ownership could be found. The ticket drive reached the threshold in just a month and business executive Carroll Rosenbloom, who Bell had coached at the University of Pennsylvania, agreed to head up the new ownership group.

The new Colts started off with players from the Texans franchise that included DT Art Donovan, DE Gino Marchetti, and halfbacks Buddy Young and George Taliaferro. They also pulled off a 15-player trade with the Cleveland Browns in which they most notably obtained defensive backs Bert Rechichar, Don Shula, and Carl Taseff, and G Art Spinney.

The new Colts had different colors than the old (blue and white rather than green and silver) and the new head coach was Keith Molesworth.

There were 23,715 excited fans on hand for the opening game against the Bears, who were coming off of a subpar 5-7 record in ‘52. Chicago opened the scoring in the first quarter when HB Billy Stone, who had played with the previous edition of the Colts in 1950, ran for a 23-yard touchdown.

Bert Rechichar, the second-year defensive halfback obtained in the deal with the Browns, brought the crowd to its feet when he returned an interception 36 yards for a touchdown midway through the second quarter that tied the score.

With time running out in the first half, the Colts decided to try a long field goal attempt, but rather than use rookie Buck McPhail out of Oklahoma, who had handled all of the Colts placekicking during the preseason but had missed a 45-yard field goal attempt earlier in the contest, it was Rechichar lining up to attempt the kick from his own 44 yard line.

Many in the crowd were surprised to see Rechichar, who had never kicked a field goal as a pro. He made his first one memorable when he set a new league record by connecting from 56 yards out. The kick cleared the crossbar easily to break the previous mark of 54 yards by Detroit’s Glenn Presnell in 1934 and also gave the Colts a 10-7 lead going into halftime.

The game continued to be largely a defensive battle in the second half. In the third quarter, Colts QB Fred Enke was tackled in the end zone by DE Bob Hensley for a safety that narrowed Baltimore’s margin to 10-9. However, the regular placekicker McPhail added a 12-yard field goal in the fourth quarter and that provided the final score as the Colts won, 13-9.

The Bears outgained Baltimore with 334 total yards to 164, including the most passing (225 to 74) and rushing (109 to 90) yards, and had 20 first downs to 9 for the Colts. However, they gave up eight turnovers (four interceptions and four fumbles) and had come up empty on three possessions that took them inside Baltimore’s 20 yard line; they were stopped three times at the two yard line on one of them.

It was a good start for the re-formed Colts, who were 3-2 after five games (they beat the Bears again in Chicago, for good measure), but they lost the remaining seven contests to end up in fifth place in the Western Conference with a 3-9 tally. Just ahead of them were the Bears at 3-8-1.

Molesworth was moved to the scouting department in the offseason and replaced as head coach by Weeb Ewbank, a former assistant under Paul Brown in Cleveland. Baltimore’s fortunes would steadily improve thereafter.

Bert Rechichar (shown kicking at top) was successful on just 5 of 13 field goal attempts, although Buck McPhail hit on only two of five (he also handled all of the extra points and was good on 21 of 23 attempts). Far more proficient as a defensive halfback, Rechichar intercepted seven passes (All-Pro safety Tom Keane snagged 11). Over the course of his career, he kicked 31 field goals in 88 attempts for a 35.2 percent success rate and with a high of 10 in 1955 – when he led the league with 24 attempts. However, after being moved to safety he was named to three consecutive Pro Bowls and picked off a total of 31 passes (15 of them during that three-year period of 1955-57). His 56-yard field goal would remain the NFL record until bested by Tom Dempsey of New Orleans from 63 yards in 1970.