August 11, 2011

1950: Justice & LeBaron Lead College All-Stars to Win Over Eagles

The 17th installment of the College All-Star Game on August 11, 1950 was notable for being the first to be televised nationally across a network of 29 stations. However, not much of a contest was anticipated.

The reigning NFL champions, the Philadelphia Eagles, had won the previous year by a decisive 38-0 score and, having repeated as league champions, were 14.5-point favorites coming into the game. Coached by Earle “Greasy” Neale and featuring the running of HB Steve Van Buren on offense as well as a stingy defense, the Eagles were a solid veteran club.

The College All-Stars, coached by Eddie Anderson of Holy Cross, had an outstanding group of players that included many who would go on to star in the NFL. At quarterback was the undersized (5’7”) Eddie LeBaron of the College of the Pacific. Linemen included ends Gordie Soltau of Minnesota and Notre Dame’s Jim Martin and Leon Hart, tackle Lou Creekmur from William & Mary, and Minnesota’s tackle Clayton Tonnemaker and center Leo Nomellini. And while Heisman-winning HB Doak Walker of SMU was in the backfield, it was another halfback, North Carolina’s Charlie “Choo-Choo” Justice (pictured above), who would have the most notable impact on the game.

There were 88,885 in attendance at Soldier Field for the Friday night game - even at that number, it was the lowest crowd total since the game was played at Northwestern University in 1944, and while the game was blacked out on Chicago-area television, there were writers who blamed the broadcast for hurting attendance.

The All-Stars scored first, on their second possession, putting together a seven-play, 54-yard drive in the opening quarter that was highlighted by runs of 31 and 12 yards by Justice and that ended with 230-pound FB Ralph Pasquariello of Villanova scoring from the one yard line.

In the second quarter, the All-Stars got a break when DB Hall Haynes of Santa Clara recovered a fumble by Eagles HB Clyde “Smackover” Scott at the Philadelphia 35. From there, LeBaron, fading far back to evade Eagles tacklers, fired a pass to Justice that went for a 35-yard touchdown, with Oklahoma end Jim Owens throwing a key block along the way. That put the All-Stars improbably ahead by 14-0 with less than five minutes remaining in the half.

There was no scoring in the third quarter as the NFL champs had difficulty moving the ball against the fired-up All-Star defense. Finally, in the fourth quarter the Eagles got on the board. Starting at their 43 yard line, QB Tommy Thompson completed a pass to FB Joe Muha that covered 20 yards. A few plays later Van Buren plunged into the end zone from a yard out and, with Cliff Patton’s successful extra point, the score was 14-7.

The All-Stars responded with a scoring drive of their own. Taking over at their 17, Justice took a handoff and, reversing field, ran for a 28-yard gain to the 45. LeBaron passed to North Carolina end Art Weiner to get to the Philadelphia 20. After the diminutive quarterback ran the ball to the 15, the drive stalled, but Soltau, who had kicked both of the extra points, was successful on a 24-yard field goal attempt that essentially put the game away. The last gasp for the Eagles ended with an interception of a Thompson pass by Cornell DB Hillary Chollet at the All-Star three yard line. The College All-Stars came away with the 17-7 win, their first in three years.

The All-Stars outgained the Eagles on the ground, 221 yards to 85, although the Eagles led in first downs, 14 to 8. While the All-Stars intercepted three Philadelphia passes without surrendering any of their own, they also fumbled the ball away three times, to one suffered by the Eagles.

The MVP for the All-Stars was Charlie Justice, who gained 133 yards on just nine carries, including runs of 47, 31, and 28 yards, and had the one touchdown reception. Eddie LeBaron played impressively at quarterback, running well and making effective use of pitchouts to his backs. While he completed just two of 9 pass attempts, they were big ones and covered 75 yards, including the one TD.

For the Eagles, Tommy Thompson completed 15 of 28 passes for 131 yards and was intercepted three times. Steve Van Buren was held to just 32 yards on 13 carries.

“Little LeBaron’s pitchouts to both the right and left were the plays that beat us,” said Greasy Neale afterward. “The All-Stars were keyed awfully high. We didn’t run our plays good at all, and we weren’t thinking too good, either.”

“It was the greatest All-Star team I ever saw,” summed up NFL Commissioner Bert Bell afterward.

LeBaron (pictured at left) left to report for active duty with the Marines the day after the game, but would join the Washington Redskins in 1952. Despite his small size, the ball-handling skill that he showed against the Eagles served him well as a pro, and he lasted 11 seasons with the Redskins and Dallas Cowboys. One of LeBaron’s teammates in Washington was Justice, who went directly to the NFL in 1950 and played four seasons.

The sluggish performance by the Eagles proved to be a harbinger of things to come. After winning three consecutive Eastern Division titles and two league championships, they dropped to 6-6 in 1950.

At this point in the series, the win over Philadelphia was the sixth, against nine losses, for the All-Stars, and there had been two ties. It would not remain competitive for much longer as the All-Stars won just three more of the remaining 25 games before the series ended in 1976.