August 31, 2011

1934: First College All-Star Game Ends in Scoreless Tie

August 31, 1934 marked the first installment of an annual preseason football event that lasted until 1976 when the reigning NFL Champions, the Chicago Bears, took on a team of College All-Stars at Soldier Field in Chicago. The All-Stars were chosen in a poll conducted by the Chicago Tribune with the assistance of 105 other newspapers.

The contest was the idea of sportswriter Arch Ward, creator of major league baseball’s All-Star game the previous year (and later a prime mover of a significant rival to the NFL, the All-America Football Conference) and was played on behalf of Chicago Charities. While it was anticipated that the pro champions would dominate the All-Stars, it was a great publicity vehicle for the National Football League at a point when college football was still dominant and the professional game sought wider acceptance.

There were 79,432 fans in attendance for the Friday night contest. College rules were used for the most part, although the goal posts were on the goal line, as was the case in the NFL at that time. An impressive ceremony opened the proceedings as the lights were turned off and each All-Star was introduced while running in a single spotlight onto the field, accompanied by his college team’s fight song.

The All-Stars, coached by Noble Kizer of Purdue, got off to a fast start in the first quarter when Iowa HB Joe Laws (pictured at left) intercepted a pass by Bears QB Carl Brumbaugh and returned it to the Chicago 38 yard line. Laws ran twice around left end to get the ball to the 21. HB Beattie Feathers from Tennessee got inside the 20 but, on his next carry, fumbled and LB Ookie Miller recovered for Chicago on the 16, ending the scoring threat.

In the second quarter, it was the turn of the Bears to move into scoring position as they completed consecutive passes that brought them to the All-Star nine yard line and also brought the spectators to their feet. However, star end Bill Hewitt fumbled a lateral from HB Gene Ronzani and Notre Dame tackle Ed Krause recovered.

The All-Stars once again threatened as Michigan HB Herman Everhardus guided them to the Chicago 27, but once more they fumbled it away when back Fred Hecker of Purdue lost the ball and the Bears recovered.

The All-Stars had the longest gain of the game when FB Mike Mikulak of Oregon returned the kickoff to open the second half 45 yards. They again came close to getting on the board, but Washington end Bill Smith barely missed a 40-yard field goal attempt.

In the fourth quarter, the Bears intercepted a pass and had good field position at their own 45. HB Johnny Sisk ran for six yards to take the NFL champs into All-Star territory. HB Red Grange then threw a pass to Sisk that covered 25 yards, but the drive stalled and the Bears again came up empty.

Later in the final period, Chicago end Wayland Becker blocked a punt and the Bears took over at the All-Star 19. However, when the Bears attempted to go for a quick scoring strike, Laws intercepted HB George Corbett’s pass on his goal line. Everhardus (pictured below) punted the ball 50 yards to again pin the pro champs back.

With time running out, Nebraska HB George Sauer intercepted a pass and returned it 20 yards to the Chicago 36. Smith attempted another field goal, this time from 42 yards, but missed and the 0-0 duel came to an end.

The All-Stars outgained the Bears on the ground (136 yards to 62) and also had more first downs (6 to 3). Joe Laws was the most consistent runner for the All-Stars while Michigan center Chuck Bernard played notably well on the line.

“They were better than we thought they would be,” said Chicago’s Head Coach George Halas. “You can't beat that Notre Dame running attack.”

As would be the case throughout the series, several of the players who had notable performances for the All-Stars went on to play pro football. The Bears benefited from the presence of Beattie Feathers, who became the NFL’s first thousand-yard rusher with 1004 in an impressive rookie season. Joe Laws played 12 seasons and George Sauer three for the Green Bay Packers.

While the games were often competitive in the early years, gradually the pro teams tended to dominate the contests. They won 31 times, to 9 for the All-Stars, and there were two ties. Eventually, the College All-Star Game fell victim to pro teams complaining about their top prospects missing time in training camp and being exposed to injury, athletes themselves becoming less willing to jeopardize big contracts through potential injury, and the predictable domination of the pro clubs. But for many years, it served as the annual kickoff to the preseason and a vehicle for the top players coming out of college to show what they could do against pro competition.