Football, History, Sports, Sportsmanship

The Sneaker Game

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National Football League Conference Championship games in the Northeast and Midwest are often played in inclement weather and icy conditions. Due to this fact, there is some history of teams altering their equipment to achieve an edge. Some of the greatest games in the history of the National Football League have been championship games played in miserable conditions like the famous Ice Bowl in which Green Bay defeated Dallas in sub zero conditions . Professional Football is in a class by itself in this category. Other sports play indoors or call their games due to inclement weather. Not football. Not in the Midwest and Northeast. Championship games are always played in late December or January, and any game played in the Midwest or Northeast is bound to be played in cold, icy conditions. Legends are made when coaches and players find ways to persevere or adapt to extreme conditions. The best examples of a team adapting to bad conditions are The Sneaker Games of 1934 and 1956. Both Sneaker Games were for the NFL Championship, both were played in New York City and both were won by the New York Giants and lost by the Chicago Bears. In both cases the victorious Giants resorted to a crucial equipment change in order to better handle severely icy conditions. They traded in their cleats for basketball sneakers in order to achieve better maneuverability on the field.

The Sneaker Game took place on December, 9th 1934 at the Polo Grounds. The Chicago Bears were heavy favorites, having not lost for 31 games. The Bears had 29 wins and two scoreless ties during that stretch, including two wins against the Giants during the 1934 season. The National Football League was not the multi- billion dollar industry it is today. Players earned $150 per game. The league was thrilled that 35,000 fans turned out on a sunny but cold day in New York for the big game. For most of the afternoon things went the way the Bears expected them too. The Bears star Fullback Bronco Nagurski scored a touchdown and their star kicker Jack Manders added two field goals. The Giants were playing without their starting quarterback and their running backs, all of whom had been injured in games leading up to the championship. An icy mix of rain and sleet had fallen the previous night, turning the field into a virtual ice rink. None of the players had any mobility. It was surprising that the score was 13-3 at the end of the 3rd quarter.

According to author Kelley Bell in his book Quests: The Complete History of the National Football League’s Championship Series Giants Head Coach Steve Owen was given the idea of using sneakers by the Giants Team Captain Ray Flaherty. Before the game Owen had been informed by Flaherty that his Gonzaga College team had performed well using sneakers on an icy field in a game against The University of Montana back in 1925. According to author Lew Freedmen in his book New York Giants: The Complete Ilustrated History, Owen liked the sneaker idea but it was Sunday so there were no Sporting Goods stores open. Owen tapped the Giants locker room attendant Abe Cohen to procure sneakers from nearby City College. The roundtrip subway ride was time consuming and Cohen had not been sent out to get the sneakers until halftime. He returned to the Giants bench with 9 pairs of sneakers but only 10 minutes left in the game. A center and a guard kept their cleats while the rest of the Giants offense put on the sneakers.

The Giants scored 4 touchdowns after changing out of their cleats. Their first TD came on a long pass from Quaterback Ed Dankowski to Right End Ike Franklin. The ball appeared to be intercepted by Bears Cornerback Carl Brumbaugh, but Franklin somehow pulled the ball out from under him and skidded into the end zone. The Giants fans went wild, throwing their hats into the air. Policemen spent the rest of the game fighting a losing battle to keep fans off the field. Each time a Giant player reached the end zone, fans were there to congratulate him. The Giants scored three more touchdowns to win 30-13.

New York Times reporters Robert F.Kelley and Walter Fleisher quoted Bronco Nagurski after the game.“ I think the sneakers gave them an edge in that last half, for they were able to cut back when they were running with the ball and we couldn’t cut with them.” Despite the fact that their loss cost each of them $220 that was earmarked for the members of the championship team, the Bears players did not accuse the Giants of cheating. The only record of anyone being irate about the Giants sudden change in football fortune was Bears Head Coach George Halas, who had ordered his players to do their best to step on the Giants’ sneaker clad feet.

The National Football League held its annual meeting a few days later. Several league officials in attendance were anxious to congratulate Coach Owen for his resourcefulness in what would become known as The Sneaker Game. No one construed the Giants alteration of their equipment with cheating. Both the Chicago Tribune and the magnates of The National Football League felt that the story of the 1934 season was that the NFL was attracting fans and that most of their franchises were financially viable. The Tribune noted “the Giants seem to have won by mixing brains with the feet in football.”

In 1956 the Bears met the Giants in another NFL Championship Game, this one at Yankee Stadium The field was a frozen tundra. So the Bears opted for special sneakers with a sole that was supposed to perform well on ice. The Giants opted for Basketball sneakers and won 47-7. Chicago Tribune reporter George Strickler observed that the Bears had been “outsmarted, outplayed and outfought.” No one cried foul.

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