The NFL has been an entity since 1920. As with any long running business or entertainment venue, fables are bound to be created. The NFL is no exception.
In this segment of Old School we will tell the story behind 4 popular NFL fables. The truth behind three of these so called fables goes against “conventional wisdom.” One is actually true.
The Fables are:
1. “Monday Night Football”: ABC was the first major network to televise a prime time NFL regular season game on a week night, September 21, 1970, taking a huge chance with their programming.
2. John Unitas’ first pass in a Baltimore Colt regular season game was intercepted and returned for a touchdown.
3. NFL Films labeling Lambeau Field the “Frozen Tundra”
4. Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney buying the team with winnings from the race track.
The Truths are:
1. Monday Night Football: ABC being the first major network to televise the NFL in 1970 is fiction. Popular thought has it that ABC’s first Monday night game on September 21, 1970 was the first prime time week night game televised nationally is not true. The Browns beat the Jets that night 31-21, the ratings were huge but ABC did not take that much a gamble.
Pete Rozelle, NFL Commissioner was by trade a public relations director. He had wanted prime time football for years. In 1966 he persuaded CBS, which televised NFL games in the 1960’s, to broadcast a Monday Night game.
It was Monday October 31, 1966, when CBS broadcasted the Bears and Cardinals from St. Louis in new Busch Stadium. The game began 9:30PM Eastern Time. Both the Cardinals and Bears had winning records and the Bears had Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers. The Cardinals won 24-17, the game was exciting as Cardinal safety Larry Wilson had three interceptions and returned one for a score and Sayers turned a routine swing pass into an 80 yard touchdown gallop, weaving through the Cardinal defense.
While the game was entertaining the ratings were lukewarm. CBS had normally broadcasted the show “Family Affair" from 9:30 to 10:00PM on Mondays and it was getting an average 22.6 Nielson rating. The Bears and Cardinals pulled a 19.7. For those of you who remember Family Affair, it is hard to believe that Buffy, Jody, Mr. French, and Uncle Bill were more popular than Hall of Famers Gale Sayers, Dick Butkus, Mike Ditka, and Larry Wilson.
CBS broadcasted another game in 1967 and 2 each in 1968 and 1969. Ratings were a little better each year. Rozelle though wanted Monday night football every week for 1970. Both CBS and NBC the regular broadcasters of NFL football resisted, but Rozelle pushed ABC, then the lowest rated network into a contract for it, hence the birth of ABC’s Monday Night Football.
ABC had to be pushed into bringing Howard Cosell and Don Meredith into our living rooms. Monday night football in 1970 took off with a 32 rating that first year and was their highest rated program. It remained an ABC staple program for years before moving to ESPN.
The announcers CBS choose for that first Monday night broadcast in 1966 was veteran play by play man Lindsey Nelson, and………………..Frank Gifford, who was a CBS broadcaster then. He of course left CBS for ABC in 1971. The rest as they say, is history.
2. John Unitas’ first pass as a Colt: Most football fans and historians will tell you that the legend of John Unitas began by throwing an interception that was returned for a touchdown with his first Colt pass.
Unitas did in fact replace starter George Shaw in the third quarter against the Bears that game. It was week 4, October 21, 1956. Shaw broke his leg, the Colts trailed 27-21. Unitas came in and his first pass that game was intercepted by the Bear’s JC Caroline and returned for a score, the Bears won 58-27.
After that Unitas went on to become the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Though Unitas’ start is a bit romanticized by fans and historians.
The truth is Unitas made his first appearance in a mop up role for Shaw two weeks earlier on Saturday, October 6 in Baltimore against the Lions. Trailing 31-14 to the Lions in the 4th quarter, head coach Weeb Ewbank put Unitas in for an ineffective Shaw. Unitas’ first Colt pass was just an incompletion. His next pass was intercepted by the Lions but was not returned for a score. This prompted Ewbank to ask former Colt back up quarterback Gary Kekorian to come out of retirement and rejoin the team. Ewbank thought Unitas was not going to be a pro quarterback. Kekorian refused and Ewbank was stuck with Unitas as the back up.
Unitas did throw for a touchdown in that loss to the Bears, and led the Colts to upset victories over the Packers and the defending champion Browns the next 2 weeks. In the process Unitas set a NFL record that year for highest completion rate by a rookie passer, a sign of things to come.
3. Lambeau Field, the “ Frozen Tundra”: Whenever the weather gets cold during the NFL season and ESPN’s Chris Berman mentions Lambeau Field, he imitates the legendary narrator of NFL Films John Facenda and refers to Lambeau Field as the “Frozen Tundra”, based on the famous Ice Bowl 1967 NFL championship game.
Diehard and casual fans, the media, and even Packer players alike constantly refer to Lambeau as the frozen tundra. This tells you how much the media influences us.
The truth is NFL Films did use the phrase “Frozen Tundra”, but it was used to describe Minnesota’s Metropolitan Stadium, an outdoor stadium, where the Vikings played from 1961- 1981.
The label was first used by NFL Films in 1970. In their production of the highlight film for the 1969 NFL championship played in Minnesota between the Vikings and Browns, narrator Pat Summerall, not John Facenda, used “Frozen Tundra” to describe the playing surface. The Vikings won easily 27-7, then advanced to Super Bowl IV, where they lost to the Chiefs.
Metropolitan Stadium was thought to be the coldest stadium in the NFL. The Vikings had one of the best home field advantages in the NFL. In fact Viking head coach Bud Grant used this to his advantage. Both team benches were on the same sideline. So the teams could see each other easily. Grant would not allow the Vikings to use electronic heaters on the sidelines despite the fact that all visiting teams did. Grant felt this gave the Vikings an edge – his team focused on football while the visitors on just staying warm.
Teams hated to play at Metropolitan Stadium in the winter. The field did give the Vikings an advantage as they won all three of their NFL-NFC championship games played there. Two were at the expense of the warm weather Los Angeles Rams and the third against the Cleveland Browns. They also beat the Cowboys in Dallas. The Vikings advanced to four Super Bowls while Metropolitan Stadium was their home field, none since moving inside to the Metrodome.
The best home field advantage in football, the real “Frozen Tundra”, was eventually torn down and a shopping mall now sits in its place.
4. Art Rooney’s Purchase of The Steelers: This one is true! Art Rooney used winnings estimated at around $3,500.00 from a day at Saratoga racetrack in New York to purchase a franchise from the NFL for Pittsburgh in 1933.
While Rooney’s teams were losers on the field and at the gate he became a beloved figure in Pittsburgh and around the NFL.
A lifelong Pittsburgh resident, he made sure the team never left the city although he constantly lost money. In 1936 he had another good day at Saratoga, I should say great day. He won well over $100,000.00 on this trip and the money was used to bankroll the team up to 1941. He then sold them to a New Yorker, Ted Thompson.
Rooney would later purchase a majority share of the Eagles with the money from the sale of the Steelers. He became partners with eventual NFL commissioner Bert Bell, who was the minority owner.
Desiring to be closer to New York, Thompson attempted to move the Pittsburgh franchise to Boston. Rooney persuaded Thompson to trade teams since Philadelphia was closer to New York than Boston. Rooney re-acquired the Steelers and prevented them from moving to Boston. Thompson became owner of the Eagles while Bell was made commissioner.
Two good days at the track by Art Rooney, not one, created then saved the Pittsburgh Steelers.