Despite All The Rule Changes, The One Record That Will Never Be Broken
Someone once said that records are made to be broken. One record that we in Baltimore thought would be the exception to that rule is John Unitas’ record of throwing a touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games. Unitas set his record in an era when pass defense could do just about anything they wanted before the ball was thrown. Despite that, the NFL’s answer to MLB’s Joe DiMaggio consecutive game hit streak (56 games) was labeled “untouchable”.
The league, as part of an effort to make the game higher scoring, changed key pass defense rules to open up offenses in 1978. Even with that, it took 35 seasons before the Saints Drew Brees broke John’s record. The NFL Record and Fact Book says Brees has the record, but historians and fans alike know Brees’ mark was set with a vastly different set of rules. It’s akin to Roger Maris’ asterisk.
Almost all of the NFL offensive scoring and yardage records from the old days have been broken by talented players capitalizing upon new liberal rules, and consequently record continue to fall.
The NFL started in 1920, and by 1929 it had started to show signs that it was ascending on the American sports ladder. While it had made strides it was still far behind baseball and college football in popularity. Players for the most part were still paid by the game ($50.00 to $100.00), and just a few actually had contracts.
Red Grange of the Chicago Bears was making a reported $20,000.00 with the Chicago Bears, by far the highest, but to earn that, he and the Bears would play football six months after the regular NFL season ended in December. They had to barnstorm across the country, playing every weekend, Saturday and Sunday, playing mostly local teams of All Stars to make money. It was very much like a traveling circus.
Another one of the rare contracted players was the multi-talented Chicago Cardinals fullback Ernie Nevers. Nevers gained fame in college as Grange had. He was an All American football and baseball player at Stanford. After he graduated he played pro football for the barnstorming Duluth Eskimos for a season. After the season ended with the Eskimos, he signed a major league baseball contract and pitched for the St Louis Browns of the American League, the same Browns who would move to Baltimore in 1954 and be renamed the Orioles.
He pitched for the Browns from 1926-28 and earned the dubious distinction of serving up homerun numbers 8 and 41 to the immortal Babe Ruth during his sensational 60 home run season in 1927.
While appearing in just twenty-seven games for the Browns in 1927 and then being sent to the minor leagues for 1928, Nevers decided to try football again in 1929. He signed a $10,000.00 contract with the Cardinals to play fullback, place kick, punt, play linebacker and coach.
The Cardinals won the NFL title in 1925 but fell on tough times right after that, and in 1928 they had just one victory.
Nevers improved the club somewhat in 1929, and heading into Thanksgiving that season the Cardinals record stood at 4-5-1. They were to face their cross own rivals, Red Grange and the Bears.
The Bears were having an off year and came into Thanksgiving with a 4-6-1 record. Neither team was a title contender, so on this Thanksgiving the only thing at stake was football bragging rights in Chicago.
Thanksgiving 1929 brought temperatures in the 20’s to Chicago, so only 8,000 hearty fans came through the turnstiles at Comisky Park, the Cardinals home field on that frosty afternoon to watch two average teams collide.
Awaiting those 8,000 paying customers was a record performance for the ages – one that will never be broken.
Simply put Ernie Nevers demolished the Bears almost by himself that afternoon. The Cardinals won the game 40-6. That was surprising in itself, since the teams played to a scoreless tie a month before, but the real surprise was that all 40 Cardinals points were scored by one player, Ernie Nevers.
Nevers scored two touchdowns and kicked two extra points in the first half, and in second half he ran for four more touchdowns and kicked two more extra points. Nevers tallied six rushing touchdowns, while converting 4 PAT’s to account for his and the Cardinals’ 40 points.
The NFL did not start keeping statistics until 1932. Prior to that only points were kept. Sportswriter accounts of the game had Nevers carrying the ball on three of every four plays the Cardinals ran. Those days a team would snap the ball about 50 plays per game. With that, Nevers probably had 35-40 carries. His yardage was estimated at 160-200 rushing yards.
His six touchdowns were later equaled by Dub Jones, (Bert Jones’ Father), of the Browns in 1951, and Gale Sayers of the Bears in 1965, but they did not place kick. They each tallied 36 points.
In this the era of specialization and despite rules to promote scoring, to eclipse Nevers’ mark a player would have to score 7 touchdowns in a single game.
Nevers retired after the 1930 season, and was elected to the Pro Football Hall Of Fame as part of the first class of enshrinees in 1963.
The NFL’s competition committee can keep tinkering with the rules to give the offense the advantage all they want, but that record of 40 points in one game set back on Thanksgiving Day in Chicago 84 years ago – the greatest performance by one player, in one game, in NFL history, will always stand the test of time.
They will never touch Nevers.