Eagles vs. Cardinals, rematch of 1948 game, minus the blizzard

Coach Greasy Neale and his players, including Steve Van Buren (15), celebrate 7-0 victory at Shibe Park on Dec. 19, 1948.
Coach Greasy Neale and his players, including Steve Van Buren (15), celebrate 7-0 victory at Shibe Park on Dec. 19, 1948.
Posted: January 16, 2009

AT KICKOFF come Sunday, the events of 60 seasons ago won't remotely resemble the conditions outside University of Phoenix Stadium.

It will be 73. Sunny. Cloudless.

A 7-0 outcome seems unthinkable.

On Dec. 19, 1948, when the Eagles hosted and won the NFL title game against the Cardinals with a lonely touchdown, it was gray and cold and snowing, snowing, snowing. How much? Well, that remains a growing legend.

White-out snowing?

Inconvenience snowing?

Actually, it appears somewhere in between, more like snowball and snowman snowing.

At kickoff, snow fell at 2 inches per hour, which, of course, is a terrific rate. It also was the height of the storm.

By the end of the storm, according to the National Weather Service, just 7.4 inches of snow had fallen - not the foot of snow, or 2 feet, of legend.

If nobody had played football that day, such a storm wouldn't be a blip on any historical Doppler screen.

A healthy, hardy 28,864 showed up for the sold-out game at Shibe Park, 80 percent of the total tickets sold. Think 20 percent of current Eagles fans would miss an NFC title game, much less a Super Bowl, because of a little snow? Think 1 percent would miss it?

The storm had begun at dawn, which famously prompted Eagles star running back Steve Van Buren to raise his sleepy head from his pillow and then put it back down, assuming the game would be postponed.

Coach Earle "Greasy" Neale soon disabused Van Buren of that notion with a midmorning telephone call. Much is made of the tale of Van Buren's commute from Delaware County . . . but, considering he used public transportation for all but the last seven blocks to reach the park, the city certainly wasn't paralyzed.

It wasn't pretty, either.

There exists a picture of the Cardinals - then based in Chicago - and the Eagles aiding the grounds crew as they removed the tarp from the field. With it came the chalked lines showing the yardage markers, frozen to the underside of the tarp.

Ropes tied to sticks marked the sidelines and end zone. Commissioner Bert Bell ruled that, since yardage lines no longer existed and snow would immediately obscure new lines, referee Ron Gibbs would use his judgment to rule on first-down yardage.

So much snow was falling at game time that it impaired everyone's vision . . . but not so as to make it unplayable. And play, they would.

The Eagles were primed, and pumped, and peaking.

Captain and right tackle Al Wistert had called a team meeting Saturday night, the night before the game, to rally the club, which had lost the title game in Chicago a year before.

"I told them, 'Listen. You've got to get your mind set. This is a tough team. You've got to play your best game if we're going to win,' " Wistert recalled earlier this week from his home in Oregon. " 'We want you in the best mental state. Now, let's sleep on it.' "

(Imagine Jon Runyan doing the same tomorrow night in the cavernous conference room of the team's posh hotel.)

Thus inspired, the team balked at Neale's hesitance to play in the foul conditions Sunday.

"He didn't want to waste everything we'd put into the season to that point," Wistert said. "We wanted to play."

Thus impeded by his own team, Neale said he would see how the Cardinals felt. He left for their locker room. The Eagles pow-wowed in his absence and, as a unit, decided they would insist on playing, even if Neale or the Cardinals didn't want to.

They didn't need to insist on anything, Wistert said:

"He busted back into the locker room and said, 'They want to play! Let's go out and beat them!' "

Or, at least, outlast them.

Van Buren, in a 1994 interview, told the Daily News that he could see the defensive line and the linebackers, but he couldn't quite make out the safety.

Not that it mattered on that day, since the teams' defensive backs would play an even less-important role than usual in that pass-averse era. Only 26 passes were attempted - combined. Five were caught. Four were intercepted.

Still, it wasn't Tom Brady the Eagles needed . . . but they could have used Adam Vinatieri.

In a driving New England snowstorm in 2002, Vinatieri rocketed to fame as a Patriot after he sent the "Tuck Rule" game into overtime in the AFC Championship; the Pats beat Oakland, went on to the Super Bowl and began a dynasty.

In 1948, the teams combined for four failed field goals - three misses from Eagles kicker Cliff Patton and a botched hold by the Cardinals.

Conditions might have been rough, but the reality is, the teams were splendid defensive entities. It was defense as much as snowfall that led to a scoreless tie through three quarters.

There were no overtime provisions in the NFL in 1948 (insert McNabb joke here) so the teams would have been declared co-champions.

Finally, Frank "Bucko" Kilroy recovered a fumble by Elmer Angsman at the Cardinals' 17 early in the fourth quarter. Four plays later, Van Buren followed Wistert and Kilroy on a 5-yard plunge for the game's only score.

And there it was. And it wasn't that big of a deal.

Heck, those weren't even close to the toughest conditions the Eagles had faced in their 3-year streak of title games.

In 1947, at an ice-slick Comiskey Park, the Cardinals beat the Eagles. The Birds had sharpened their cleats with files for better traction on the rock-hard ground; the Cards had anticipated the problem and worn sneakers. The Eagles sent an emissary to buy some sneakers for themselves, but the game had already gotten under way, with the Eagles often penalized for their illegal footwear. Angsman scored twice from 70 yards out and the Cardinals won, 28-21.

In 1949, in a rain-soaked Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the Eagles played in ankle-deep mud. Van Buren went for 196 yards in a 14-0 win over the Rams. He might have gained more, he said, but he was too tired, churning through all that mud.

So marginal was the NFL in 1948 that the title game wasn't even the top weather story in the city that year. Or that month.

Within a week, a record-setting cold snap hit and produced a New Year's Eve deep freeze still on the books today.

On a larger scale, the blizzard game at Shibe marked a resounding contrast to the really big events in town in 1948. All three parties held their national conventions in Philadelphia that summer.

It was hot in June for the Republicans, sure. But attendees dropped by the dozens when the Democrats and Progressives assembled in July in heat unseen since for more than 150 years. (Later that year, Dewey didn't beat Truman.)

What's more, the title game isn't even the most significant weather-related happening of a Dec. 19 in Pennsylvania.

It was Dec. 19, 1777, when George Washington and the Continental Army dug in for their hellish winter at Valley Forge.

That home team eventually won, too. *

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