• Sal Maiorana

The strangest NFL Championship game in history

CHICAGO (Dec. 18, 1932) – If you thought indoor football was born in 1968 when the Houston Oilers of the American Football League permanently moved into the Astrodome, think again.

The first pro football game played under a roof and not the sky occurred at Chicago Stadium when the Chicago Bears won the NFL championship with a 9-0 victory over the Portsmouth Spartans in front of 11,198 warm, grateful spectators.

The field measured only 80 yards from goal line to goal line, was 15 feet narrower than regulation and the end zones were less than 10 yards deep and bordered by the hockey rink’s dasher boards. The playing surface was the cement floor covered in a layer of dirt left over from a circus that had been staged in the arena the previous week. Not surprisingly there were other substances, left behind by the circus animals, mixed in with the dirt.

“I don’t think anything could compare with the game between Portsmouth and the Bears in 1932,’’ said Bears owner George Halas, who had seen more than his share of bizarre occurrences during the first 13 years of organized pro football. “The only thing not ridiculous about the whole mess was we won the game.’’

The game had been arranged by the league office as a way to break a tie atop the season-ending standings. The Bears were 6-1-6, the Spartans 6-1-4, and the teams had played to a pair of ties during the regular season, so a true champion had not emerged. Wrigley Field was scheduled to host the playoff, but a paralyzing blizzard engulfed Chicago the week of the game and made it impossible to play outdoors.

“The snow was waist deep when we arrived,’’ Portsmouth’s fine tailback, Glenn Presnell, said. “There was no way we could practice.’’

Rather than postpone the game by a week – which would have hurt the gate because it would have conflicted with Christmas – Halas tapped into his keen business sense and arranged to have the game moved indoors to the home of the National Hockey League’s Chicago Black Hawks.

Halas actually had experienced indoor football two years earlier when his Bears played the crosstown rival Cardinals in an exhibition game at Chicago Stadium, so he knew it could be done. And while it was far from ideal for a game of this magnitude, Halas reasoned that playing on the smaller field was better than negotiating snow drifts and sub-zero temperatures.

Because of the diminutive field, a special set of rules were drawn up for the championship game:

No field goals were allowed; kickoffs were consummated at the 10-yard-line; punts that bounced around in the rafters (it happened twice) were considered touchbacks; each time a team crossed midfield, it was penalized 20 yards, in effect making the field 100 yards long; and for the first time, in bounds lines –

or hashmarks – were drawn 10 yards in from the sideline on each side.

The purpose of this final rule was necessary so that whenever the ball was carried out of bounds, instead of being placed where it went out (right next to the hockey boards) it was returned to the in bounds line for the next snap.

The Bears were heavily favored to win their second league championship, mainly because of their stout defense, which had posted seven shutouts during the year. However, the biggest reason for making Portsmouth a prohibitive underdog was the Spartans were without their best player and the NFL’s leading scorer, tailback Dutch Clark. Clark had accepted an offseason basketball coaching job at his alma mater, Colorado College, and had already left to begin his duties, leaving Portsmouth coach Potsy Clark in a lurch.

Portsmouth battled gamely, though, and the game was deadlocked at 0-0 through three quarters. With 11 minutes to play, the Bears finally took control as Dick Nesbitt intercepted an Ace Gutowsky pass and returned it to the 13. Bronko Nagurski ran for six, then for five to move the ball to the 2-yard-line. He was stopped on his next two carries for no gain, setting up a controversial play that would have huge ramifications on the game’s future.

Nagurski took the snap, faked a run, then backpedaled and threw a pass into the end zone to Red Grange who made the catch for a touchdown. Potsy Clark argued the pass was illegal because the rules at the time stated that forward passes had to be thrown from a point no less than five yards behind the line of scrimmage. Referee Bobby Cahn denied Clark’s argument – ruling that Nagurski had dropped back further than five yards – and allowed the touchdown and Tiny Engebretsen’s conversion made it 7-0.

“I lined up as usual, four yards back,’’ Nagurski said, defending himself. “Red went in motion and the ball came to me. I took a step or two forward as though to begin the plunge everyone expected. The defenders converged and there was no way I could get through. I stopped, moved back a couple of steps and Grange had gone around and was in the end zone, all by himself.’’

A few minutes later, a bad snap sailed past Portsmouth punter Mule Wilson and through the end zone for a Bears safety, wrapping up the victory.

The Portsmouth Times, enraged that its hometown team had lost the game because of the controversial touchdown, ran a headline that read: “Sham Battle on Tom Thumb Gridiron’’ and sports writer Lynn A. Wittenburg called the game “a synthetic show.’’

But while the folks in Portsmouth were upset, they should have been rejoicing in the newfound respect the NFL had earned during those unique 60 minutes. Because the fans were so close to the action, it was widely believed that they gained a measure of admiration for the pro players that day. Hearing the hard hitting and seeing the blood and sweat being spilled up close, the fans realized that the pros weren’t just taking the money and running, but that they played just as intensely as the revered collegians who weren’t getting paid to perform.

“It was the difference between sitting ringside at a heavyweight fight or in the last row of the upper deck,’’ one sports writer said. “All of the awful sounds of human beings smashing other human beings were right there and very real.’’

The fans loved it and in the years to come, the NFL began a gradual rise out of the obscurity that had plagued it throughout its first decade.

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