Thursday, December 14, 2017

Golden Boy From Georgia: The Oldest Living Hall of Famer

By T.J. Troup
Happy birthday Charlie Trippi! In celebration of your birthday as the oldest living Hall of Famer lets take a long detailed look at your versatile and impressive career. Joe Ziemba's outstanding book: When Football Was Football: The Chicago Cardinals and the Birth of the NFL and the chapter "The Resurrection" is where I begin this narrative.

Coach Jimmy Conzelman has added talent and finally some depth to the roster in 1946. Rookies Pat Harder and Elmer Angsman contribute to Chicago attack, but this team needs one more quality back to truly become contenders. Trippi is the Cardinals first-round draft pick and after four games ranks among the league leaders in rushing with 40 carries for 224 yards.

The Chicago Cardinals have a balanced attack, and as such everyone gets a chance. During the middle of the season, Charlie's ankle injury limits him to just 13 carries for 32 yards. Since the Cardinals are upset in back-to-back weeks by the Redskins and Giants, they must win their last two games to claim the Western Conference title. In the impressive victory over the Eagles Trippi returns an errant Tommy Thompson pass 59 yards for a touchdown. The showdown win over the Bears gives the Cardinals a chance to play Philadelphia again—but this time for all the marbles.

Charlie gained 145 yards rushing over the last four games of the year, and is fully healed and ready to be a champion. Trippi shares punt return duties with John "Red" Cochran and finishes the season with a 17.6-yard punt return average. His quick opener touchdown run of 44 yards gets the Cardinals off to a strong start through the tough Eagle defense, yet it is his punt return for a score on the icy field that is eye-popping. He actually skids to one knee on the return, rights himself and away he goes to score the key touchdown as the Chicago Cardinals are now champions of the league.

The 1948 Cardinals are even better than the champion team of 1947 and Trippi leads the league in all-purpose yardage. The first game of the 1948 season is a night game re-match with the Eagles again traveling to Chicago. Fourth quarter and the teams are tied in this hard fought game as the Cardinals align in a double tight end full house backfield. Trippi begins to sweep right, and on the run pitches a spiral strike to Mal Kutner on a corner route for 64 yards and the winning touchdown. Charlie gains 71 yards rushing on just 10 carries as the Cardinals are off to a flying start in defending their title.
Seven games into the season and Charlie has demonstrated he is the best halfback in the league. He has gained 473 yards rushing on just 70 carries (including two 100 yard performances), and has completed 4 of his 5 option passes for 118 yards! The Lions on November 7th learn that you must cover him as a receiver as he catches 5 passes for 60 yards. He also ranks among the league leaders with 8 kickoff returns for 206 yards. Chicago continues to win and after nine games Charlie has demonstrated that punting to him is a mistake as he has returned 10 for 216 yards and two scores.

There are times when statistics actually tell us the true story, and December 5th against Green Bay is one of those times. The Chicago Cardinals run the ball 70 times—that's right SEVENTY! Gaining 289 yards rushing in the 42-7 victory When a very talented Bears team takes the field on December 12th the Western Conference title is again at stake. The Cardinals gained only 101 yards rushing as a team in the October loss to the Bears, but today with Trippi gaining 80 of the 193 yards on the ground —Chicago is again represented in the title game by the Cardinals. Recognition comes to Charlie as he is voted First-team All-Pro.
The Cardinals begin the 1949 season under co-coaches Parker & Handler with an impressive victory over Washington. Trippi picks up right where he left off as he zips through the 'Skins defense for 130 yards on just 10 carries. The receiving duo of Mell Kutner & Billy Dewell rank with the best in the league, but are off to a slow start in '49 and who of course picks up the slack in the passing game—why Charlie of course. He has caught at least one pass in every game heading into the finale against the Bears.

The Cardinals are finishing strong in the topsy-turvy season (earlier they lost four of five), and take on the Bears before over 50,000 at Wrigley Field. Most folks remember the game on December 11th for quarterback Johnny Lujack's record-setting performance of 468 yards passing, yet Charlie's performance as a receiver is the lone highlight for the Cardinals with 8 catches for 123 yards and two touchdowns.

Trippi again leads the league in all-purpose yardage but does not receive near the recognition that he did in 1948. The dawn of a new decade with three teams added to the league, and the Cardinals leaving the western conference to the newly named American Conference (usually referred to as the East). Jim Hardy is now the quarterback full time for the Cardinals under a new coach in Earl "Curly" Lambeau.
The Cardinals start 1-3 as Hardy is not very consistent. Left halfback Trippi helps get Chicago back on track as he gains 115 yards on just 16 carries in the wins over the 'Skins and Giants. The Cardinals are now much more of a passing team than a running team, and the high point of the season is the 20-10 victory over the first place Bears in December. Trippi has again contributed as a runner, receiver, and in the return game, yet he is not chosen for the first Pro Bowl game. The Cardinals record a 3-9 record in 1951, yet this is a season that is fascinating to watch the Chicago Cardinals on film.

Lambeau gives Frank Tripucka an opportunity to prove himself at the triggerman position, yet surprisingly the man who takes over at quarterback is Charlie Trippi. October 21st on the road in Washington is a feast for those who enjoy watching old football film. Baugh for the Redskins in his 15th season, and Trippi for the Cardinals. Washington comes away with a 7-3 win, yet what stands out is Charlie running and passing his team down the field. His mechanics as a passer are flawless. Excellent footwork, quick delivery, and very, VERY accurate on his short passes. He throws a tight spiral which usually has zip on the ball.

The teams trade goal line stands, and both make their share of mistakes, but the question for Lambeau is who should play quarterback for this team? Though at times during the year he will now share the position with Jim Hardy; there are games where it is Charlie doing the yeoman's work in trying to lead this team. The 1-5 Cardinals are on their west coast trip and have scored only 65 points in the five losses. Though Chicago loses to the soon to be champion Rams 45-21, Charlie completes the longest pass of his career—an 80-yard strike to Fran Polsfoot. Under center in a wing right formation, he rolls right after faking a hand-off and delivers to Polsfoot behind the Ram secondary. Though he does not throw deep often; he has the arm strength to do so. Traveling north to the Bay area to take on the much-improved 49ers brings out the best in Trippi. He gains 189 yards passing on his 8 completions, including another 80-yard touchdown; this one to halfback Elmer Angsman. Charlie also gains 81 yards rushing as the Cardinals prevail 27-21.

Lambeau then again uses both Hardy and Trippi in the loss to the contending Giants 10-0. Many of the films in my library are enjoyable to watch, yet the film of December 2nd, 1951 of the defending champion Browns and the Cardinals is sure one of the best. The talented Browns have 9 Hall of Famers on their team and explode to an early lead under the direction of Otto Graham.

Lambeau replaces Hardy with Trippi and though facing the most feared pass rusher in the league in Len Ford—our "Golden boy" from Georgia ignites the Cardinal attack. The excellent Browns secondary has allowed only 14 touchdown passes in the twenty-one games they have played in their NFL history. Charlie Trippi is the first player to ever throw 3 touchdown passes in a game against Cleveland. How impressive is this you ask? Over the course of the next thirteen seasons, only three men will top this—Conerly, Finks, and Unitas. Charlie not only pitches strikes in this game to his core of receivers, he gains 50 yards rushing including one of his patented dashes up the middle for 32 yards.

 Lambeau is done in Chicago with the 49-28 loss. The season ends on a strong note though as Trippi knocks the Bears out of contention in a 24-14 win. He gains 145 rushing on just 13 carries, passes for 106 and is responsible for all three Cardinal touchdowns. When the American Conference Pro Bowl team is announced Trippi is not among them! He rushed for over 500 yards and passed for almost 1,200.

Frank Tripucka plays poorly in the Monday night loss to the Redskins to open the 1952 campaign. New coach Joe Kuharich installs Trippi back at quarterback and Cardinals are rejuvenated with three straight wins. Usually, Charlie is a T-formation quarterback, yet at times he is in a spread formation. His mobility and accuracy on short passes keep the Chicago attack in high gear. He gains 171 yards rushing (on just 31 carries), and 329 passing on his 27 completions.

The disheartening loss to Pittsburgh on October 26th begins the spiral towards the bottom of the eastern conference. Trippi plays poorly, and woeful Don Panciera has the game of his life as he completes three touchdown passes to rookie Ollie Matson in the loss. They will share the quarterback position for the remainder of the season. Panciera just 2 more touchdown passes while throwing 9 interceptions as he completes just 25 of 77. Trippi throws 4 touchdown passes and completes 56 of 117. The Cardinals win just one of their final eight games (a 28-22 win over the Eagles before just 13,577 in Comiskey), and Kuharich is gone. A wasted season in which Chicago with Matson and Trippi could have wrecked havoc with defenses if utilized properly. Trippi though is rewarded with his first pro bowl selection.

The season of 1953 is the low point in modern Cardinal history. Though they play hard under new coach "Jumbo" Joe Stydahar—the Chicago Cardinals are just not a very talented team. Charlie Trippi returns to the halfback position at the beginning of the season. Snap-takers for the Cardinals are Ray Nagel and Jim Root. They fail, and a trade for the Bears Steve Romanik attempts to upgrade the position. While these three men do throw 12 touchdown passes between them they also throw 25 interceptions.

Film study shows they are all inconsistent and are never going to be quality passers. Trippi has gained 149 yards rushing on just 30 carries in the losses to the Eagles, Giants, and Redskins. The defense has allowed 107 points. November 15th is the highlight of the season. My book The Birth of Football's Modern 4-3 Defense: The Seven Seasons That Changed the NFL details the game in the chapter on the 1953 Cardinals.

Trippi in a spread formation coming in at quarterback; he passes and runs the Ram defense ragged. This is a Ram team that has made the playoffs four straight seasons and has already beaten the Lions twice. They cannot stop Trippi on the final drive in the 24-24 tie. Are there any other quarterbacks who have had a game like this in league history?

Using the criteria of gaining at least 95 yards rushing, and a passer rating over 110.0—the list of achievers is very short. Otto Graham in the 1950 title game, Randal Cunningham in 1990 against the Patriots, and Michael Vick (four times from 2002 through 2004).

During the course of his career, Charlie had always been an effective punt return man though he shared the job with a number of other talented players. Ollie Matson is serving our country in '53, and in a five-game stretch at mid-season Trippi returns 17 punts for 217 yards. He will lead the league in this category. Charlie is usually the Cardinals punter and ranks among the league leaders. He is rewarded for all his efforts with his second Pro Bowl berth (for a 1-10-1 team).
Night Train Lane
The Cardinals in 1954 have made a trade with Rams allowing Richard "Night Train" Lane to be reunited with Stydahar. Chicago in this era tried many men in the secondary that just could not play the position of either corner or safety. Charlie Trippi carries the ball only 18 times all year. He can still be elusive as evidenced by his 46-yard run against the Tom Landry Giants defense, and 57 against the Rams. It's mid-season and Trippi is now being asked by Stydahar to play pass defense. Since Lane plays both safety and corner, there are times when Charlie plays either corner or safety depending on the coverage and who is in the game.

In a three-game stretch in late October Charlie intercepts in three consecutive games. Watching film of him hustling across the field to help his teammates shows he still has dedication to the game. Since Matson and Lane are also playing in the secondary we have three Hall of Famers at one time on the field in the Chicago Cardinal secondary. The Cardinals play tough at home, but again this season away from Comiskey they continue to struggle as Chicago has now lost 15 of their last 16 on the road.

The 1955 season will be Charlie's last in the NFL under another new coach. He has been durable until this final year (he plays in only 5 games). He career ends on a snowy field in Cleveland against the defending league champion Browns. Charlie had gained 3,354 yards rushing by the end of the 1953 campaign (his seventh year), and at this point, he ranked 5th on the all-time rushing list.

When he retired he had gained 6,053 all-purpose yards—the 4th most all-time. Trippi, at different times in his career, ranked among the league leaders in rushing, passing, receiving, punt and kick-off returns, and punting. He is the ONLY player in league history to be able to make that claim. Building a relationship with teams is not always easily accomplished, but remain hopeful that someday would be able to sit down with Michael Bidwill of the Cardinals with film and show him that the oldest living Hall of Famer in the league should have his jersey number retired.

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