Monday, May 30, 2022

Remembering Rob Lytle’s Non-Fumble

By Joe Zagorski 

Pro football games are typically won thanks primarily to a strong offense or a stalwart defense.  The efforts of the players usually dictate which of these two entities will have the edge in determining winners and losers. Sometimes the possibility of luck sneaks in, however, and gets a say in how a winning team emerges in a contest. On January 1, 1978, that is exactly what happened…in a big way, and in a very big game.

The AFC Championship Game on that day pitted the defending Super Bowl Champion Oakland Raiders versus the Cinderella team of the 1977 NFL season, the Denver Broncos. The site was Mile High Stadium in Denver, where the Broncos had owned what could be considered a very strong home-field advantage. But what determined the winner of this game was not the venue where it was held.  Nor was the game decided by either team’s offense or defense. Rather, it was a quick decision by the officials, and in particular head linesman Ed Marion, which in the end produced a win for the Broncos.  The play in that game that resulted in that contest’s eventual result would become known as the Rob Lytle Non-Fumble, and it was perhaps the most controversial play in conference championship game history.

The scene was about midway through the third quarter. Denver was holding on to a slim 7-3 lead, but they were driving deep into Oakland territory. The Broncos offense was situated with a first-and-goal position from the Raiders’ 2-yard line. That set the stage for a quick dive run by rookie Broncos running back Rob Lytle. But just before the combatants took their stances at the line of scrimmage for that play, a veteran Oakland defensive lineman managed to overhear something.

“I remember that game like it was yesterday,” said Raiders nose tackle Dave Rowe. “I’ll walk you through the play. I’m standing there, and you know, when you’re a defensive lineman, you’re standing there right by the ball. Well, I look across at the (Denver) huddle, and I hear their quarterback (Craig Morton) say ’30 Power,’ or something like that.  And I turned around, and I’m looking as we huddle up…I turned around and I looked at (Oakland safety) Jack Tatum and I said, ‘Tate! I heard the play.  They’re coming right up the middle.’ He looks at me and he goes, ‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘I heard the play! I heard it!’ I mean the play being called is what you don’t really usually hear. Their crowd was quiet, because they had the ball.  That’s why I probably could hear it.”

Tatum now had an idea as to what he could do on the upcoming play. No one knows what his actual duty would have been on that play, but being that he was Jack Tatum, arguably the hardest hitman in pro football history from the safety position…well, you could almost guess what he was going to do.  He took Rowe’s affirmation to heart. He was going to run up to the line of scrimmage at full speed and torpedo the play.  

Dave Rowe had a defined task on the play as well. He knew that on any power running play near the goal line, the lineman—whether it be an offensive lineman or a defensive lineman—who exudes the most strength, is generally the one who is able to help his team out the most in achieving success on that particular type of play.

“So you’re a defensive lineman,” continued Rowe, “and all you’re doing is just plowing straight ahead, trying to get penetration.  Tatum came up and stuffed him (Lytle).  Oh man! He stuffed him! Oh it was a heck of a hit. And that ball…he (Lytle) was up in the air. It was almost like he looked like he was trying to jump over (the pile of bodies).  And he got struck, and that ball fell…it had to fall three feet down.”

Rowe got down low enough to give Tatum a clear shot at Lytle, who came to an abrupt stop, thanks to Tatum’s influential hit. No less than a half-dozen players tried to find the pigskin, and then pry it out of the pileup of bodies around the line of scrimmage. Veteran Raiders defensive end Mike McCoy was the man who stood up with the football and began running with it downfield toward Denver’s end zone.  Enter the controversy.

“Mike McCoy picks the ball up and takes off,” recalled Rowe. “He’s got like a 25-yard lead on anybody! All of a sudden, they (the referees) are blowing whistles. It’s like what?!? They (the referees) say ‘No, he (Lytle) was down.’  And we’re sitting there going ‘He wasn’t down! He wasn’t even close to being down!’  Why they called him down I’ll never know.”

The official verdict came from head linesman Ed Marion, who declared that the runner’s forward progress was stopped. For sure, after Tatum hit Lytle, forward progress was definitely stopped.  But when that happened, and when the ball fell to the ground, the officials should have blown their whistles, declaring the play to be over. That did not happen. If you watch the NBC-TV broadcast, no whistle is heard until well after McCoy begins his sprint downfield.

“I think what happened was…I think that one referee made the call, and nobody else (on the officiating crew) wanted to overrule him,” explained Rowe. “They didn’t do a little conference or anything. They just said ‘Nope…he was down.’ And it was so blatant. Of course, that turned the game around.”

As Lytle was being helped by Denver’s trainers to return to the sideline, the Raiders players on the field disagreed with Marion’s decision in a rather vehement fashion. So much so, in fact, that the officials threw a flag on Oakland for “Unsportsmanlike Conduct.” That placed the ball at the 1-yard line. The very next play, Denver running back Jon Keyworth took a pitchout from Morton and just made it into the corner of the Raiders end zone.  

Keyworth’s touchdown boosted the Broncos to a 14-3 advantage. They would hold on to prevail, 20-17, thus giving them their very first conference championship and a ticket to Super Bowl XII. But all that anyone on the Raiders was concerned about was the fumble by Rob Lytle that was declared by the referees to be a non-fumble. 

“Oh, we were screaming at the referees,” said Rowe in the immediate aftermath of that play near the goal line. “Everybody was screaming. Everybody was saying ‘It’s so clear!’ And I guess that he (Ed Marion) just didn’t want to see it. I don’t know if there was profanity thrown out there or not.  But I just remember that everybody was screaming. Well, then we got penalized, and they go in and score.”

Being angry at the officials is part and parcel of anybody’s psyche who experiences a questionable call getting leveled at their team, especially if that call prevents them from going to a Super Bowl. If you take away Keyworth’s score, as McCoy’s fumble recovery would have done, then the Raiders would have probably claimed victory over the Broncos. The Oakland players and fans both then and now believe that to be true, and they still get upset when discussing the 1977 AFC Title Game. Everyone with an open mind who saw Tatum’s hit and Lytle’s fumble will resolutely claim that Oakland got ripped off by the referees. And no less a person than Oakland’s managing general partner Al Davis felt the same way.

“We go in the locker room after the game,” said Rowe, “and I remember hearing Al Davis in a conversation with three or four other players. He turned around and these are his words…he said, ‘That will never happen again…because we’re going to have instant replay.’ And I mean I’m like, ‘Wow!’ You know I never thought about instant replay, but that’s what he said. He said ‘That will never happen again.  We need instant replay.’”

It would take until 1986 until an Instant Replay system was installed in the NFL for regular season and postseason games. And there would be several more egregious calls—and non-calls—by officials in several more big games, which would occur before teams and coaches could challenge plays on the field with the use of an Instant Replay system. But no one who was there or who watched it on television will ever forget the epic Rob Lytle fumble—or non-fumble—in the 1977 AFC Championship Game.

“It was the most blatant miss that I’ve ever seen in football,” lamented Rowe.  “I’ve seen a lot of instances.  You’ve got those things where you ask ‘Was he down? Was he up? Was his knee down? Was his knee up? Was it a quarter of an inch off the ground?’ I can understand that. But this was the most terrible call in all of football. It was the worst ever. I mean to take and to have the whole game decided by one play, and then have the referees be the arbiter of it. We always used to have a statement: ‘Don’t allow the referees to decide the game.’ And they did. They controlled that game, because that whole game turned around, and we missed out of going to the Super Bowl.  And I believe that we would have beaten Dallas in Super Bowl XII.”

Rowe can be excused for being upset, even 45 years after the event.  Getting to a Super Bowl takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice. Then to see your chance to go to the biggest game of the year denied by a missed call by a referee…well, that has to be most upsetting. You would have at least thought that the official closest to the runner would have blown the play dead. That is what they are supposed to do.

“There was no whistle,” continued Rowe. “I didn’t hear a whistle.  And I’m right there in the middle of all of it.  I’m right over on top of the left guard and the left shoulder of the center. If there had been a whistle, or somebody running in with a whistle…but I mean, it wasn’t like he (Lytle) was even close to being down. He was up in the air, and the ball came straight down! I mean it was right there! I thought that one referee (Marion) made the call, and the others didn’t want to overrule him. Well maybe I didn’t see it, but they all saw it.  They had to see it. On film…it’s really plain on film! Well, it wasn’t even close. That’s the thing. Referees are human. I understand that. But he had to see it! He could not have not seen that.”

Fortunately for the good of the game, however, enough influential people did see the Rob Lytle non-fumble to spend time discussing it when they talked about the possibility of installing an instant replay system in the league’s annual competition committee meetings. Even with the modern technology used today, mistakes are still being made, and will continue to be made with the instant replay system.  Nevertheless, a vital chapter that moved the debate towards reducing mistakes on the field with the possibility of utilizing instant replay occurred on the field at Denver’s Mile High Stadium on January 1, 1978, when the Broncos beat the Raiders, thanks in large part to Rob Lytle’s Non-Fumble.

Sources Used:

Interview with Dave Rowe on October 26, 2021.

Reidenbaugh, Lowell and Attner, Paul.  The Sporting News Super Bowl Book.  St. Louis: The

Sporting News, 1987.   

Joe Zagorski is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Pro Football Researchers Association.  He has written five previous pro football-themed books, and he is currently working on three more pro football-themed books.  In 2021, he was bestowed with the Pro Football Researchers Association’s Ralph Hay Award for lifetime achievement in pro football research and historiography.  He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

An Important Clue to Super Bowl VIII

By Joe Zagorski

On general observation, the result of Miami’s 24-7 victory over Minnesota in Super Bowl VIII was just your basic, run-of-the-mill thrashing from one great pro football team over a very good football team.  But upon a closer look, there was more to the Dolphins’ one-sided win than what met the eye.  

On January 13, 1974, the Miami offensive line enjoyed what could possibly have been their ultimate performance ever in blocking the stalwart Minnesota Purple Gang. Dolphins head coach Don Shula claimed his second straight Vince Lombardi Trophy, thanks in large part to his team’s rushing attack, which gained an impressive 196 total yards against the Vikings. Miami running back Larry Csonka, who won the Most Valuable Player award in Super Bowl VIII with 145 rushing yards and two touchdowns, was an eyewitness and a beneficiary of the strategies used by the Dolphins in that championship game.

But somewhat surprisingly, the origins of Super Bowl VIII actually began several years before the game, when Miami offensive guard Bob Kuechenberg and All-Pro Minnesota defensive tackle Alan Page were teammates at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana. Both of those players would go up against each other in practice during their college years, and as luck would have it, Kuechenberg’s main responsibility in Super Bowl VIII would be to block his old Fighting Irish teammate.  

In a recent interview with Larry Csonka, the plan for blocking Page came from Kuechenberg’s own attention to detail. Kuechenberg saw that Page, even back in their college days, was giving away too much information. 

“We had great communication in Super Bowl VIII,” admitted Csonka. “Kuechenberg had been a freshman at Notre Dame when Alan Page played at Notre Dame. Well Kuechenberg spotted a tic that Page had.  When he was practicing as a freshman against Page, who was a senior or a junior…you know…a varsity player. Then he tried to tell Page about it.  Page just blew him off as a freshman, know-nothing. So, Kuechenberg tucked it in the back of his head and remembered it. And when we played Minnesota earlier in the ’72 season, he realized at that point, about halfway through that game, that Page still had that tell-tale, or tic. And so he took that information to (Miami offensive line coach) Monte Clark, and we started to use it a little bit in the second half of that game.”

The Dolphins managed to come from behind and defeat the Vikings in that 1972 contest, 16-14.  As a result of the success of what Kuechenberg noticed along the line of scrimmage, he felt that it (the clue) could be used again if he would ever go up against Alan Page again. As it turned out, Kuechenberg would indeed go up against Page again, in the biggest game of the year.

“And then by the time that we learned that they (the Vikings) were going to face us in the Super Bowl,” Csonka continued, “Monte Clark and Bob Kuechenberg sat down and worked out some calls…some numbers with quarterback Bob Griese.  And that’s when…well it led to me being the MVP, because I was carrying the ball behind them. But that was an ingredient that made a difference. Bob Griese would come to the line, and Kuechenberg would say whatever he had to say…whatever the code word was, when he was sure what Page’s alignment was going to be, because of the tic. And we went where he (Page) wasn’t”. 

The focus of Miami’s running game in Super Bowl VIII featured misdirection runs, where half of the offensive line and a decoy running back went one way, and the other half of the offensive line and the actual ball carrier went another way. It was a guessing game wherein Minnesota’s defense never seemed to guess correctly. Page and his teammates were often facing double-team blocks, and the sight of Csonka running into the Vikings’ defensive secondary became a common occurrence. Right from their very first offensive drive in the first quarter, the Dolphins’ offense established its dominance. Csonka carried the ball five times worth 36 yards in that 10-play drive, which culminated with his first touchdown on a 5-yard run.

The accomplishments of Miami’s rushing attack continued all game long. It was a vintage example of what the Dolphins did best during the early 1970s. They just crammed the ball right down the Vikings’ throats.  By the onset of the fourth quarter, the game’s outcome was decided, and Alan Page had reached the point of genuine frustration.

“Page became infuriated,” remembered Csonka, “and he almost got himself thrown out of the game, because he was going upside people’s heads…because he was so upset because he couldn’t figure out how we were beating him. We were constantly going where he wasn’t. And that’s his way. That’s a weakness, because he’s not being…he doesn’t have the discipline to pay attention to detail, and he’s giving away his path, by some form of the way he puts his hand down, or whatever it was.”

Page incurred two personal foul penalties late in the fourth quarter as Miami was running down the last few minutes of the game. The Dolphins would win their second straight Super Bowl and would establish themselves as a strong juggernaut pro team of the 1970s.  But one question remained: What was the clue that Kuechenberg originally noticed from Page way back on the campus of Notre Dame University?

“Kuechenberg never told me, and I didn’t care,” said Csonka.  “Because at that point, even after the Super Bowl, he never said anything about it. But I knew after the fact. But well after the fact. I knew that the plays were being changed for a reason. But Kuechenberg never told the rest of us that. He told Monte Clark, and Monte Clark put himself and Kuechenberg and Griese together, and they worked out a plan that worked very well.  We started running to a point where Page was leaving.  And that worked out very well.”

Indeed it did, to the tune of a big win in the biggest game of the year.

Sources Used: 

Interview with Larry Csonka on April 11, 2022.

Wiebusch, John.  The Super Bowl: Celebrating a Quarter-Century of America’s Greatest Game.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990.

Joe Zagorski is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Pro Football Researchers Association.  He is currently writing a biography of former Miami Dolphins Hall of Fame offensive guard Larry Little.  

Friday, May 6, 2022

1950 New York Yanks: "Thinking Back Again...Looking Way Back Then . . . "

By TJ Troup  
New York Yanks (light blue) versus the New York Giants (red)
Still firmly believe that you do not write without having something to say. When the finished manuscript of "The Seven Seasons that Changed the NFL" was sent to the publisher, oh, you know the manuscript by the title of The Birth of the Modern 4-3 Defense felt that if nothing else at least now folks would know who played what position, and how well for those seven years. 

The reason that the book covered 1953 through 1959 was simple------had enough film to evaluate the players and team overall. Would have relished doing the entire decade, yet since there is not enough film available to write about the adventures of each team every week, went with what I had. Still firmly believe that I am a former player and coach, and that writing is secondary to my ability to dig deep and research. 

Over the years have relished getting to know men who really can write about this game of passion! How long is the list? Can I supply names? Oh yeah, but that is not what today's saga is about. Though listening, reflecting, and re-writing have been accomplished in the past, there have been times publishers wanted me to write about football the way they wanted it. 

My short fuse and legendary temper convinced me that there must be a forum for me to write and have had the good fortune to find that forum here at the Journal for my friend John Turney. Have decided that this year many if not all of my titles will be song lyrics. Fifty years ago in the spring of '72 a band from Los Angeles called the "Eagles" came on the airwaves with "Take it Easy". 

There was another band that spring that delivered some catchy tunes in a similar genre...."Pure Prairie League" with talented Craig Fuller. The opening strains of "Tears" would rocket up the country charts today, and thus the title from one of Craig's songs from that album. Ok, you have the title, now how about the subject you ask? 

Ready, here goes... 

When the AAFC ended after the 1949 season, the NFL and Bert Bell decided to add three teams from that league. Mr. Joe Horrigan tells us very succinctly on page 97 of Total Football; "(A)fter five financially unsuccessful seasons, Boston Yanks owner Ted Collins requested that the NFL cancel his Boston franchise and issue him a new one to operate in New York City. 

The league granted the new franchise only after Collins agreed to stipulations made by the New York Giants, in whose protected territory Collins would operate. It was agreed that the Giants would have first choice of all home-game dates and Collins would pay 25k annually for the right to operate in New York. Collins's new team, the Bulldogs, continued to play to empty seats, however. 

Then in 1950, as part of the merger between the All-America Football Conference and the National Football League, Collins purchased the assets of Dan Topping's AAFC Yankees, including player contracts and the lease for Yankee Stadium. The merger provided that the Giants had first choice of six players from the Yankee's roster, but even without the best Yankee players, Collin's team renamed the Yanks, was much improved. Quarterback George Ratterman and a number of fine runners gave the Yanks an exciting offense. Still, the team went virtually unnoticed in New York". 

 First off, where did the Bulldog players go? Five Bulldogs earned a spot on the Yanks roster, and of the five starting right corner Joe Golding contributed the most. Thirty Bulldogs did not play for anyone in 1950, while four were able to sign on with other teams. Thirty-five men suited up for the Yanks in '50 and sixteen of them are in their last or only season in the NFL. 

When you go to Pro Football Reference you should be able to quickly see what position, or positions each man played. Alas, unless I send it to them the listing will remain flawed, or in a harsher tone.....just damn flat wrong! Would relish stating a detailed evaluation of each man, but just not enough film. So, you are going to get what I have. 

DEFENSE: The Yanks would almost always align in a 6-2 defense with mostly man coverage from the secondary. Noticed I stated "almost".  The Yanks would drop their defensive ends into coverage, mostly man yet sometimes an area or zone. Many times all eight men would charge ahead, or red dog. 

Possibly Red Strader realized he did not have the talent on defense to stop the strong offenses he would face, and he felt let us attack, and let the chips fall where they may. Barney Poole was usually the right defensive end, though as the season progressed he did play some on the left. Lean quick combative Jack Russell was the nominal starter at left defensive end. Earning plenty of playing time at defensive end are Bruce Alford, and Big John Yonakor. 

Sports Illustrated in 1995 issued "Special NFL Classic Edition" and on page 11 shows Doak Walker luggin' the leather off left tackle with Yonakor in pursuit on Thanksgiving day at Briggs. 
The two main defensive tackles are Martin Ruby on the left, and Nate Johnson on the right. The two defensive guards are John Clowes, and Joe Signaigo. Jim Champion and Bob Kennedy earned their letter at linebacker, but the three men who got the bulk of the playing time are Duke Iverson, Ed Sharkey, and Joe Domnanovich (a holdover from the Bulldogs). Saw all of them make plays, but also saw all of them easily blocked. 

The one constant trait by the Yanks front eight was they just did not shed blocks very well. During the first six wins of the season, the Yanks allowed 159 yards a game rushing. During the five losses they were destroyed to the tune of 291 yards allowed rushing. How many games is a team going to win when the opponent gains just under 300 yards a game on the ground? Rookie Bennie Aldridge played some offense, yet he was basically a corner who played both corner positions. Joe Golding was fast, savvy, and intercepted seven times during the campaign. Saw him chase down runners taking the proper pursuit angle more than once on film. 

Pete Layden began the year as the starting left corner, but as the year progressed Aldridge got more playing time. The safety for this team was the remarkable Spec Sanders. A couple times during the year he came in on offense and delivered what we now know as the halfback option pass, but since he was a tailback in the AAFC he just did what he had done many times. 

On page 12 of the 1964 NFL League Manual it states most consecutive games passes intercepted. Listed at six are Night Train Lane, Will Sherman, and Jim Shofner (never did this). This is 100% WRONG/INCORRECT and still have the memo from Elias stating they had made an error. Seymour Siwoff came "unglued" when I stated this on Steve Sabol's show "NFL Films Presents". Three men intercepted in six straight games before the Night Train. 

Spec Sanders did not intercept on opening day against the Niners, but then pilfered 13 passes the rest of the season. He did not intercept against Green Bay on October 19th, thus he did intercept in the final six games of the season, earned a Pro Bowl berth, and then retired. Sanders was an adequate tackler, yet his strong suit was the quarterback, break on the ball, and intercept. Very similar in style to Paul Krause. Sanders would be my choice for defensive MVP. The Yanks as a team ranked fifth in the category of the defensive passer rating with a mark of 53.8 (the league average was 52.9). 

OFFENSE: Brad Ecklund was a determined center who was selected for the pro bowl, and he was the leader of the offensive line. John Wozniak played both guard positions, while Clowes, Johnson, and Ruby manned the tackle spots. Who played the most is anyone's guess, and while none of them would rank with the league's best, they all were capable. 

The other guard was Joe Signaigo who earned some All-Pro recognition. Joe was quick on the trap and counter plays, and was capable pulling on sweep plays. George Ratterman led the league in touchdown passes, and after seven games Ratterman had a passer rating of 82.3, which would have led the league if he could have maintained that pace. 

Since the Yanks were 6-1 and in first place, a case could have been made that GR would have been in the running for player of the year ahead of Graham, Waterfield, Van Brocklin, and Layne, but he faded down the stretch with a passer rating of 41.2. When Ratterman was rifling the ball to his excellent receiving corps on target the Yanks won, and when he misfired they did not. Zollie "tugboat" Toth began the year as a force running between the tackles. Willing, hard-hitting, and aggressive, he did earn a Pro Bowl berth, yet he also faded down the stretch during the campaign. 

Thus, at times, when Ratterman strode to the line of scrimmage for the snap from center he had three Black running backs behind him. Sherman Howard would come in at fullback to join right halfback George Taliferro and left halfback Buddy Young. Howard was an excellent receiver out of the backfield, elusive on kick returns, and an effective blocker for his size, and filled in at right corner at times. George Taliaferro had speed, toughness, was a capable receiver, and an exceptional passer(more on that later in the saga). 
Buddy Young
Buddy Young was short, had a fat belly, and galloped when he ran. Buddy Young was also very quick, and more important could accelerate instantly, and was also an effective receiver. Why is this the first time all you folks will read that this is the first African-American trio in an NFL backfield? Research is more than putting on a pot of coffee, and looking at old stat sheets much more. These three men helped Ratterman move the ball effectively time and time again. Howard and Taliaferro are the first African-American duo to score both rushing and receiving in the same game in NFL history. 

George Taliaferro tackled by Tank Younger
The starting left end is lanky rookie Art Weiner, and he was the deep threat every quarterback needs/relishes. Deceptive speed, long strides, and in some ways similar to Jim Benton in that he judged the ball well in flight. When the Yanks beat the Bears to move into first place with a record of 6-1 Art Weiner had 13 catches for 343 yards. He was still productive down the stretch, but when a team fades to third place, not much is going to be written about you. The starting right end week in and week out was Dan Edwards. A very capable route runner, his best asset was his ability to adjust to the ball in flight. Saw him on film make "circus" catches where he dove full out and latched onto the ball inches above the ground. Though he could not maintain the pace of Tom Fears, he did lead the league for awhile, and did finish second. Watching him astound the fans in the Coliseum at the first Pro Bowl game is a treat since he is the FIRST receiver in league history to gain over 100 yards receiving in the pro bowl. He would be my choice for team offensive MVP. 

THE GAMES: Possibly could write something about each game, yet will focus on three. Thursday night October 12th in Yankee Stadium against San Francisco. The 3-1 Yanks are behind in the fourth quarter. A rainy night before only 5,740 folks, and though Weiner and Edwards have combined to catch 12 passes for 146 yards...Ratterman keeps calling plays for his "three streaking Negro ballcarriers" and they deliver in the comeback victory. Spec Sanders sealed the deal with a late fourth quarter interception. 

 One week later on a Thursday night at Yankee Stadium the Yanks take on the Packers. New York is ahead 7-0 and the Packers had the ball on their own fifteen. Poole rockets in from right defensive end, and blasts Rote...the sack-fumble combination. Jack Russell storming in from the left eventually grabs hold of the pigskin for a three-yard fumble return score. Early in the second quarter after a Jack Russell sack of Christman; Fritsch of Green Bay booms home a 52-yard field goal. Later in the quarter, Christman finds Teddy Cook open on a crossing pattern for 17 yards and a touchdown. 

The Packers next possession:  Baldwin latches onto a Christman pass, but is hit and fumbles. A hustling Poole grabs the ball, and with time winding down in the half Ratterman pitches a strike to Weiner on an out pattern. Art turns up the sideline and outruns the Green Bay pursuit. 21-10 at the half. Yanks first possession of the second half and Ratterman sends Buddy Young in motion to the left, and then flips a flare to him. The touchdown is listed as 69 yards, but since they caught the ball behind the line and then motored, faked, and dashed into the end zone—the play seemed longer. 

Tobin Rote lofts a long pass to Baldwin for 85 yards, and the Packers look to fight their way back into this game when Rebel Steiner intercepts Ratterman. Green Bay fails on 4th and goal from the New York eight, but when the Commanche Kid Billy Grimes returns a punt to the Packer thirty-three early in the 4th quarter the Packers believe they can pull this one out. Fundamental mistakes by Green Bay put them in a hole and on a 2nd and ten play from their own eight-yard line Christman telegraphs a pass over the middle. Duke Iverson pilfers the pigksin and dashes 10 yards to score at the 6:13 mark of the fourth. Very late in the game Christman has the Packers again in the "redzone", but Golding intercepts. 

Five out of six but since four of the victories are over Green Bay and San Francisco, we still are unsure of just how strong a team is New York. Well youngsters we are about to find out. Though the Bears have the lead early, the Yanks rally as New York gains 276 yards on just 10 completions. Two weeks later in the rematch the Bears gain revenge. Many historians would state emphatically that the Eagles against the Browns opening night was the game of the year, and while significant for many reasons, the game of the year is going to be in Yankee Stadium on November the 19th between the visiting Rams of Los Angeles and the Yanks. 
George Taliaferro
 Since I have the complete play-by-play, and some film of the game, could easily turn this into a "war and peace" version, yet hat is not going to happen. Details? Oh yeah, plays explained? Oh yeah! Captains Jack Russell and George Ratterman win the coin toss, and Sherm Howard returns the opening kick-off 40 yards. Yanks struggle running against the Ram defense, and Spec punts. Ram attack begins with Waterfield throwing every down until Sanders intercepts and returns to the Los Angeles forty-five. A sack on first down, and on second down rookie right corner Woodley Lewis intercepts and returns to the New York fourteen-yard line. 

Ed Sharkey intercepts Waterfield to get his team out of a hole. The Yanks move into Ram territory on strong running, but Chet Adams misses on a 34-yard field goal attempt. Los Angeles moves 80 yards in ten plays. Right end Crazy Legs Hirsch on a beautifully conceived middle screen dashes down the left sideline for 36 yards. Fears cut block near the sideline is a classic. New York continues to try and run the ball, but Tank Younger who is simply the best left linebacker in the league is not going to allow the slippery Yank ball carriers to continually make first downs. 

Ratterman attempts to throw deep, but Tom Keane intercepts on the Los Angeles thirty-four. As the quarter comes to a close the Rams have the lead and Waterfield has already completed 7 of 14 for 107 yards. Sure looks like a career day for "Buckets". The teams trade possessions in the second quarter, and at one point Waterfield misses a 21-yard field goal. John Rauch in at quarterback for New York, and he lofts a pass up the right sideline to fullback Tugboat Toth. 

Not sure what Tank Younger's responsibility was on the play, but Toth is wide open and motors 60 yards before Keane knocks him out of bounds. Ratterman finishes the drive with a quarterback sneak, and we are tid at 7. Los Angeles has the best offense in the league, and Waterfield continues to strafe the Yank secondary. He completes four straight, but the drive ends with Martin Ruby blocking Waterfield's field goal attempt. 
George Ratterman
Ratterman gives the ball right back to the Rams as Lewis intercepts. Glen Davis gains 42 on back-to-back plays, but Waterfield's extra point attempt hits the crossbar. 13-7 Los Angeles. Surprisingly Red Strader goes for it on fourth down deep in his own territory, and Ratterman's pass to Young is incomplete, thus Waterfield boots hom a field goal from the 37 with 10 seconds left. At the half Rams 16 Yanks 7. 

New York's defense stops the Rams, and the Yank attack is a strong mixture of run and pass—the eleven play drive ends with New York in a very creative wing formation, and Ratterman pitching a strike down the middle of the field to fullback Sherm Howard for 15 yards and a touchdown on a circle route. The Rams respond with an impressive drive of their own. A statue of liberty run by Vitamin T Smith for 25 sets up Dick Hoerner's dipsy doodle pitch play sweep right for 32 and a touchdown. The Yanks punt, and with Norm Van Brocklin now at the controls it is time to exploit the Yank secondary as the Dutchman completes a post/corner route to Hirsch for 58. 

Martin Ruby sacks Van Brocklin, but the Rams have all the tools in the tool box. Smith on a reverse heads left, and he is left handed. The diminutive halfback stops and throws back across the field to Fears for 11 to set up another Bob Waterfield field goal attempt. It's good from 31 to up the ante to 26-14. A fine run by Taliaferro and Ram penalty position the Yanks in Ram territory, but Ratterman again misfires and Keane intercepts. Hoerner carries the ball for Los Angeles, and ultra-aggressive linebacker Ed Sharkey is kicked out of the ballgame. A naughty New York Yank! Los Angeles begins a drive that culminates early in the 4th quarter with Hoerner pushing in from 4 yards out. 33-14 at 00:56 of the 4th quarter. A promising Yank drive again is derailed with a Ratterman interception(Lewis), and a penalty on Naumetz of the Rams nearly gets him kicked out of the game. Getting hostile out there!. 

The Rams must punt, and an unblocked Martin Ruby thunders in from right tackle and blocks the punt. The ensuing mad scramble in the end zone results in Bruce Alford clutching the ball for a precious seven points. First and ten Los Angeles on their own thirty-six, and here comes Hoerner bouncing his off tackle right run to the outside, and behind superb blocks from Smith and Thompson goes 64 to score. Los Angeles 40 New York 21 at the 4:13 mark of the quarter. 

The Yanks come right back as Ratterman goes to Mr. Reliable...Dan Edwards back to back receptions of 31 and 16 give New York hope. Hoerner fumbles and defensive guard Joe Signaigo recovers. Taliaferro takes a reverse from Young, and lofts a long high tight spiral to left end Art Weiner. Weiner has run a deep crossing route, and though Williams of the Rams gets a hand on the ball, the rookie twists and grabs the ball one handed for a 50-yard touchdown. 

Los Angeles 40 New York 35 at the 7:48 mark. Can they do it? Knock off the powerful Rams at home before over 45,000 and move back into first place? Hoerner fumbles again, and d-tackle Paul Mitchell pounces on the ball. Ratterman passes and Tom Keane again intercepts. This is the second time in Ram history that Ram teammates have intercepted three times in a game. Los Angeles eats up clock on the 46-yard drive, and Waterfield puts the game out of reach with his third field goal. 

THE AFTERMATH: The Yanks and Rams gained over 1,000 yards in total offense. This game demonstrates we are in a new era of football. Creative formations, and plays, and especially with a new league standard set that of combined passing attempts per game. The Yanks and Rams combined to record 57 first downs, the most ever in a league game at the time. New York would now tailspin to a four-game losing streak as the defense is destroyed in back-to-back road losses to the Lions and Giants. They would end on a high note with a humiliation of the hapless Colts in which they outgain Baltimore by over 300 yards on the ground to finish 7-5 in third place. The story of the '51 Yanks needs to be told another day, but in 1950 they could have captured the imagination of Pro Football fans everywhere if they could have held onto first place and played the Browns for the title.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Remembering Ralph Kercheval: NFL & Horses

By Chris Willis, NFL Films

Ralph Kercheval, halfback, Kentucky

Today PFJ looks back at one of the more unique stories of one of the NFL’s best two-way players who had a better career in another sport. With this being Kentucky Derby weekend we take a look back at the career of Ralph Kercheval.

Kercheval was born on December 1, 1911, in Salt Lick, Kentucky (Bath Co.), a town about fifty miles east of Lexington. All of his life Kercheval never strayed too far from his bluegrass roots. He had a passion for sports and horses. He would make one passion help the other achieve his life’s work.

In 2001 (July 12th) I was fortunate enough to interview Kercheval at his home in Lexington. He talked about growing up playing football, especially his special skill of kicking. “I must have kicked the ball a million times as a kid,” recalled Kercheval. “I practiced in all my spare time. Sometimes we’d play football all day. I did more kicking when I was between the ages of 10 and 15 than any other time.”

After making a name for himself on the gridiron in high school, Kercheval went to play football at the University of Kentucky. In Lexington Kercheval was a triple threat star, gaining a reputation of being one of the best kickers/punters in the country. It was also there that he met a Wildcat legend in John “Shipwreck” Kelly. The two would reunite in the NFL.

Ralph Kercheval, punting, Univ. of Kentucky

After playing one year with the New York Giants, “Shipwreck” Kelly joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1933. The following year Kelly reached out to Kercheval to see if he was interested in playing pro football. This was before the NFL Draft was founded, so Kelly had the inside track to sign Kercheval. The fellow Kentucky star agreed to come to Brooklyn and play for the Dodgers.


The 6-1, 190-pounder Kercheval played 7 seasons (74 games) with the Brooklyn Dodgers. His biggest problem was his team’s lack of success, as the Dodgers went just 29-41-7 during his time there with only one winning season in 1940 (8-3-1). He scored 10 total TDs (4 rush., 5 rec., 1 INT ret.) and scored 186 career points.

He made only one First-team All-Pro selection and that was by the Boston Post in 1935. He was named Second-team All-Pro in 1935 by Green Bay Press-Gazette and New York Journal, and in 1936 by Collyers Eye. He was also named Honorable Mention by the NFL in 1935-1936.

In the end, Kercheval's NFL career was mostly known for his kicking prowess.

Ralph Kercheval (#1), ball carrier, Brooklyn Dodgers, 1939


During his time in the NFL Kercheval gained a reputation as one of the league’s best kickers. He was just a notch below his contemporaries Ward Cuff (Giants), Jack Manders (Bears), and Glenn Presnell (Spartans-Lions). He converted 31 career FGs and 33 XPs, making 86% of his extra-point attempts….6 times he finished in Top 5 in FGs made, including leading the league in 1938 with five.

     “I got Ralph Kercheval to come to Brooklyn. He was a halfback, but his real greatness was in kicking the football. He could punt, he could placekick. He was the best kicker ever to play the game. Hell, he could fart the football farther than these guys can kick it today,” said “Shipwreck” Kelly to author Richard Whittingham for his book What a Game They Played.

Ralph Kercheval, kicking, Dodgers, 1939
(Courtesy, Time magazine)

Kercheval seemed to thrive under pressure kicking, since he’d practiced so much growing up. “You’re not exactly fresh after playing both ways for 50 minutes,” recalled Kercheval. “One advantage I had over some punters was the fact pressure situation never bothered me. You see punters who are terrific in practice but experience trouble in games.”

In 1939 Kercheval was a part of NFL history.
October 22, 1939
First Televised NFL Game
Eagles at Dodgers, Ebbets Field

One of the major moments in the career of Ralph Kercheval, although he might not have known it then, was playing in the first ever televised game in NFL history.

13,000 fans inside Ebbets Field took notice of some of the bulky TV cameras. Roughly 1,000 TV sets in New York City would’ve had the opportunity to tune into the game. Allen Walz, a former Golden Gloves champ and NYU football star, did the play-by-play that day for W2XBS.

 “We were told about it,” said Kercheval. “Just said, ‘boys forget it. You are going to be on camera…we saw some people all before the game to set up in various places. At the end of the grandstand, where one of the field goals happened to be, they had a camera all set up. So we were aware of it.”

After a 7-7 halftime tie, Kercheval became the star of the game, kicking 3 field goals in the second half, from 44, 38, and 45-yards, to help the Dodgers to a 23-14 victory.


But playing in the NFL wasn’t Kercheval’s ultimate dream. He used the money he made playing pro football to finance his true passion- being a horse trainer. “After seven years that was enough for me, because football was primarily so I could be in the horse business,” said Kercheval. He bought a farm in Louisville and began training horses. Over the next four decades Kercheval trained horses including a stint at the famous Vanderbilt ranch. He would train several top racing horses but one stood out among the rest.  


Kercheval would go on to train a once-in-a-lifetime horse. His name was Native Dancer. “He was such an outstanding horse,” recalled Kercheval. “I don’t think there’s ever been another horse quite like him. There’ve been an awful lot of wonderful horses but he was just an outstanding horse.”

Native Dancer ran in 22 races and won 21 of them. His only lost was in the 1953 Kentucky Derby in an upset. Native Dancer got so upset that he went out and won the Preakness and Belmont to narrowly miss out on the Triple Crown. 

Native Dancer

In 1954 the horse graced the cover of TIME magazine and made him even more popular with his races on television. The horse would go down as one of the greatest racehorses of all time. 

Native Dancer
(Courtesy: Time

During my visit with Ralph in 2001 his wife of fifty years, Blanche, joined us. She was very charming as she took care of her dear husband. They were a perfect match. After he got back to Jersey after the interview, Blanche sent me a sweet thank you note. 

Ralph Kercheval, 2001 NFL Films interview

Ralph Kercheval and his wife Blanche

 Although Kercheval was a decent NFL player during the two-way era he will be more know for his career with the ponies. During our interview, he reflected on his time in the NFL. “It was a lot of fun,” said Kercheval. “I wouldn’t have played if it hadn’t been fun. But I played pro football because I loved to play the game.” 

As the Kentucky Derby goes off this Saturday, I'll choose to remember Ralph Kercheval and Native Dancer.