On Sunday, January 6, 2019, the Philadelphia Eagles were in Chicago defeating the Bears in an NFL playoff football game. At the same time, the Pittsburgh Steelers and their terrible towel waving fans were ensconced back home drinking Iron City beer and watching the game on TV. But if we could only turn back the clock ………..
A step back in time:
cir 1950 – 1951 A new boy, his mother, and his little brother, Reid, move into a house in the 200 block of Malvern Rd. in West Palm Beach. I live just across the street, over the fence and under the mulberry tree on Nottingham Blvd. Bob Thurbon’s father is not living with them but the boys’ bedroom is filled with the strangest mementos imaginable. The whole room is a sea of black and yellow and, after opening his closet and putting on a huge leather sleeved jacket of the same colors, Bob proudly informs me that his dad was a “STEELER”. I think I ask him what he stole? I didn’t have a clue but it had something to do with real tackle football and sounded neat. Then we went back outside to play!
1958 – 1960 My freshman and sophomore years at Georgia Tech and the head defensive football coach is a gentleman by the name of Ray Graves. Coach Graves is a very large and impressive man with one physical feature you could never forget; he only had a partial left ear. By football season my junior year Ray Graves had taken the head coaching job at the University of Florida.
2012 Google has turned us all into investigative gurus and spell-check has accomplished over night what six years of “see the dog, his name is spot” and one day a week in 7th grade geography class failed to do fer speling werds.
With all this newfound knowledge, I decided to retroactively check out Bob Thurbon’s story and see if his father really was a Steeler.
When I Googled “Thurbon, Pittsburgh Steelers etc” I was in for quite a surprise. As it turns out, Bob’s father was not only a Steeler, he was also a Steagle! *(If you are an NFL fan you will want to take a look at the excerpts that follow from a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article by Gene Collier).
In the wartime year of 1943 there were not enough non-draft eligible players to man all of the existing professional football teams so the teams in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia(Eagles) combined forces to play their schedule. Right there in front of me on my PC monitor was the team photo and player names of the 1943 Pennsylvania Steagles and, sure enough, there he was:
Half Back…………… Bob Thurbon
It was a name further down the roster that caught me by surprise:
Center………………. Ray Graves
Bob Thurbon Ray Graves
It’s a small world Bob Thurbon and it’s good to find out you’re still part of it.
Jim Powell ………the boy on Nottingham that got to “come out and play”
* Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito — in 1943 they were pretty much monopolizing the shock market. The must wins were Midway and Normandy, not Steagles at Redskins. Able-bodied men were on battlefields. Significantly less able-bodied men were on NFL fields.
“The problem the NFL faced was that it didn’t have enough personnel,” said the decorated journalist Matt Algeo, who wrote a book on this topic called “Last Team Standing.” “The Cleveland franchise, the Rams at the time, had to fold. Their owners went into the service. That left nine teams instead of 10, which was very unwieldy for scheduling purposes. What made the most sense was to merge the two teams in Chicago (the Bears and Cardinals), but the feeling was that the Bears were so good that this would only make them better.”
The opposite sentiment pervaded Pennsylvania, where the Eagles were so bad the Steelers would only make them worse.
“But the Eagles owner, Lex Thompson, and Art Rooney were friends, so they made this arrangement,” Algeo said. “The NFL was very close to shutting down in 1943; it was on the agenda. If they don’t agree to merge, it’s very possible the landscape of American football would look completely different today. A lot of these franchises would have just been folded.”
Instead, the Eagles and Steelers became the Steagles and the league went forward with eight teams. The talent pool stateside after 1942 had some limitations. As Bears founder and Hall of Fame coach George Halas explained it, “We had tryouts. We signed anyone who could run around the field twice.”
This is how badly Steagles tackle Ted Doyle wanted to play. He worked at Westinghouse six days a week (everyone on the Steagles worked in the defense industry). After work Saturday, he would take the train to Philadelphia, play in an NFL game there Sunday, take the train home and be at work Monday morning. He later determined he was tangentially involved in the Manhattan Project, code name for the development of the atomic bomb.
This is how badly Bucko Kilroy wanted to play. “Kilroy was in the Merchant Marine, posted in New York, and he would somehow finagle a weekend pass to play,” Algeo said. “That was dangerous work, no easy assignment. He’d be out on sea escorts for war ships. Sunday he’d take the train from New York and play for the Steagles.”
If it wasn’t the $25 or $50 game checks that were so attractive, it must have been the convivial atmosphere between the coaches, Greasy Neale of the Eagles and Walt Kiesling of the Steelers.
“Greasy Neal was a real good coach, an offensive coach,” Art Rooney Jr. remembers. “But Walt and Greasy hated each other and never talked after 1943.”
The Steagles as an entity were heavily weighted eastward. Most of the home games were at Shibe Park, later to become Connie Mack Stadium, the uniforms were green and white, and the Steelers had only about six players under contract for 1943 while the Eagles had 16. The season-ending team photo included 20 men in suits and fedoras.
Art Jr., of course, still calls them “the Stiggles,” because if the Steelers are the Stillers, the Eagles are obviously … right.
The players weren’t a lot more comfortable than the coaches with the whole arrangement. According to an Indiana Gazette article from that period, Neale was instructing Tony Bova, an end who had played his college ball at Saint Francis, on a technique Neale preferred for his offense one day in practice. Bova ran the play exactly opposite of the way it was prescribed. Neale screamed at Bova, Kiesling screamed at Neale, and practice was over.
Bova would go on to lead the Steagles in receiving yards — 419 on 17 catches for a whopping 24.6 yards per catch and five touchdowns — and he would do it again in 1945 with post-war rosters at full strength.
Like most Steagles and most NFL players in 1943, Bova had some identifiable malady — flat feet, poor vision, partial deafness, bleeding ulcers — that the military found highly rejectable. Bova’s primary rejectable was that he was blind in one eye and partially blind in the other, but, as Art Rooney Sr. reportedly claimed, “He could hear the ball coming.”
Resolve to preserve professional football was not seen as a great public service at the time. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had written to the Commissioner of Baseball to urge that the games persist during the war for the morale of the nation, but pro football could drop dead and nearly did.
Part of what saved it were the trolleys.
“Everyone was working six days a week, so the NFL played on the day everyone was off, Sunday, and they mostly played in baseball parks that were along the trolley lines,” Algeo said. “That meant people didn’t have to use their gas rations to get there. Attendance actually went up.”
Outside of baseball, the NFL was among the few sporting events anyone could get to. Golf’s U.S. Open was shuttered. The rubber used to cover golf balls was needed for the war effort. In California, you could not see the Rose Bowl, which had been moved to North Carolina due to fears that Japan was about to attack the West Coast. To preserve gas, there was no Indianapolis 500.
But if you made it to a Steagles game, two of which were played at Forbes Field, you could see former Pitt stars Ben Kish and Bob Thurbon, as well as Bill Hewitt, who had been lured out of four years of retirement only to find that players now were required to wear helmets. He didn’t like it one bit.
It was at Forbes Field that the Steagles established an NFL record that stands to this day, though it’s been equaled three times — 10 fumbles in one game. And they won by two touchdowns.
Al Wistert, a 215-pound tackle out of Michigan who would go on to play on Philadelphia’s NFL championship teams in 1948 and 1949, was asked just a few years ago what it would be like if one of those teams played against an NFL team today.
As Algeo remembered his response: “Well,” Al said, “if we played by our rules, where we had the same 11 guys on the field the whole game, at the end of the first quarter, they’d be winning 100-0. But by halftime, they’d all be dead. You couldn’t have 300 pound guys trying to run down the field on every play for four quarters.”