Game 5: Overcome by art, I become a football fan

Green Bay Packers vs. Detroit Lions
Briggs Stadium, Detroit
November 27, 1952

I saw my first baseball card late in the 1950 baseball season (memory being what it is, I cannot remember the name of the movie I saw two weeks ago, but can remember that the card was the 1950 Bowman card of journeyman Cubs pitcher, Doyle Lade). The following year I discovered I had the recessive male collectors’ gene, and obsessively managed to get the entire Bowman 51 set from Whitey Ford to Johnny Pramesa. When I saw the Bowman football cards in the glass candy display case of my local delicatessen/candy store soon after, I bought a couple of packs and was hooked.

Tobin Rote

I fell in love with the traditional poses: running backs in the Heisman trophy stance; quarterbacks with football cocked behind their ears, other arm straight out; receivers stretched out with the ball on their fingertips; lineman either menacing (defense) or in blocking stances. And I loved the uniforms and the team logos (the Eagles Kelly green with eagle with a football in its talons was particularly evocative). But my first team was the Green Bay Packers, again for childish artistic reasons: I liked their garish Fauvist gold with green accents uniforms they adopted about this time. Their quarterback Tobin Rote became my first football hero.

I am sure I saw the Thanksgiving Day game between Green Bay and Detroit in 1951 (the Packers would be the traditional Detroit opponent in this game to 1963), although the details are obscured by time. While the game was not yet nationally televised, it was available on a New York channel, probably the one that televised the Giants games locally. The following year, the Packers were scheduled to play the Giants at the Polo Grounds, and after some wheedling and cajoling, my dad got tickets to the game. The Packers obliged by wearing the all gold with green numbers uniforms, but for reasons I never did hear, Rote did not play (nor did I see rookie star receiver, Billy Howton); instead, Babe Parilli, the Packers number one draft choice for that year, did. It was a dull, ball-control game dominated by defense and Giants turnovers, and while the Packers won, I was very disappointed to not see my two football heroes, Rote and Howton, play.

Bill Howton

Eleven days later I did see them on television in the Thanksgiving Day game, and was rewarded by a long TD pass and run from Rote to Howton down the far sideline near the end of the first half to get Green Bay close (the Lions had run up a big lead early in the game). However, Thanksgiving Day routine, established the previous year, was to leave at halftime for the drive from New Rochelle to my grandfather’s house in Sunnyside Gardens where the family had dinner, arriving in time only to see the last minutes of the fourth quarter. And it was also standard practice for Bobby Layne and the Lions to rouse from their slumbers in the second half, and pull away to win the game handily, which they had done by the time I got to Grandpa’s that day.

Ironically, Rote was traded to arch rival Detroit following the 1956 season, and after an injury to Layne, got to lead them to their last NFL championship against the Browns. Tobin Rote is also the answer to one of the great sports trivia questions: the only quarterback to win an NFL and AFL (with the San Diego Chargers in 1963) championship. And he retired with a record: most career yards rushing for a quarterback. As of 2019 he is ninth on the list.

Emlen Tunnel

In time, my uncles and my dad would have me rooting for the Giants, especially my maternal Uncle Bill, my Irish Catholic Godfather, because for a New York Irish Catholic, rooting for the Mara Men was like an extra sacrament, and Emlen Tunnel, the great defensive back and kick returner, would become my first Giant hero. But because of the then imposed local TV blackout of home games, I saw neither of the two great defining games of the Giants in their glory years—the 56 championship victory over the Bears, and “the Greatest Game Ever Played” overtime defeat to the Colts in 1958.


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