- The Washington Times - Monday, December 20, 2004

One fine day in 1951, a 13-year-old Washingtonian encountered a bulging book entitled “Greatest Sports Stories From the New York Times” at Woodward & Lothrop’s on F Street NW. More than a half-century later, he could quote from memory Louis Effrat’s lead on his piece about the 1950 NFL title game:

“It was the day before Christmas and all through the house, 29,751 rabid rooters hoping for a miracle while gazing gloomily at the clock all but gave up on the Cleveland Browns …”

If Effrat’s prose was memorable for that era, so was his subject. On a frigid, frostbitten day at Cleveland Stadium, the Browns won the championship of their first NFL season 30-28 when Lou “the Toe” Groza kicked a 16-yard field goal with 20 seconds to play — one of the few pro football titles to be decided in the final minute.

More than 16 years before the first Super Bowl, Groza was delivering a Super Kick to end a Super Game.

Ten future Pro Football Hall of Famers cavorted on the frozen tundra that afternoon. Six wore Browns uniforms (Groza, quarterback Otto Graham, tackle Len Ford, end Dante Lavelli, center Frank Gatski and fullback Marion Motley); four were in Rams garb (quarterbacks Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin and ends Tom Fears and Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch). Both coaches, Cleveland’s Paul Brown and Los Angeles’ Joe Stydahar, also were to take up residence in Canton.

Equally impressive were the story lines for each team. Cleveland had won all four titles in the defunct All-American Football Conference, but NFL partisans insisted the Brownies would get their comeuppance — right in the rear, mind you — upon joining their sacrosanct circuit. Instead they bushwhacked the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles 35-10 in their first game, finished the regular season with a 10-2 record and outmuscled the New York Giants 8-3 in the conference title game.

Meanwhile, the Rams’ offense was the flashiest thing around Tinseltown and environs at the midpoint of the 20th century. With Waterfield and Van Brocklin striving to outdo each other, Los Angeles scored 70 and 65 points in successive games against the Baltimore Colts and Detroit Lions and totaled 466 on the way to a 9-3 record. The Rams didn’t worry about defense too much (their 309 points allowed was more than twice the Browns’ 144), but fans weren’t complaining.

Ghastly weather for the title game — intermittent snow flurries, 20-degree temperatures and 28 mph winds blowing off Lake Erie — kept many away from Cleveland’s cavernous, 78,000-seat stadium in an era when television had not yet blessed pro football with widespread national exposure. (For six regular-season home games, the mighty Browns averaged just 33,387.)

Soon after the title game started, an even colder chill swept Browns fans. The Rams needed only one play and 20 seconds to score when Waterfield teamed with former Army All-American Glenn Davis on an 82-yard pass-and-run touchdown.

Then the teams settled down to smashmouth football. Neither managed 100 yards rushing, but Waterfield completed 18 of 31 passes for 312 yards while Graham was 22 of 32 for 298 yards.

With the Rams leading 28-20 early in the fourth quarter, Graham tossed a 14-yard touchdown to Rex Bumgardner to bring Cleveland within a point. Ironically, considering Groza’s renowned kicking prowess, it now appeared an unsuccessful conversion attempt might cost the Browns the championship, holder Tom James having failed to handle a low snap following Cleveland’s second touchdown.

An interception by Tommy Thompson, one of five against the Rams, gave the Browns another chance late in the final quarter. Graham completed a 22-yard pass to halfback Dub Jones but — horrors! — fumbled the ball away on the next play.

The Rams went three and out and punted, but time was running out for the Browns, who had just 1:48 to travel 68 yards. The offensive thrust was all up to Graham, who finished his career in the mid-‘50s as one of the biggest winners in pro football history: 10 championship game appearances in 10 seasons and a 105-17-4 career record.

First, Graham ran for 14 yards after failing to find a receiver open. Three completions in the flat, two to Bumgardner and one to Jones, advanced the ball to the Rams 11 as the suddenly energized spectators tossed away their despair, if not their flasks.

With 40 seconds left, Graham ran diagonally on a quarterback sneak to put the ball in the center of the field and called time out. The Browns could have, perhaps should have, run another play, but Graham was confident Groza would make the chip-shot field goal. (Remember, the posts were on the goal line back then.)

Groza, who doubled as an offensive tackle, lined up his kick. In what ultimately was a 21-year career, Lou the Toe accounted for 1,608 points, made the Pro Bowl six times and was NFL Player of the Year in 1954. But his biggest moment came in 1950 while Santa was summoning Rudolph and oiling the runners on his sleigh.

The snap, James’ hold and Groza’s 16th field goal of 1950 were perfect, along with the Browns’ record of winning every championship in their history. (That achievement ended a year later when the Rams gained 24-17 revenge in the title game.)

Los Angeles had time for one play after Groza’s kickoff, but Van Brocklin’s 55-yard bomb was intercepted, and the Browns began their celebration.

“You were great, Groza!” Graham yelled in the jubilant locker room.

Said Groza: “You were all right yourself!”

Then Lou the Toe kissed his shoe.

Standing in a pile of discarded equipment, Paul Brown forgot for once to be stoic.

“Did you ever see one as exciting as that?” he said. “I’ve got the gamest bunch of ballplayers in the business. … Hey, what was the final score anyway?”

Over on the Rams’ side, Waterfield stared into space and Fears kicked idly at the floor. Coach Stydahar, his eyes wet and his words blurred, managed to mutter, “The Browns are a great team.”

So they were — and it took a great team to win a great game.

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