- The Washington Times - Monday, December 19, 2005

Veteran end Bill Hewitt of the Chicago Bears was known throughout the NFL as a tough guy — so tough he played without a helmet on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. But on the foggy and chilly afternoon of Dec. 17, 1933, at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, his big thing was trickery.

With the New York Giants leading Chicago 21-16 late in the fourth quarter, Hewitt caught a 13-jump pass from fullback Bronko Nagurski out of the Bears’ single-wing offense. But instead of heading downfield, Hewitt surprisingly lateraled the ball to fellow end Billy Karr, who streaked 19 yards untouched for the touchdown that gave the Bears a 23-21 victory.

Soon after, the first official NFL championship game was, literally, history. The title contest became and remained one of the biggest events on America’s sporting calendar for 34 years until a merger between the NFL and the American Football League produced the first Super Bowl.

A year earlier, in 1932, the NFL appeared on shaky ground. Teams came and went, many of them drawing pitiful crowds. In those days, the nation’s favorite sports were baseball, boxing and college football. In most areas, pro football was strictly an afterthought.

But at the league meetings in February 1933, the NFL found a pair of mismatched saviors in owners George Halas of the Bears and George Preston Marshall of the Boston Redskins — avowed enemies who nonetheless had a big financial stake in the league’s future.

Brushing off objections by traditionalists, they pushed through a series of rule changes designed to open up the game. For example, a forward pass now could be thrown from any spot behind the line of scrimmage rather than just from 5 or more yards back. Also, hash marks were established, moving the ball 10 yards in from the sideline on any play ending within 5 yards of it. And in their most important contribution, Halas and Marshall proposed that the eight-team league be split into divisions, with a championship game between the first-place teams at season’s end.

So it was that in 1933 — a year in which the Depression gripped America, Franklin D. Roosevelt became president and the original Washington Senators won their third and last pennant — pro football truly entered its modern era.

There had been a title game of sorts in 1932, though it was billed merely as an extra regular-season contest, after the Bears and Portsmouth Spartans finished in a tie for first place. Bad weather forced the ersatz championship meeting indoors to Chicago Stadium on a field only 80 yards long, and the Bears won 9-0. Not many people cared.

But a year later, the Bears and Giants staged the real thing before 26,000 at Wrigley. The Giants won the East Division with an 11-3 record, while the Bears topped the West at 10-2-1, winning their last four games to start what became a 17-game regular-season winning streak over two years.

Founder Halas, a former University of Illinois player and briefly an outfielder with the New York Yankees, had coached the Bears (nee Decatur Staleys) from 1920 to 1929 before quitting to concentrate on his ownership duties. In 1933, however, he bought out co-owner Dutch Sternaman and reinstated himself for the second of his four coaching tenures.

These were two strong teams by standards of the day. Three members of the Bears have joined Halas in Canton: Hewitt, Nagurski and the immortal Red Grange. Giants coach Steve Owen also is there, along with end Ray Flaherty (later a title-winning coach with the Redskins), center Mel Hein, end Red Badgro and back/kicker Ken Strong.

The title game lived up to whatever hype there was in those days. The lead changed six times, with one of the Giants’ touchdowns set up by a “hidden ball” trick play on which Hein pretended to snap the leather to passer Harry Newman but instead stuffed it under his jersey, walked a few steps and then sprinted (more or less) 30 yards before Bears safety Keith Molesworth caught him.

“The idea was to just walk down the field,” Hein said. “But I took four or five steps, got excited and took off running.”

Newman, a rookie from Michigan who led the NFL in passing that season, remembered the play this way: “Their linemen were convinced I had the ball, and several of them landed on me. George Musso, who was about 270 pounds, got this very puzzled look and said, ‘Where’s the ball?’ I said, ‘Next time do you want me to do some card tricks?’”

Wisenheimer Newman had a sensational game. He completed 12 of 17 passes for 201 yards — astounding aerial numbers in that ground-oriented era — with touchdowns of 29 yards to Badgro in the first half and 8 yards to Strong in the fourth quarter, the latter giving the Giants their short-lived 21-16 lead.

In those days, many football stars had to do it all, as Nagurski demonstrated. The battering-ram fullback from Minnesota, who usually got his kicks stomping defenders into the turf, turned into a deadly passer. Besides his game-winning toss to Hewitt/Karr, he flung an 8-yard touchdown to Karr. This day, it seemed, Halas was outsmarting fellow Hall of Fame coach Owen — or at least Owen’s defenders.

Unfortunately, the first title game has been overshadowed, or maybe overchilled, by the famous “Sneakers” showdown between the same teams a year later. In that rematch on a frozen field, the Giants switched from cleats to sneakers at halftime and drubbed the supposedly invincible Bears 30-13. What an ad that would make today for Nike or Adidas.

But the first time for anything is notable, and the Bears carried the day by winning the first of their five championships in a 14-year span, including a surreal 73-0 annihilation of the Redskins in 1940.

Of course, all this was long ago. How long? Well, each member of the 1933 Bears received a winner’s share of $210.34, while the vanquished Giants had to settle for $140.22. We only can hope the boys didn’t spend the money recklessly.

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