- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 25, 2005

“Perhaps you didn’t realize you could have won this game. But I think there’s no doubt in your minds now. You will never lose another championship.”

Vince Lombardi to his Green Bay Packers, Dec. 26, 1960

So true, so true. The Packers would win NFL titles in 1961, 1962, 1965, 1966 and 1967, plus the first two Super Bowls. By 1969, when he became coach of the Washington Redskins after a year away from the sidelines, Lombardi had morphed into St. Vince — a genuine sports legend, albeit one who died of colon cancer a year later.

But all this was in the future 45 years ago today as the usually rock-rumped Lombardi sought to console his vanquished troops in the bowels of Franklin Field after a 17-13 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

The defeat was especially painful because the Packers had come so far and so close to their first championship since 1944. Two years earlier, Green Bay had gone 1-10-1 before the widely unknown Lombardi left Jim Lee Howell’s staff with the New York Giants and moved from the Big Apple to the NFL’s smallest city. Booting backsides left and right, he got the Packers up to a respectable 7-5 in 1959 and then to 8-4 and an unexpected Western Conference title in 1960.

The championship game was billed as a battle between the young Packers and the veteran Eagles, who also had soared spectacularly after finishing last in the East in 1958. Philly was led by coach Lawrence “Buck” Shaw, quarterback Norm Van Brocklin and center-linebacker Chuck Bednarik — all of whom retired following the season.

The game was a low-scoring, intense affair that began at noon on a Monday because Franklin Field, on the University of Pennsylvania campus, had no lights. The weather was practically balmy for a late December day in the City of Unbrotherly (Sporting) Hate, with temperatures in the high 40s, allowing 67,325 eyewitnesses to concentrate on the game and their cheesesteaks without shivering.

For much of the afternoon, the Packers dominated, running 85 plays from scrimmage to the Eagles’ 48 and accumulating 401 yards and 23 first downs. However, all this offense produced only one touchdown and two field goals as the Eagles’ defense repeatedly thwarted threats, and Philadelphia led by four points late in the fourth quarter.

Then, even with star halfback Paul Hornung on the bench with a pinched shoulder nerve, Bart Starr began driving the Packers downfield as the crowd turned silent. He completed four passes, putting the ball at the Eagles 22, and flipped another to powerful fullback Jim Taylor, who smashed 13 yards to the 9 before being tackled by Bednarik, the last of the NFL’s 60-minute men, as the clock raced toward zero.

Ten, nine, eight seconds — and Bednarik, taking no chances, sat on Taylor as the game ended.

“I was right on top of him, and I stayed there,” Bednarik said afterward. “You’re darn right I was watching the clock. I made up my mind I was going to lay on him until it was over.”

When it was, Bednarik arose and loomed above Taylor. “Get up!” he screamed. “The [expletive deleted] game is over!”

Then Bednarik looked toward the stands, raised his fists high above his head and unloosed a scream of triumph as fans across Wisconsin mourned.

Yet Bednarik’s howl also was a last gasp for Philly fandom. After the game, Shaw and Bednarik quit while on top — literally in the latter’s case. Then Van Brocklin, one of the NFL’s best pure passers ever, became coach of the expansion Minnesota Vikings the next season.

Trivia time: Remember who replaced Van Brocklin brilliantly with the 1961 Eagles, passing for 3,723 yards and 32 touchdowns for a team that finished second to the New York Giants in the East with a 10-4 record?

Fellow by the name of Sonny Jurgensen, who turned up eight years later as Lombardi’s quarterback with the Redskins. Which brings to mind a marvelous, if irrelevant, story.

In the summer of 1969, as the Redskins trained in Carlisle, Pa., the famously high-spirited Jurgensen was interviewed by Howard Cosell for a documentary about Lombardi. After the quarterback referred several times to “Mister Lombardi,” Cosell said, “Wait a minute, Sonny, what’s this ‘Mister’ business? I never heard you call anybody ‘Mister’ before.”

Replied Jurgensen, zinging a one-liner as artfully as he did passes: “Why, Howard, I thought that was Coach Lombardi’s first name.”

Shaw, a former Santa Clara coach who was 61 in 1960, commanded about the same respect. With the Eagles, he was able to control and contain the prickly Van Brocklin, whom Philly acquired from the Los Angeles Rams before the 1958 season. The quarterback passed for more than 7,200 yards during the next three seasons and hurled 24 TDs in his final year as the Eagles improved from 7-5 to 10-2.

Against the Packers, however, Van Brocklin completed just nine of 20 for 201 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown to Tommy McDonald in the second quarter that gave Philadelphia a 10-6 halftime lead.

The Eagles’ only other TD came on a 5-yard, game-winning run by Ted Dean in the fourth period with 5:21 remaining after the Packers had gone ahead 13-10 when Starr hit Max McGee for 7 yards.

Were the one-shot Eagles a team of destiny? Said Bednarik: “[If so,] we didn’t know it then. We found out about that later.”

Had the Eagles and their fans realized what disappointments lay ahead, they might have celebrated the championship a little more enthusiastically. The next day’s nominal victory parade was one car long — with no honking.

“I remember I want to Wanamaker’s to buy two or three victory mugs,” said defensive back Tom Brookshier, later a longtime TV football analyst. “The guy selling them recognized me and said, ‘Hey, Tom, good game yesterday. Have a good offseason. See you in training camp next August.’ That was it. Things were a lot different then.”

Too bad because for the Eagles and their fans, the 1960 championship has had to suffice for a long time. The franchise hasn’t won another, losing Super Bowls to Oakland Raiders in 1981 and the New England Patriots in 2005.

Maybe we should call it the curse of St. Vince. After all, that was indeed the only time his Packers lost a championship game, and perhaps Somebody Up There didn’t like the idea.

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