- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Steelers and Cardinals don’t like each other much right now. In fact, Ryan Clark, Pittsburgh’s brain-scrambling safety, is probably picking out floral arrangements to send to the Arizona receivers he plans to put in the hospital 10 days hence, when Super Bowl XLIII is played. But it wasn’t always this way. For one brief, miserable moment in 1944, the two franchises were merged into one. Thus was born the…

“I don’t know what you’re going to call this team,” coach Walt Kiesling said after the alliance was struck. “There doesn’t seem to be any combination of Steelers-Cardinals that can be shortened enough to [fit in] a headline.”

In the league standings, the club was listed as “Card-Pitt.” As the losses mounted, though, sportswriters came up with a new name: the Car-Pitts (pronounced “Carpets”). Opponents, after all, walked all over them.

Pro football was a tough go during the war years, manpower being in such short supply. In 1943, the Cleveland Rams went as far as to shut down for the season, and their players were lend-leased to other teams. There were also several marriages of convenience - the Steelers and Eagles in ‘43 (the celebrated “Steagles”), the Steelers and Cardinals in ‘44, the Boston Yanks and the Brooklyn Tigers in ‘45. Whatever it took to keep the NFL running.

With 10 franchises and a roster limit of 28, the league needed about 250 able-bodied - or at least ambulatory - men to operate. Clubs found them wherever they could. In the Year of the Carpets, Brooklyn got desperate enough to suit up an 18-year-old; Cleveland, meanwhile, had two players with one eye. (The season before, a Giants scout had run an ad in newspapers that said: “Football players wanted! Play football and work in defense plants on weekdays. Earn big money.” He got nearly 100 responses and sent contracts to 15 prospects.)

Long-retired players came out of retirement to help their old teams - players like the Redskins’ Frank “Tiger” Walton, who was coaching high school ball in western Pennsylvania and hadn’t played since 1934, when the franchise was in Boston. The league tried to make it easier on this Coalition of the Willing by loosening the rules and allowing free substitution. Some of the guys, it figured, might have trouble playing both ways.

Just because you were unfit for the military, though, didn’t mean you couldn’t block and tackle. As Packers coach Curly Lambeau put it: “The army can’t tape up a weak knee or give a boy a few minutes on the bench when he gets tired. Why, we’ve had a lot of players who can’t walk 10 miles.”

The Carpets were pieced together with 13 Cardinals, 10 players with Steelers ties and five “free agents” who had gone to college in and around Pittsburgh. It wasn’t an entirely motley crew. The fullback, Johnny Grigas, finished second in the league in rushing. And one of the receivers, Don Currivan, set a record with the Boston Yanks three years later that still stands, averaging 32.6 yards a catch for the season.

Then there were center Vince Banonis and tackle Chet Bulger, who went on to win a championship with the ‘47 Cards. Guard Elbie Schultz was a pretty fair player, too. He was a starter on Cleveland’s ‘45 title team. But beyond them… put it this way: One of the Carpets, 6-foot-6 end Clint Wager, had been in the news the year before for fracturing his skull while trying to punt during practice.

This might be hard to visualize, so I’ll let the Associated Press explain it: “As he tossed the ball in the air with the intention of meeting it with his foot as it came down, a teammate called to him. Instead of turning his head, Clint bent it downward. His knee cracked him in the forehead.”

While the Carpets were undermanned on the field, they were overstocked everywhere else in the organization. They had two sets of owners, two coaching staffs, two general managers, two publicists. One of the PR men, John Holahan, would joke to sportswriters: “Nobody seems to realize we have the most distinctive outfit in the National Football League. We’re deeper in coaches than quarterbacks. With only 24 players on the squad, we’ve got one coach for every six men. No other club can match that or even come close. Now if we could only win a few games.”

The Carpets also had two home fields - Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, where they played three games, and Comiskey Park in Chicago, where they played the other two. The team was based in Pittsburgh, though, and wore the Steelers’ uniforms. And Kiesling, the Pittsburgh coach, was the one in charge (even though he and the Cardinals’ Phil Handler were listed as co-conspirators).

“Boy, Pittsburgh was a cruddy-ass town in those days,” Bulger told me. “You couldn’t open a window; the soot would just blow right in. It was like being in purgatory. We [Cardinals] couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there and go back home.

“It was brutal. We had guys [on the club] like Walt Kichefski. Walt could go for about five or 10 minutes, then the varicose veins would get so bad that he’d have to come out. … All the guys were working war jobs. I worked in a shipyard.”

Still, the Carpets nearly won their first game. They led the Cleveland Rams 28-23 with less than two minutes to go and had the ball near their own goal line after intercepting a pass. But Kiesling opted to punt out of his own end zone rather than take an intentional safety, and the kick was shanked out of bounds at the 10. Final score: Cleveland 30, Carpets 28.

The Carpets held only one other lead the rest of the season - a brief 7-0 edge over the Packers in the first quarter of their next-to-last game. They finished 0-10, were outscored 328-108, didn’t boot a single field goal and even had a player revolt in Week 5 after management fined Grigas, Schultz and halfback Johnny Butler $200 each for “inept playing” in a 34-7 loss to the Bears. The team refused to practice until the fines were rescinded, hunkering down in a nearby saloon. (Not that the practice was doing much good.)

Three weeks later, Grigas began a string of three straight 100-yard rushing games. He really did have a remarkable year under dire circumstances. In addition to his ball carrying, he threw six touchdown passes - two more than the Redskins’ Sammy Baugh threw that season. But losing was taking its toll on him. It was his second year in the NFL, and he had yet to win a game. (The Cardinals had been just as bad - 0-10 - the previous season.)

The day before the season finale against the Bears in Pittsburgh, as the Carpets worked out in icy conditions, Grigas complained of fatigue and seemed depressed. If the field remained frozen for the game, he told a few teammates, he didn’t think he’d play.

His roommate, Currivan, tried to talk him out of it but to no avail. On Sunday morning, he awoke at the Webster Hall Hotel and found a note that said:

“Did not want to wake you up. Funny thing, everything seems so mixed up. I’m going home [to Chelsea, Mass.] now. Can’t change my plans. Take care of my bags. Best of luck, Johnny.”

There was also a note from Grigas to the coaches and management. In it, he wrote that when you take a “physical beating, week in and week out, your soul isn’t in the game. … I tried to stick it out, but it has reached the stage where the mind is stronger than the will. … All I can say is that I am deeply sorry, but these are things which can’t be fully explained. Good luck, and may the team win just this one.”

Win? The Carpets got dry-cleaned 49-7. Without Grigas, they rushed for minus-2 yards and completed six of 30 passes. After the season, the war nearing an end, the Cardinals and Steelers got a divorce. The Cardinals kept their players, the Steelers kept theirs and they went their separate ways.

And here they are now, 64 years later, playing for pro football’s biggest prize. Best of all, SOMEBODY has to win.

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