Few football games have been played in such bizarre conditions as the “Blizzard Bowl,” the NFL Chicago Cardinals-Philadelphia Eagles championship game on December 19, 1948. Stunned by an early morning storm that spilled nearly a foot snowfall over the Philadelphia area, neither team was sure the game would even be played.
The snow at Shibe Park masked the hash marks and yard lines and made measurements on the first try almost impossible. Officials used ropes to mark the sidelines. Fans with shovels helped with the maintenance of the pitch and watched the game for free. Three-foot-high snow piles surrounded the field.
Eagles and Cardinals plunged ankle deep in snow which added weight to their uniforms. To prevent frostbite, players wrapped their hands in duct tape. The temperature hovered around 27 degrees, but winds of nearly 20mph made the passage problematic at best.
“No football match has ever been played with greater handicaps,” wrote a journalist.
And Eagles running back Steve Van Buren, who scored the only touchdown in the team’s first league win, has almost slept it all.
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Eagles Star Steve Van Buren Figures Championship game postponed
In the previous season’s NFL Championship game, also against the Cardinals, Philadelphia lost to Chicago, 28-21, on an ice-covered court. Van Buren only ran for 26 yards on 18 carries.
Eager to avoid a repeat, Eagles coach Earle “Greasy” Neale urged NFL commissioner Bert Bell to postpone the duel on snow. But coach Jimmy Conzelman, from whom the Cardinals were favored, considered the conditions a level playing field for the two teams and insisted on playing.
“We have to consider the many outside locals who made long trips to see the game,” Bell said ahead of a sold-out season finale. “There are 1,000 Chicago fans here and a lot of Erie, Pittsburgh, New York and other cities. We will have to play.
Bad weather crippled the business of the Scalpers, who sold a 40-yard seat for as little as 50 cents. “As you walked along the street,” the Philadelphia Investigator reported, the scalpers “were tapping you on the shoulder with tears in your eyes, saying, ‘Take them for nothing.'”
Almost 9,000 of the 37,000 plus ticket holders stayed at home. Some watched the first television broadcast of the NFL Championship game at home. Van Buren, who led the NFL on rushing in 1948 with 945 yards, also almost stayed at home.
After seeing snow cover his suburban Philadelphia neighborhood early Sunday morning, Van Buren fell asleep again, thinking the game would be postponed. Then Neale called his 27-year-old star to ask where he was. “The game is still on,” he told Van Buren, “so you better get here.”
With deeper snow in the Philly suburbs trapping his car in the driveway, Van Buren had to use public transportation to get to the game. He took a bus, a tram and a metro. Then he walked six blocks to get to the stadium in time to don his No.15 jersey for the 1:30 p.m. game.
Not that the event was going as planned. “Supersonic Steve” and other players were called in from the locker room to help workers remove a snow-laden tarp from the pitch, delaying the game by half an hour. The quirks didn’t stop for more than two hours.
Huge piles of snow surround the field at Shibe Park
Shortly before kick-off, the stadium team turned on the lights, piercing the darkness and producing an otherworldly effect. This brilliant idea didn’t help either quarterback.
Philadelphia’s Tommy Thompson, who threw for 297 yards in the 1947 title game, completed 2 of 12 passes for seven yards. Cardinals quarterback Ray Mallouf — playing in place of injured Paul Christman — was 3-for-7 for 35 yards. Due to a false start penalty against the Eagles, Thompson’s roughly 65-yard first quarter lift against Jack Ferrante was canceled.
At halftime, fans cheered as the majorettes performed a “snow ballet”. During the three quarters, the game was scoreless. The Eagles continued to hand the ball over to Van Buren, who led all rushers with 98 yards on 26 carries.
Essentially using a nine-man front to stop the run, the Eagles only allowed the Cardinals to pass the Philadelphia 40-yard line once. This possession ended with a failed basket. The kickers for the game were 0-for-4 on field goal attempts. The returlers fielded only two of 13 punts.
In the fourth quarter, Joe Muha’s 59-yard punt pinned Chicago inside his 10. Then, Mallouf missed a snap that Philadelphia defensive lineman Bucko Kilroy recovered. The Eagles turned the mistake into a 5-yard touchdown from Van Buren, who crossed a wide lane to the right and sank into the unexplored snow in the end zone.
The Eagles celebrated briefly, then cleared the snow off the pitch for the extra point in the 7-0 win. When the final whistle sounded, fans swept Van Buren off the pitch as the snow continued to fall.
“I’ll never warm up again,” the Eagles star said afterwards, adding, “It seems like every time they tackle me I find myself face down in the snow.”
Thompson said he hadn’t felt anything after the first quarter: “I was numb.”
“A lot of us went straight to the showers,” recalls Eagles goaltender Duke Maronic. “We didn’t take off our uniforms or anything, just our headgear. We stood under hot water just to thaw out.”
Neale said: “Everything you saw today we got last year. But we couldn’t use our reduced sets last time because the ground was frozen over. The weather conditions were worse today than a year ago, of course, but the base may have been a little better. “
Still wearing an aviator cap and helmet, Conzelman said the Cardinals were “exhausted” by a victory from behind in the season finale against the Chicago Bears the week before.
“Boys, don’t feel bad; you played your league game a week ago, ”he told his players. “You can’t be emotionally fit for two of these tests in two weeks.”
In 1949, Steve Van Buren led the Eagles to another NFL title
In 1949, the Eagles won another NFL title, beating the Rams on soggy ground in Los Angeles. Arriving on time for the game, Van Buren ran for 196 yards, a record for an NFL Championship game that lasted until 1988.
“Steve Van Buren raced today the best I have ever seen racing,” Neale said afterwards. “Maybe Bronko Nagurski was better, but no one ran better than Van Buren in this mud.”
For Van Buren, inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1965, the performance of the championship match crowned an eight-year career.
“Watch those old movies and you know Steve Van Buren was something special,” longtime NFL head coach Andy Reid said after the former Eagle’s death at 91 in 2012.
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