Gridiron Gotham

01.26.14

New York City Is the Storied Football Capital of the USA

The host of this year’s Super Bowl, the Big Apple has seen more than its share of memorable games and unforgettable players, from Frank Gifford to Peyton Manning.
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New York is a football town.

Super Bowl XLVIII will be played just across the Hudson River from a city with football embedded in its DNA. Baseball may stake its claim from the sandlots of Washington Heights to the shiny new stadium on E. 161st Street in the Bronx. And basketball may be followed avidly from Madison Square Garden to playgrounds on Coney Island. But football is the only professional sport to have put franchises in every one of the city’s five boroughs.  

The roots of football in New York are far older than the National Football League. They date back to when a handful of colleges were trying to codify a sport that that wasn’t quite rugby and not soccer either.

The first attempt to set down rules for football occurred in 1873 at the long-gone Fifth Avenue Hotel on Madison Square. Representatives of Yale, Columbia, Princeton, and Rutgers met to formulate rules for a game that had become increasingly popular in colleges across the Northeast. They came up with 12 rules, none of which still apply today. But while the ban on throwing or carrying the ball may have been long revoked and teams are no longer playing 20 to side, that meeting nonetheless marked the first time there were commonly agreed rules to American football. And this wasn’t even the most important rules meeting to ever take place in New York City.

More than 30 years later, spurred by concern about the high number of injuries and even deaths in college football, college representatives met at the Murray Hill Hotel. They made a number of rules changes, the most important of which was to legalize the forward pass. This new rule transformed football from a continual violent scrum and put it on the path to becoming the most popular sport in the United States.

As late as the ’30s, football in New York still meant college football, not the NFL. Pro football was still a sport on the fringes–the New York Giants were founded on what has been variously reported as a $500 or $2,500 investment by bookmaker Tim Mara, whose family still owns the team. Instead, New Yorkers were still drawn to the city’s college teams. NYU fielded a strong team throughout the ’20s and into ’30s. Columbia won the Rose Bowl in 1933. But perhaps the greatest football power in the city was the Fordham Rams.

In the late ’30s, Fordham was one of the dominant college teams in the country. It was defined by “the Seven Blocks of Granite,” the team’s seven-man line that held opponents scoreless eight times in two years. The best player on that line was Pro Football Hall of Famer Alex Wojciechowicz, but the player who became most famous was an undersized guard from Brooklyn named Vince Lombardi. Led by this dominating line, Fordham went undefeated in 1937 with a final record of 7-0-1.

Fordham’s games packed the Polo Grounds, but the biggest college games in New York may have featured teams from far outside the city. In fact, the greatest moments in Notre Dame football arguably took place in New York as part of the school’s legendary rivalry with Army, which was then bigger than the Iron Bowl and Michigan-Ohio State wrapped into one.

It was a 13-7 upset victory by the Fighting Irish over Army in 1924 at the Polo Grounds that led legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice to employ the phrase “the Four Horsemen” to describe the Notre Dame backfield. He wrote, “Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore their names are Death, Destruction, Pestilence, and Famine. But those are aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Crowley, Miller, and Layden.” These sentences are still perhaps the most famous ever written about football.

Four years later, at halftime of the Notre Dame-Army game, Coach Knute Rockne gathered his team in the locker room of Yankee Stadium and delivered the famous speech where he encouraged them to “win one for the Gipper.” This was a reference to the tragic death of Notre Dame star George Gipp eight years earlier. On his deathbed, Gipp supposedly told Rockne, "Sometime, when the team is up against it--and the breaks are beating the boys--tell them to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gipper.” Notre Dame returned to the field and beat a then undefeated Army team, and Rockne’s speech became immortalized in Fighting Irish legend (which must include the movie Knute Rockne, All American, in which future President Ronald Reagan played “the Gipper”).

Long before Deion Sanders was ‘Prime Time’ and Peyton Manning was selling pizza, Frank Gifford became the undisputed golden boy of pro football.

The last chapter in this epic New York football rivalry took place in 1946 in the “game of the century.” Army came into the game #1 and Notre Dame #2. Both teams were undefeated, and Army hadn’t lost a game since 1943 (to Notre Dame, of course). The Cadets had perhaps the greatest backfield in college football history, featuring Doc Blanchard, the 1945 Heisman Trophy winner known as “Mr. Inside,” and Glenn Davis, who would win the Heisman in 1946 and was dubbed “Mr. Outside.” Notre Dame had a pretty good team, too. Its starting quarterback, Johnny Lujack, would win the 1947 Heisman. Yet with all this star power, the game ended as a scoreless tie as both defenses played superbly. Both teams won their remaining games. But, as a result of that tie, in the final AP poll, Notre Dame was ranked #1 and Army #2.

After World War II, college football began to be supplanted in the imagination of New Yorkers by the professional game. The New York Giants established themselves as a cornerstone of the fledgling NFL and played a crucial role in establishing the league’s legitimacy. The Giants, led by quarterback Benny Friedman and running back Hap Moran, played a team of Notre Dame All Stars in a 1930 benefit for the unemployed held at the Polo Grounds. At the time, the NFL was still considered far inferior to the college game, and Notre Dame, led by all Four Horsemen, was considered a heavy favorite. But the Giants crushed the Fighting Irish 22-0, and pro football was on its way to be considered a legitimate competitor to the college game.

Before World War II, the Giants won three NFL titles--the most famous of which occurred in the “Sneakers Game” of 1934. With the field at the Polo Grounds frozen, the Giants, behind in the third quarter, switched their footwear from spikes to sneakers. They obtained the sneakers in an unconventional way, by having the team’s assistant clubhouse manager break into the locker room of Manhattan College and grab as many sneakers as he could find. It worked and the team put up 27 unanswered points to defeat the Bears and win the league title. But the team wouldn’t truly capture New York’s imagination until the ’50s, when they built a dominating team around an All-American halfback out of USC, Frank Gifford.

Gifford was the original celebrity football player. Long before Deion Sanders was “Prime Time” and Peyton Manning was selling pizza, Gifford became the undisputed golden boy of pro football. Although the Giants of that era featured other Hall of Famers such as the rugged linebacker Sam Huff, bruising fullback Alex Webster and the imposing tackle Roosevelt Brown, Gifford became the face of the franchise. Led by an MVP season by Gifford, the Giants won the 1956 NFL championship in their first season playing at Yankee Stadium under conditions so icy that the team wore sneakers yet again. But their 1956 NFL championship would be a mere historical footnote compared to the championship that the Giants lost just two years later at Yankee Stadium.

In 1958, the Giants won the NFL’s Eastern Conference with a 9-3 record and seemed poised for victory when they hosted the NFL Championship Game against the upstart Baltimore Colts. The Colts had also finished 9-3 after battling their way through the NFL’s Western Conference. The underdog franchise, then only five years old, was led by a bowlegged castoff named Johnny Unitas at quarterback. But, in what is still considered the Greatest Game Ever Played in the sport’s history, the Colts won 23-17 in sudden death overtime, the first ever in NFL history.

The game was responsible for the surge in popularity of football that has continued to this day. Tens of millions of Americans watched the nationally televised back and forth as the Colts came back with a dramatic field goal at the end of the fourth quarter and then won in overtime on halfback Alan Ameche’s plunge on third and one. The game transformed sports in America and firmly established football in the popular imagination.

The increased popularity of pro football generated an increased demand for teams. The staid old NFL soon faced competition from the upstart AFL, which, of course, put a team in New York. The new team, which initially called itself the Titans, soon became the more modern Jets. The new team struggled at first, but in 1965, they signed a handsome quarterback with bum knees out of the University of Alabama named Joe Namath and everything changed.

While the Giants receded into two decades of mediocrity, the Jets took over New York. Namath became a celebrity, opening his own bar and appearing in advertisements for panty hose. “Broadway Joe” in his fur coat on the sidelines became an iconic figure and with his rocket arm managed to lead the Jets to victory in Super Bowl III. The win meant that the AFL was finally given some respect before it merged into the NFL.

The ’70s were dark days for New York football. Both the Giants and the Jets descended into mediocrity, a situation epitomized by the “Miracle In The Meadowlands” in 1978. Then, the Giants in their two-year-old stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, lost a game to the Philadelphia Eagles at the last second when the team’s offensive coordinator insisted on running the ball with time running out rather than letting quarterback Joe Piscarik take a knee. Piscarik botched a handoff to running back Larry Csonka, the Eagles recovered the ensuing fumble, and cornerback Herm Edwards (a future coach of the Jets) took it in for a touchdown as time expired and the Giants lost. But the G-men would soon turn it around, led by their first round draft pick in 1981, a linebacker from the University of North Carolina named Lawrence Taylor.

LT’s arrival in the NFL electrified the league and redefined the linebacker position as he aggressively pressured quarterbacks. As a rookie, Taylor was voted Defensive Player of the Year and led the Giants to their first playoff appearance in almost two decades. The next year, the Giants hired Bill Parcells to coach and marked a return to the franchise’s glory days. The Giants would claim two Super Bowl titles in the next decade--a decisive win in 1986’s Super Bowl XXI against the Denver Broncos and a 20-19 victory over the Buffalo Bills in 1991’s Super Bowl XXV, when Scott Norwood infamously missed a 47-yard field goal with eight seconds left.

The Jets were no slouches in the ’80s as defensive end Mark Gastineau set what was then a single season record for sacks in 1984, which was also the year the team joined the Giants in moving to the Meadowlands. But Gang Green wasn’t able to match the G-men’s success in the post season--a streak that continues to this day. Both teams fielded admirable squads through the ’90s and into the new millennium--the Jets had exciting squads led by wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson and coach Bill Parcells, while the Giants made it to Super Bowl XXXV in 2001, losing to a Baltimore Ravens team led by arguably the greatest defensive player in the NFL’s history, Ray Lewis. But both teams returned to prominence in the 21st century.

The Jets became the most controversial and entertaining team in the league in the second half of the first decade of the 21st century. Loudmouthed coach Rex Ryan got New York’s attention with a single gesture, while the play of quarterback Mark Sanchez was dissected obsessively by Gotham residents. The Jets made back-to-back appearances in AFC championship games in 2009 and 2010, propelled by a stout defense led by linebacker Bart Scott and cornerback Darrelle Revis. Meanwhile, the Giants won two more Super Bowls, both as underdogs against the New England Patriots.

In Super Bowl XLII, perhaps the most astounding Super Bowl ever played, the Giants managed to beat the undefeated Patriots 17-14. The key play came with 1:15 left on the clock: Surrounded by pass rushers, quarterback Eli Manning threw a pass to seldom-used receiver David Tyree. Tyree, a player primarily used on special teams who had only caught four passes all year, managed to somehow catch the ball against his helmet. It gave the Giants a first down and 32 yards. Four plays later, wide receiver Plexico Burress caught a game-winning touchdown pass and the Giants, who were 12-point underdogs, became world champions. Four years later, in 2012’s Super Bowl XLVI, the Giants upset the Patriots yet again. Led by Manning’s passing, the G-Men secured another win against New England in a game decided yet again on the very last play.

In 2014, New York’s deep football heritage will come to the fore again. Super Bowl XLVIII will be the first NFL championship game played in the metro area since 1962, when Brooklyn native Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers bested the New York Giants 16-7 in a bitterly cold Yankee Stadium. It’s unclear whether the forecast for February 2’s game at the Meadowlands will be just as cold, but with the game featuring greats like Peyton Manning for the Denver Broncos and electrifying stars like Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman for the Seattle Seahawks, it’s a sure bet that the game will mark yet another proud chapter in the illustrious history of New York football. After all, what could be more appropriate than for our nation’s biggest sport to once again take pride of place in the nation’s biggest city?