The National Football League’s first championship in 1932 bore little resemblance to the modern-day spectacle of the Super Bowl. Played indoors on a 60-yard field squeezed inside a Chicago hockey rink, the game lacked its star quarterback, who couldn’t get off from work, and was decided on a controversial touchdown. Look back at what might be the strangest game in NFL history.
On a bitter December day in which the Windy City lived up to its billing, Bronko Nagurski lowered his leather helmet like a battering ram and plowed through both the fierce Chicago snow and the fearsome Green Bay Packers. As the Chicago Bears fullback smashed through the defense like a snarling bull on the loose, the discarded Packers who littered Wrigley Field’s frozen gridiron could only watch as Nagurski’s blue-and-orange striped socks dissolved into the shroud of white flakes as he barreled 56 yards down the sideline to the end zone. To the delight of 5,000 shivering Bears fans, the touchdown sealed a 9-0 victory over the three-time defending champions and ensured Chicago a share of the 1932 National Football League (NFL) regular-season title along with the Portsmouth Spartans, who finished with an identical .857 winning percentage.
With the blessing of NFL president Joe Carr, the Bears and Spartans agreed to face each other the following Sunday in the league’s first-ever championship game. As with the rest of the United States economy, the Great Depression had hit the NFL hard. The league had contracted to eight teams, the lowest in its history, and the impromptu title game promised badly needed cash for both squads, particularly for the small-market Spartans, who had entered the season $27,000 in debt and practiced in roadside pastures and even New York’s Central Park on road trips in order to save money. With Chicago’s population nearly 100 times that of Portsmouth, the penny-pinching Spartans readily agreed to travel by bus from their sooty Ohio industrial town of 40,000 in hopes of a bigger gate.
As game day approached, however, legendary Bears owner George Halas worried about the potential payoff. Sub-zero temperatures continued to grip Chicago in its arctic clutch, and Wrigley Field was buried underneath waist-high snowdrifts. Fearing that few fans would brave the elements outside, both teams agreed two days before kickoff to move the game inside Chicago Stadium.
The world’s largest indoor sporting arena, home to hockey’s Chicago Blackhawks and both the Republican and Democratic conventions in 1932, was a familiar venue to the Bears, who had played a charity football game there in 1930 against their cross town rival Chicago Cardinals. Halas knew, however, that the move from the friendly confines of Wrigley Field to the cramped quarters of Chicago Stadium would bring not only warmth but also a huge complication—the hockey rink could only accommodate a 60-yard field as opposed to the standard 100-yard gridiron.
With necessity being the mother of invention, the truncated field required special ground rules. Teams would kick off from the 10-yard line and bring touchbacks out to the 10-yard line as well. Whenever a team crossed midfield, the ball would be moved back 20 yards to artificially lengthen the field. Field goals would be banned, and a single goal post would be erected on the goal line, rather than at the back of the end zone, for extra point tries. Since the field would also be a few yards narrower than normal and ringed by a solid wall near the sidelines, in order to avoid injuries teams would be allowed to move the football toward the center of the field before the next play if a ball carrier went out of bounds or was tackled within 10 yards of the sideline, marking the first use of “hash marks” in professional football.
On the night of December 18, 1932, the Bears in their home whites and the purple-clad Spartans took to Chicago Stadium’s shoehorned field for the NFL’s first championship game as well as its first regulation indoor contest. However, an important name was missing from the Portsmouth roster printed in the fans’ 10-cent program: All-Pro quarterback Earl “Dutch” Clark. The NFL’s leading scorer in 1932 and future Hall of Famer encountered a problem not faced by modern-day pros—he couldn’t get off from work. Contracted as the head basketball coach at his alma mater, Colorado College, Clark was not permitted by the college president to miss his duties against the University of Wyoming to play in the unscheduled title game.
The players who did play before a near-capacity crowd of 11,198 fans dug into the 6-inch layer of dirt and tanbark that covered the arena’s cement floor and had been used the previous two nights by a circus sponsored by the Salvation Army. Unfortunately, the performing elephants left behind more than just memories, and the manure odor caused at least one Chicago player to get sick on the field.
The game turned into a bit of a circus itself. Players repeatedly lost their footing on the makeshift turf as they tried to run, and instead of stimulating offense, the abnormally short distance between end zones limited long runs and made passing nearly impossible. Interceptions (eight) outnumbered completions (five). With no field goals permitted, the game devolved into a series of goal-line stands and dueling punters, who sent fans ducking for cover as they booted pigskins into the balconies, off the rafters and even onto the keys of the arena’s organ.
The fourth quarter began with the game still knotted in a scoreless tie. With 11 minutes left, Chicago’s Dick Nesbitt intercepted a wayward pass and returned it to Portsmouth’s 7-yard line where the Bears put the ball in the hands of the bruising Nagurski. After driving the ball to the 2-yard line on two runs, Bears quarterback Carl Brumbaugh handed the ball to Nagurski for a third consecutive play. As the Portsmouth defense charged toward him, the fullback saw a purple wall blocking his path. He suddenly stopped, retreated a few steps and tossed a sharp, low pass that landed in the arms of the NFL’s biggest star, veteran halfback Harold “Red” Grange, all alone in the end zone.
As referee Bobby Cahn signaled touchdown, a furious Portsmouth coach George “Potsy” Clark stormed the field to protest that Nagurski was not 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage when he threw the pass, as NFL rules required. With instant replay review, let alone television coverage, a futuristic fantasy, the call stood. On the next possession, Portsmouth punter Faye “Mule” Wilson mishandled an errant snap, and the ball rolled through the end zone for a safety, producing the game’s final score of 9-0 and Chicago’s first NFL championship in 11 years. The game may not have been an aesthetic success, but it was a financial one by bringing in a gate of $15,000.
While a Portsmouth Times headline called the game a “Sham Battle on Tom Thumb Gridiron,” the 1932 championship would prove to be one of the most important in NFL history. Before the following season, league owners adopted some of the game’s temporary ground rules, such as the use of hash marks and the placement of goal posts on the goal lines, to open up the game. To prevent the Nagurski pass controversy from being repeated, the NFL also allowed the ball to be thrown from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage, as it is today. Perhaps most important, the owners agreed to split the league into two divisions with the winners squaring off in a scheduled championship game, a tradition that has continued straight through to Super Bowl XLIX.
The 60-yard field, however, would not be seen again, and after the 1933 season, neither would the Portsmouth Spartans, who were sold for $7,952.08 and relocated to become the Detroit Lions.