Few football games have been played in as bizarre conditions as the “Blizzard Bowl,” the Chicago Cardinals-Philadelphia Eagles NFL Championship Game on December 19, 1948. Stunned by an early morning storm that dumped nearly a foot of snow on the Philadelphia area, neither team was certain the game would even be played.
Snow at Shibe Park obscured hash marks and yard lines and made first-down measurements nearly impossible. Officials used ropes to mark the sidelines. Fans with shovels aided with field maintenance and watched the game for free. Piles of snow three feet high encircled the field.
Eagles and Cardinals slogged through ankle-deep snow that added pounds to their uniforms. To avoid frostbite, players wrapped their hands in tape. The temperature hovered near 27 degrees, but near-20-mph winds made passing problematic at best.
"No football game was ever contested under greater handicaps," a reporter wrote.
And Eagles' Hall of Fame-bound running back Steve Van Buren—who scored the only touchdown in the team's first championship game victory—nearly slept through it all.
Eagles Star Steve Van Buren Figures Championship Game is Postponed
In the previous season’s NFL Championship Game, also against the Cardinals, Philadelphia lost in Chicago, 28-21, on an ice-covered field. Van Buren rushed for only 26 yards on 18 carries.
Eager to avoid a repeat, Eagles coach Earle "Greasy" Neale urged NFL commissioner Bert Bell to postpone the snow duel. But coach Jimmy Conzelman, whose Cardinals were favored, considered the conditions equal for both teams and insisted on playing.
“We must consider the many out-of-towners who made long trips to see the game,” Bell said ahead of a sold-out season finale. “There are 1,000 fans here from Chicago and many from Erie, Pittsburgh, New York and other cities. We will have to play.”
The awful weather crippled business for scalpers, who sold a 40-yard-line seat for as little as 50 cents. "As you walked along the street," the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, scalpers would "tap you on the shoulder with tears in their eyes, saying: 'Take 'em for nothing.'"
Nearly 9,000 of the 37,000-plus ticket holders stayed home. Some watched the first NFL Championship Game TV broadcast at home. Van Buren, who led the NFL in rushing in 1948 with 945 yards, nearly stayed home, too.
After seeing snow blanketing his suburban Philadelphia neighborhood early Sunday morning, Van Buren went back to sleep, figuring the game would be postponed. Then Neale called his 27-year-old star, inquiring about his whereabouts. “The game is still on,” he told Van Buren, “so you’d better get here.”
With the snow deeper in the Philly suburbs, trapping his car in the driveway, Van Buren had to use public transportation to get to the game. He caught a bus, trolley and subway. Then he walked six blocks to make it to the stadium in time to put on his No. 15 jersey for the 1:30 p.m. game.
Not that the event was running on schedule. "Supersonic Steve" and other players were summoned from the locker room to help workers remove a snow-laden tarp from the field, delaying the game for a half hour. The oddities did not cease for the next two-plus hours.
Huge Piles of Snow Encircle Field at Shibe Park
Shortly before kickoff, the stadium crew flicked on the lights, piercing the gloom and producing an otherworldly effect. That bright idea failed to aid 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. Because of a false-start penalty on the Eagles, Thompson's approximately 65-yard touchdown heave in the first quarter to Jack Ferrante was nullified.
At halftime, fans cheered as majorettes performed a "snow ballet." Through three quarters, the game was scoreless. The Eagles kept handing the ball to Van Buren, who led all rushers with 98 yards on 26 carries.
Using essentially a nine-man front to stop the run, the Eagles only allowed the Cardinals to move past the Philadelphia 40-yard line once. That possession ended with a missed field goal. The game’s kickers were 0-for-4 on field goal attempts. Returners fielded only two of 13 punts.
In the fourth quarter, Joe Muha's 59-yard punt pinned Chicago inside its 10. Then Mallouf fumbled a snap that Philadelphia defensive lineman Bucko Kilroy recovered. The Eagles turned the mistake into a 5-yard touchdown run by Van Buren, who darted through a wide lane off right guard and plowed into unexplored snow in the end zone.
The Eagles briefly celebrated, then cleaned snow from the field for the extra point in the 7-0 win. When the final whistle sounded, fans carried Van Buren off the field as snow continued to fall.
"I'll never get warm again," the Eagles' star said afterward, adding, "It seems every time they tackled me I ended up with my face in the snow."
Thompson said he didn't feel a thing after the first quarter: "I was numb."
"A lot of us went straight to the showers," Eagles guard Duke Maronic recalled. "We didn't take off our uniforms or anything, just our headgear. We stood under the hot water just to thaw out."
Said Neale: “Everything you saw today, we had last year. But we couldn’t use our cutback plays last time because the field was frozen. Weather conditions were worse today than a year ago, of course, but the footing may have been a little better.”
Still wearing a stocking cap and aviator helmet, Conzelman said the Cardinals were "worn out" from a come-from-behind win in the season finale against the Chicago Bears the previous week.
“Boys, don’t feel badly; you played your championship game a week ago,” he told his players. “It is impossible to be emotionally fit for two such tests in two weeks.”
In 1949, Steve Van Buren Leads the Eagles to Another NFL Title
In 1949, the Eagles won another NFL title, beating the Rams on a rain-soaked field in Los Angeles. Arriving on time for the game, Van Buren rushed for 196 yards—a record for an NFL championship game that stood until 1988.
"Steve Van Buren ran today the best I ever saw a man run," Neale said afterward. "Maybe Bronko Nagurski was better, but nobody ran better than Van Buren did in this mud."
For Van Buren—a 1965 inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame—the championship game performances capped an eight-year career.
"Watch those old films and you know that Steve Van Buren was something special," longtime NFL head coach Andy Reid said after the old Eagle's death at 91 in 2012.