From 1934-1976, the NFL’s preseason tradition included The Chicago Charities College All-Star Game, a game featuring college standouts against the league champion. The last game in the long-forgotten series, played mostly at Soldier Field in Chicago, was forgettable: a 24-0 victory by the Pittsburgh Steelers in a deluge.
As the torrents fell in that final game, many fans stormed the field, splashing and sliding on turf that resembled a lake. TV broadcaster Frank Gifford called it a “carnival,” and the game was mercifully ended in the third quarter. "Surreal," the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described the finish.
But the series, conceived by a newspaper sports editor, was popular, often drawing more than 70,000 fans for a game. Attendance at the 1947 game was 105,840. (The game wasn't played in 1974 because of the NFL players' strike.)
“It was a fascinating series of games,“ says Jon Kendle, the director of archives and football information at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “It’s something that a lot of people don’t know about, for as long as it took place. And it’s something that will really never happen again. The way the NFL is structured now, there’s just too much at stake for all parties involved.”
Sports Editor Arch Ward Founds Game in 1933
Times were different when Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward came up with the all-star game idea in 1933. College football was king then. In 1926, 110,000 fans attended the Army-Navy game at Soldier Field—the formal dedication of the stadium. In the early 1930s, the NFL needed the all-star game.
Ward was as much promoter as he was reporter. He worked in public relations for Notre Dame football during two of legendary coach Knute Rockne’s unbeaten seasons, started the Golden Gloves boxing tournament, and in 1933 suggested Major League Baseball hold a midseason exhibition between the stars of the American and National leagues. The Midsummer Classic continues to this day.
In consultation with the Chicago city leaders and George Halas of the Chicago Bears, Ward came up with a similar idea for football, pitting college all-stars against the NFL champions. That kind of game was not unusual in those days; in 1939, there were nine games between college players and NFL teams. Ward’s coup was getting the NFL to agree to allow the best players who had just left college play the champions.
Ward decided proceeds from the game would be shared by Chicago-area charities. Thus began one of the greatest charitable efforts in sports history.
“Being a member of the College All-Stars was competition that as I kid I dreamed of,” says Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver Paul Warfield, who played in the game as an all-star and with the Cleveland Browns.
A panel of 30 sportswriters chose the first all-star team. The attendance was more impressive than the result, as 79,432 watched a scoreless tie on August 31, 1934. Ward’s column on the game dealt with a technological improvement: lights at Soldier Field. “The giant audience was able to follow with facility the details of line play,” he writes.
The 1935 All-Stars' roster included a Michigan player named Gerald Ford, who would become the nation’s 38th president. Attendance topped 100,000 at the 1942, 1947 and 1948 games. Games in 1943 and 1944 were moved to the nearby Northwestern campus in Evanston, Illinois to avoid a large gathering near downtown Chicago, considered a potential enemy target during World War II.
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Jackie Robinson Plays in 1941 Game
In 1941, UCLA star Jackie Robinson, who would break Major League Baseball's color barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, scored a touchdown for the all-stars. College teams were integrated well before the NFL re-integrated in 1946.
In 42 games, the all-stars won nine and tied twice. Sammy Baugh guided the 1937 college team to its first win, 6-0 over the Green Bay Packers. Green Bay also lost in 1963, a game Vince Lombardi called his most embarrassing loss. The Packers were the first and last NFL team to lose to the all-stars.
Kendle recalls Pro Football Hall of Famer Dave Robinson, the Packers' first-round draft pick in early December 1962, talking about being a part of the college team that beat Green Bay in 1963. “...the college players were in the locker room hooting and hollering and all of a sudden the trainer from the Packers walks in and yells out, ‘Robinson, Coach Lombardi said to get you. You’re a Packer now. Pack up your things,’” Kendle says.
Robinson sheepishly walked to the near-silent Green Bay locker room and found a corner to sit down. He told Kendle he could feel the eyes of Packers veterans piercing through him.
NFL Player's Injury Prompts Rethink of Series
At the 1947 game, the Bears were provided new machines called air conditioning to cool the locker room on a 91-degree day. In 1972, the Miami Dolphins were undefeated, but they crossed midfield only three times against the 1973 collegians. Miami coach Don Shula replaced starting quarterback Bob Griese with Earl Morrall to secure a 14-3 win.
Warfield played for the collegians in the 1964 game after he was a first-round pick of the Cleveland Browns. He had an outstanding rookie season, but he suffered a broken collarbone the next preseason when playing against the collegians.
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“I was diving for the ball for a pass that was slightly overthrown,” Warfield says. “I came down on my elbow and almost instantaneously the defender fell on top of me.” He needed two surgeries to repair the injury and was limited to one game during the 1965 regular season.
That injury fostered quiet murmurings about the wisdom of the game. Ultimately, it didn’t make sense for a team’s best draft picks to miss training camp for two weeks to work for an all-star team. As NFL training and systems improved, the game became more one-sided. The Super Bowl champions won the final 12 games.
The 1976 deluge, a quirk of nature, was perhaps the final signal that the game had run its course. The College All-Star game was washed out by a torrent of nature and the torrent of growth that the NFL enjoys to this day.
“It was a nice idea when it started,” says longtime NFL writer Vito Stellino, who covered the final game for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “But this was a combination of a perfect storm and a real storm that was too much to overcome.”