Sports: Steelers vs. Giants December 1963. First and Last Chance at Glory.

The 1963 pro football season was odd and sad, and it was  the Steelers first chance at glory since pro football had become the up and coming sport, really challenging baseball as the number one sport in America. The season was sad because on November 22, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It was sad for the Steelers because in May of that year Big Daddy Lipscomb had died of a heroin overdose.    The season was odd because the Steelers had 3 ties that year.  They tied the Philadelphia Eagles twice and Eagles only won 2 other games all year.  See, it just not Mike Tomlin teams that play down to their competition. The other tie was against the Chicago Bears  who would go on and win the NFL Championship that year. In 1963, if teams played to a tie, the NFL looked at the game as if it had never been played.  Going into the last week of the season, the Steelers record was 7 wins, 3 losses, and those 3 ties.  But their “real” record was just 7 and 3.  They would play the New York Giants at Yankee stadium, whose record was 10 and 3, and by today’s rules of ties, where ties count as a .5 loss and .5 win they would have the division clinched.  The Steelers record would have been 8.5 and 4.5.  Even with a win they would be 9.5 and 4.5 and the Giants would have been 10 and 4, which would have won the division.  But this was 1963, and the Steelers were very much alive.  With a win they would be 8 and 3 for a percentage .728 and that would beat  a 10-4 Giant team with .714.  Despite how unfair this would seem, the NFL did not change the tie rule until 1972.  We Steeler fans did not care.  This was best chance for the Steelers to win their first division title since 1947 when they lost a play off game to the Philadelphia Eagles 21 to 0.  But alas, the Steelers lost 33 to 17 and as a 13 year old I was devastated.  I felt we were never in the game as my Dad and I watched the game on our black and white TV.  But low and behold I found a radio broadcast of the game on You Tube and well the Steelers were in the game more than I realized.

The Giants were the kings of the Eastern Division, having played in the NFL Championship game 5 out of the last 7 years.  Unfortunately they won only 1 of those games, the 1956 Championship game beating the Chicago Bears, 47 to 7.  Then they lost 2 to the Johnny Unitas led Baltimore Colts, and 2 more to the Green Bay Packers.  If they had done better in the championship games, they would be considered one of the best dynasties in football.  They would go on to lose to the Chicago Bears 14 to 10, in 1963. They had lost to the Steelers in the second game of the year 31 to 0, but Y. A. Tittle their Hall of Fame quarterback was out with injury.  The Giants were a veteran seasoned group led by  Tittle, Frank Gifford, Sam Huff,  and Andy Robustelli.  The Steelers were also a veteran group, thanks to their coach Buddy Parker, who was the precursor to George Allen, giving up draft choices for veterans.  In fact it was not uncommon for the Steelers to trade away all their draft choices while Parker was the head coach.  The Steelers did draft one player in 1963 by the name of Andy Russell, not bad for a 16th round pick.  The Steelers were led on offense by quarterback Ed Brown,  running back John Henry Johnson, and wide receivers Buddy Dial and Gary Ballman.  On defense they had Clendon Thomas, Myron Pottios and John Baker.  Now to the game.

The game could not have started out worse for the Steelers, as running back Theron Sapp fumbled the ball on the opening play, and the Giants recovered.  But the Steeler defense was able to hold the Giants and Don Chandler kicked a 34 yard field goal, which was a 34 yard field goal since the goal posts were on the goal line in 1963. The goal posts were not as long either but that’s a story for another blog.   Gary Ballman returned the ensuing kick off all the way to the Giant 28 yard line.  But the Steelers could not move the ball and Lou Michaels missed a 30 yard field goal. The Giants on their next series fumbled the ball right back to the Steelers and they had the ball  at the Giant 33 yard line.   Ed Brown hit Gary Ballman around the 10 yard line and was getting ready to score but lost control of the ball and fumbled it into the end zone and the Giants  returned it  to their own 34 yard line.  The Giants had a third and inches on their own 44 yard line and threw a 16 yard pass to Del Shofner and then  on the next play, Tittle  hit Shofner again for a 41 yard touchdown and when Chandler missed the extra point they led 9 to 0.  On the next series Brown threw an interception and the Giants had the ball on their own 44. The Giants moved down the field to the Pittsburgh 5 yard line, first and goal.  The Giants tried a halfback pass with Frank Gifford but wound up having 3 laterals, yes that’s 3 laterals,  and finally Y. A. Tittle wound up throwing the ball incomplete. To make matters worse the Giants were called for holding, which was a 15 yard penalty in 1963.   On the next play Andy Russel intercepted a Tittle pass, and the Steelers had the ball on their own 4 yard line. Mercifully the 1st quarter ended, with the Steelers losing 2 fumbles and throwing an interception, and the Giants fumbled twice, but lost only one, and threw one interception. The second quarter did not go much better. After an exchange of punts, the Steelers had to punt again, and the Giants fumbled, with the Steelers recovering on the Giants 24 yard line.  On two running plays the Steelers make 9.5 yards and it is 3rd and inches.  The Steelers do not make an inch in 2 plays and turn the ball over to the Giants on the 14 yard line. On their next possession  the Steelers  move the ball to the 37 yard of the Giants and are stalled with a 4th and 7. They elect to kick a field goal and back up quarterback Bill Nelson fumbled the snap and the Giants take over at their own 44.  The Giants move quickly. Long pass to Shofner to the Steeler 13 and then a TD pass to Joe Morrison and Giants lead 16-0.   But just like in todays game, with only 1:05 to go in the half, the Steelers move right down the field and Lou Michaels finally makes a field goal of 27 yards, and it is 16-3 at the half.   The Giants don’t move the ball to start the half and punt to the Steelers and they start at their own 34 yard.   On third and 2 at the 42 John Henry Johnson finally breaks one and goes 48 yards to the Giants 10 yard line, first and goal.  A holding penalty pushes the Steelers back to the 25 and on third down Brown finds Ballman in the end zone from 21 yards out, and with the conversion the score is 16 to 10 about one third  through the third quarter and we have a football game.  The Giants hold on the kick off and have to start on the 14 yard line.  But then it’s slam bang thank you mam.  Third and 7 from the 17 yard line,  30 yards to Gifford to the 47, then 25 yards to Gifford to the 22, and TD to Morrison from the 22.  Three plays, 83 yards, touchdown, its 23 to 10 Giants. The Steelers go 3 and out, when they try a long pass on 3rd and 2 and the avalanche continued.  First and 10 on the Giants 36, first play 31 yard pass with a face mask penalty tacked on, it is first and 10 on the Steeler 16 yard line.  Fifteen yard pass to Gifford to the one, and Joe Morrison over the top for his 3rd TD of the game,  and Giants lead 30 to 10 and the game is essentially over.   The Steelers have a nice drive but Brown throws an interception in the end zone.  The Steelers score on their next possession on a 40 yard bomb to Buddy Dial.  The Steelers try another field goal, for what ever reason and of course it was missed from 48 yards.   The Giants start on their own 8 yard line because of a clip and go on a long ball control drive that results in no points but eats up enough of the clock and then Chandler adds a field goal with about 2 minutes to go that locks up the game, and sends the Giants to the Eastern Division Championship and a date with the Chicago Bears.

It was a game of missed opportunities for the Steelers. In the first half they were inside the Giants 25 yard line four times and came away with only 3 points. Ed Brown did not have a good game and was crucified for it, but did not get a lot of help. Critical fumbles, dropped passes and missed field goals hurt them  as much as anything.  Myron Cope related the story that he knew that Ed Brown was not going to have a good game, because he was not seen at the favorite watering hole for the Steelers that week.  Cope deducted that this was not a good week for Brown to take the game too seriously, and stop drinking for that week.  He may have been right, but the loss was a team effort.  But the game was better, than I remembered as a devastated teen in 1963.  For both teams, it was their last shot at glory for awhile .  This would end the reign of the New York Giants as the elite team of the Eastern Division, in a big way.  It would take 23 seasons before the Giants would win the division they were in and then would go on to win the Super Bowl.  In that 23 year span the Giants had only 6 winning seasons and 2 seasons where they played 500 ball.  They fell long and hard.   The Steelers would fall apart in 60’s winning only  19 games in the next 6 seasons.  But we all know what happened in the 70’s as the Steelers became the elite franchise.  It would have been nice to see that team of Buddy Parker’s beat the Giants on a cold and half frozen field, at Yankee Stadium, that would have sent the Giants to their 23 year swoon, one season early.

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