SBJ/January 9 - 15, 2006/Opinion

Frozen fields still vivid in fan’s memory

I’ve been trying to remember what it felt like then, when baseball was the national pastime and my friends didn’t care about football. It wasn’t a choice; they just didn’t know about it. It didn’t come into their living rooms on fall Sunday afternoons as it soon would.

That was ages ago when football was relegated mostly to radio. I remember listening with my uncle as the Giants beat the Bears for the 1956 NFL title. My uncle was a working-class guy who found a bond with New York’s Giants, baseball and football.

That game was played a half-century ago on icy turf in Yankee Stadium, where the faithful covered themselves in blankets against a cold December wind. I remember the announcer reporting that cleats wouldn’t penetrate the frozen field and players couldn’t get traction. The Giants changed to sneakers as they had in 1934 when, after trailing the Bears at halftime 10-3, team treasurer John Mara sent Abe Cohen to raid the Manhattan College locker room for as many sneakers as the equipment manager could find. He came back with nine pairs. That was enough. After a Bears field goal, the surer-footed Giants scored 27 points to win 30-13 in what became known as “The Sneaker Game.”

It almost defied credibility that 22 years later they did it again. Although The Sneaker Game was played in the Polo Grounds, the 1956 title game was played in the same city, with the same teams, for the same stakes. This time the sneaker-clad Giants won 47-7. The announcer’s amazement equaled my own.

I can’t say that I understood the nuances of the Wing-T offense and the 4-3-4 defense. Radio, although underappreciated in our current see-it-to-believe-it world, couldn’t create pictures in a mind’s eye that lacked a visual reference. But I understood that football had all the mystery and drama, all the tension and tradition that we find so appealing in sport. And football had an exotic nature that I could claim, at least for a while, as my own.

The playground kids hadn’t yet discovered it. Consequently, I had the franchise in football fandom. I collected players’ names like other kids collected baseball cards: Kyle Rote, Frank Gifford and Sam Huff. … I still recall the defensive line, Andy Robustelli, Jim Katcavage, Dick Modzelewski and Rosey Grier. I used paper-route money to buy drawings of players because they were my guys playing primarily for my entertainment.

It’s that ownership I’m trying to remember, like being the first in the neighborhood to discover the Beatles or Shelby Cobras. It was like being in a club, and I had a secret code. But unilateral discovery isn’t easy in our world of television, the Internet and instant news.

Two years later I listened as Alan Ameche’s 2-yard touchdown run resulted in sudden death for Giants championship hopes in what became known as the NFL’s “Greatest Game,” at least in part because it catapulted the league into a national television deal and “overnight” success.

It’s at this time of year that I think about those feelings and wonder if my old uncle would recognize the game. He passed his passion on to me and then passed on. But before he did, he realized a dream by working for the Jets. The Daily News ran a front-page picture of him pouring champagne over Joe Namath’s brow after winning Super Bowl III.

While champagne and celebrations may never change, everything else has. The NFL consumed the AFL, television made it the national sport with national recognition, players got rich and owners got richer. Someday frozen fields will exist only in memory and frozen fans will be forgotten altogether. That’s not a complaint. I’m just sad that my ownership was so ephemeral, and I’m preoccupied with one question: What would shoe companies say today if endorsing teams and players found better traction with Converse All-Stars?

John Genzale (jgenzale@nyc.rr.com) is founding editor of SportsBusiness Journal.

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