Charley Trippi and the first Cardinal championship
The Super Bowl last week did more than decide who was better, the NFC or the AFC. It resurrected Charley Trippi. And along with Trippi, now 86, it resurrected the longest grudge this side of the Hatfields and the McCoys, tracing back to the 1947 Sugar Bowl game between Carolina and Georgia, an anticipated duel between a 21-year old Trippi and a 21-year old Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice, a test of their greatest against our greatest, both older and seasoned by military duty. As we’ve learned, Tar Heels, like elephants and old girl friends, don’t forget. They’ve never accepted Georgia’s 20-10 win. “It was a close call. What’s happened, happened,” says Trippi from his Athens, Ga. home. “I don’t bother myself rehashing what might have been or such. It’s part of the game.” Que sera sera? Not quite. “Charley Trippi! Georgia! Sugar Bowl of 1947!” shouts an old Sutton Drugstore cowboy, his lips beginning to quiver. “Man, you’re talking grand gridiron theft, you’re talking… forward laterals! Not one, but two! You’re talking Bourbon Street heist. I still see it in my dreams…” His memory is amazing. Or maybe not. Anyway, this is the way he thinks he saw it: “Georgia defensive end Joe Tereshinski intercepted a pass at the Georgia 24 and flipped the ball [forward?] to Dick McPhee who ran 54 yards to the Carolina 14. Our coaches argued the ball should be called back but there was no call made. Quarterback Johnny Rauch sneaked the tying touchdown, and Georgia went ahead for good on Trippi’s 67-yard pass to Dan Edwards after another forward lateral. “Forget hell!” Not for 62 years. There is more. “Did I tell you about the time that LSU, trying to slow down Justice, watered the field in 1949. They had Steve Van Buren and those Cajuns are used to running in swamps, you know….” Oh Lord, not the watered grass caper again. As a sort of lukewarm UNC alum, along with others I’m pleased to report a tacit peaceful co-existence agreement has been worked out courtesy of the Norfolk Southern Railway system. Twelve years ago Sugar Bowl officials invited both schools to send the 1947 survivors to their game via appropriately decorated Norfolk Southern cars. Trippi and Justice, both of whom had fruitful NFL careers, had become fast friends and both were on the trains, along with Art Weiner and Baxter Jarrell from Greensboro and others from the area. In all, 90 Tar Heels and 40 Bulldogs made the trip, which makes it the largest and most pugnacious band of peacemakers since the Treaty of Versailles. “Justice and I became good friends in the NFL and that trip was a lot of fun for me personally,” said Trippi. “You know, after that
Sugar Bowl game, when everyone thought we were mad with each other, I was out having dinner with Danny Logue, the Carolina kicker and an old prep school teammate. Things were overblown. As I said, what happens, happens. We didn’t have the luxury of instant replay.” Let’s talk about the Super Bowl and resurrections. Almost every year the game’s gaudiest show turns to the past and literally uses its precedence and background for public relations purposes. That is one of its strengths: It has a history, it has records and it has old and interesting superstars. Not all professional sports can say that. For example: NASCAR — bootleggers don’t keep records. As media searched for “angles,” Trippi’s quiet life in rustic Athens was disrupted by calls from throughout the country for something he had done 62 years ago in spearheading the only NFL championship in the Cardinals’ tale of three cities — Chicago, St. Louis and Phoenix. He was the first $100,000 athlete in any major professional sport; a $100,000 downpayment on the Chicago Cardinals’ “Million Dollar Backfield” of Marshall Goldberg (Pitt; ask Duke about him), Paul Christmas (Missouri), Pat Harder (Wisconsin) and Elmer Angsman (Notre Dame). An NFL championship trophy fit nicely on the mantel with one from the 1942 Rose Bowl, where Trippi had teamed with Frank Sinkwich to form one of the best collegiate backfields ever. He won the Helms Award as the MVP. In that NFL championship game — the Super Bowl, as such, started in 1966 — Trippi’s touchdowns on a 47-yard run and 75-yard punt return enabled the Cardinals to beat the Philadelphia Eagles, 28-21. That same year he beat Carolina in the Sugar Bowl and batted .334 for the Atlanta Crackers of the Double-A Southern Association baseball league. He hit over .400 at Georgia, but decided that baseball and football together were “too much of a hassle.” A rematch forthe NFL title the next year ended up 7-0, Eagles, when a snow blizzardcovered all the line markers. There is more to the saga of Trippi andthe Triad, something closer than New Orleans or Athens, or evenChicago, St. Louis and Phoenix. It’s that relic off Summit Avenue, thatstately old faÃ§ade that some want to tear down and replace withsanitized condos — War Memorial Stadium. Some might disagreewith this, but in my opinion, talent-wise, Charley Trippi played in thegreatest football game ever held in War Memorial Stadium or any otherTriad arena. While a resident as corporal in the Air Force atGreensboro Basic Trainer Center — he had courted and married one of ourpretty young belles, Jenny Davis — he joined All- Americaand All-Pro players on the post’s football and baseball teams. On thedark, brisk night of Nov. 13, 1943, in the midst of World War II, I wascaught up in traffic and arrived at the stadium a few minutes late tosee that many of the 10,000 spectators, a huge crowd for War Memorial,were still lined up for the Wake Forest-Greensboro Basic TrainingCenter game. Once inside, I ascended the rows, squeezed into one ofthose old wooden seats and asked no one in particular if anything hadhappened in the early minutes. “Trippi ran 80 yards for a touchdown onthe first play; otherwise, not much,” replied a plump, matronly lady.“But it’s just started. You know, them sportwriters are picking WakeForest as one of the best teams in the South. They like that kid NickSacrinty at quarterback and those big linemen, especially Dewey Hobbs,and Peahead [Walker] has straightened ’em out after a slow start.They’ve won four straight [NC State, VMI, Clemson, NC-Pre-Flight] andscored a ton of points. I like Wake to win.” She liked wrong.Greensboro BTC won 14-0, fullback Grady Hattton (Texas)scoring the second touchdown, and tailback-turned-defensive backCharley Trippi tackling so hard he suffered a concussion in the fourthquarter. “On that long touchdown run, I reached out to taghim,” remembers Rev. Dewey Hobbs, “and, surprise, he wasn’t there.Trippi was a great back, one of the best, but… yeah, yeah …I’ll stilltake Justice.” A preacher’s got to call ’em the way he sees ’em.Looking back, Trippi says he made a lot of friends in Greensboro and inthe area. “Peahead Walker and I became dear friends and he once toldme, ‘Charley, you almost got me fired.’ I also played baseball at BTCand we had some great players, Grady Hatton made it to the majors andof course Taft Wright was an established major leaguer and so was JimCastiglia. Tee Frye was an outstanding shortstop. After Greensboro, Ispent most of my days at the Third Air Force in Charlotte.”Financially, starting with a hundred grand from the Cardinals and tenthousand from the Crackers, not bad for baseball at the time, plusinvestments in real estate, Trippi has done well, but that’s not in aclass with modern athletes and their multimillions. Anticipating thequestion, he says, “Yeah, I’d like to start over today.” Me, Irealized a dream when in 1968, as a member of the Pro Football Hall ofFame Board of Selectors, I presented a bronze bust to Trippi athalftime of an Atlanta Falcons game. It might not have seemed like muchat the time, as the matronly lady said, but his electrifying play atMemorial Stadium had been a small step on the ladder to the Hall ofFame.