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Charley Trippi recalls when the Cardinals, then in Chicago, were NFL champions

This has happened before. Long ago, there was this kind of magic. Far away, there was this brand of excitement. A lot of lifetimes ago, the Cardinals were something special to behold. And if it seems too long ago for your memory, then take a run back through the years with Charley Trippi, yesterday's hero. It was six decades ago, and like Trippi, the world was young. Those were the prehistoric days of the NFL, back when you could tell a football player by the scars on his face and the blood on his knuckles,

back before anyone considered the NFL to be Super. There wasn't much money, there wasn't much fame.

And, man, does Trippi miss it.

He is 87, and most of his teammates are gone. Even to Trippi, the NFL Championship Games of 1947 and 1948 between the Cardinals and Eagles — this weekend's opponents for the NFC Championship Game — seem like a long time ago.

Still, the feelings remain: The joy of winning a title, the sting of losing one, the thrill of the sport itself.

If you are interested, yeah, he'd like to suit up Sunday.

"I would love to play in this game," Trippi says over the phone from Athens, Ga. He laughs gently. "I would play it for free. The only thing is you get so damned old you can't."

The Cardinals could use him. In his time, Trippi, at 6 feet, 186 pounds, was fast and tough and versatile enough to start as a running back, a quarterback and a defensive back in his Hall of Fame career. He was a crushing blocker, a hard tackler, and if you tried to rough it up with him, he would rough it right back.

Jim Thorpe once called Trippi the greatest football player he had ever seen. When Trippi was at Georgia, one voter named his All-SEC team thusly: "Left end, Trippi; left tackle, Trippi; left guard, Trippi; center, Trippi; right guard, Trippi; right tackle, Trippi; right end, Trippi; quarterback, Trippi; left halfback, Trippi; right halfback, Trippi; fullback, Trippi."

Also, he played defense.

Perhaps that's why the Cardinals, then in Chicago, paid an unprecedented $100,000 to sign him before the 1947 season. Even then, the Cards weren't exactly known for winning. In the previous 15 seasons, the franchise had won a total of only 40 games.

Once the Cardinals outbid the New York Yankees of the rival AAFC, however, things changed. Trippi completed the dream backfield with quarterback Paul Cristman, running back Elmer Angsman (so tough he once showed up for practice the day after having 10 teeth knocked out in a game) and fullback Pat "Hit 'em Harder" Harder. It was tabbed "The Million Dollar Backfield." These days, a blocking fullback standing by himself is a million-dollar backfield.

The result was an exciting Cardinals team that played in two straight league championships. Two cities and six decades later, the Cardinals are finally playing for another trophy.

"I guess all things come in due time," Trippi said. "I enjoyed playing for the Cardinals. Every year. Every minute. I'm still a Cardinal."

Oh, it was a tough way to make a buck. Players wore leather helmets in those days. "Because the plastic ones kept cracking," he said. They didn't wear face masks. "You know why we didn't wear face masks? We were stupid. If you wore a face mask, people thought you were yellow."

It was a big year for America, 1947. World War II was over, and the country was filled with optimism. The best picture Academy Award was given to The Best Years of Our Lives. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. People were thinking about travel: It was the year of Kon-Tiki, the year of the Spruce Goose, the year of the Streetcar Named Desire, the year of the UFO sightings in Roswell.

If you really wanted to get somewhere, however, you could travel on Trippi's legs. The Cardinals did.

Take 1947, when the Cardinals found themselves playing in the championship against the Eagles.

There was ice on the Comiskey Park field on Dec. 28 when the Eagles came to town. It was so cold and slippery the Cardinals came out in tennis shoes. The Eagles, on the other hand, sharpened their cleats. It was only after protests from the Cardinals they, too, changed into sneakers.

It didn't matter.

Trippi broke free for a 44-yard run in the first quarter. In the third, he had a sensational 75-yard punt return. News accounts at the time say Trippi was hit six times, then broke free, slipped to the turf, then stood and finished the run.

"That was it," Trippi said. "That was the best day for me. That's what you play for."

After the game, there were no parades, no endorsements, no keys to the city.

"We just went home," Trippi said. "It was too cold for a parade, anyway."

That's the way the game was. Many of his linemen, Trippi said, made from $3,000 to $5,000 a year. Some of them left practice every day to go to jobs. A title brought the winners an extra $1,132. (Losing the next year brought $878.32)

"If I played today, I would be a rich man," Trippi said, laughing again.

If '47 was Trippi's best time, the '48 season may have been his most frustrating. The Cardinals were even better. On the day of the title game, however, a snowstorm hit Philadelphia.

"It was a disgrace," Trippi said. "The commissioner should have postponed the game. You couldn't see the lines on the field. You couldn't see the safety. It wasn't football. It was just a bunch of pushing."

The Eagles won 7-0 after recovering a fumble on the Cardinals 17 in the fourth quarter. And just like that, it was over. Trippi played seven more years, but the Cardinals won only 25 games during that time.

"We stopped bringing in young talent," Trippi said. He was not the last Cardinals player to notice.

No matter when you play, however, and no matter how, it always end up the same. Time outruns even the fastest.

Even now, Trippi admits, he dreams. Especially during the season, he will close his eyes, and once again, he is a young player darting across a field. The game is a part of him, after all. And no one is old when they dream.

"I score a lot of touchdowns in my dreams," he said. "I break a lot of tackles."

If the Cardinals need him, he's ready.

Charley Trippi (62) joins Elmer Angsman (7), Chicago Cardinals coach Jimmy Conzelman, third from left, and assistant Phil Handler. Trippi was a starter at running back, quarterback and defensive back in a Hall of Fame career.

Charley Trippi recalls when the Cardinals, then in Chicago, were NFL champions 01/15/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 16, 2009 11:54am]
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