The last time the Cardinals won an NFL championship, they called Chicago home, the helmets typically had no facemasks and Charley Trippi was their star, scoring on a 44-yard run and a 75-yard punt return.
The team they beat? The Philadelphia Eagles, 28-21 at the original Comiskey Park in Chicago.
They lost to the Eagles 7-0 the next year in a Philadelphia snowstorm, never imagining they’d have to wait 60 years for a shot at another title — appropriately, it’ll be against the team they beat for their last one.
“I was hoping it would be a lot sooner,” said the 86-year-old Trippi, who spent nine years as a Cardinals player and five more as an assistant coach for the team. “I guess you have to wait longer for some things than others.”
Back in 1947, the Cardinals were something of an afterthought, even in their own city. The Bears reigned on the North Side, where they shared Wrigley Field with baseball’s Cubs.
The Cardinals trailed their rivals with two weeks left in the season, but beat the Eagles 45-21 and then traveled from the South Side to the North Side, beat Sid Luckman and the Bears 31-21 and won the Western Division.
Unlike the Cardinals of the last half-century, one of the NFL’s more penurious franchises as it moved first to St. Louis and then to Phoenix, this was a team built with money by owner Charles Bidwill, father of Bill Bidwill, the team’s current owner who was then a water boy. The senior Bidwill died before the 1947 season .
The Cardinals were coached by Jimmy Conzelman, who installed the innovative T-formation, and had what was dubbed the “million-dollar backfield” with quarterback Paul Christman, fullback Pat Harder, and halfbacks Elmer Angsman and Trippi.
Trippi was a quadruple threat — he ran, passed, played defense and punted — and had been signed for the unheard-of salary of $100,000 to keep him from the rival All-American Football Conference.
The Eagles, coached by Earle “Greasy” Neale, who like Conzelman was later elected to the Hall of Fame, won the East at 8-4. Their star was running back Steve Van Buren, who was inducted into the hall in 1965, three years before Trippi got in.
Game day, Dec. 28, was cold and windy, and Comiskey Park was icy. Conzelman had his team don sneakers, a trick used on an icy field at New York’s Polo Grounds 13 years earlier to help the Giants beat the Bears in what’s been known ever since as “The Sneaker Game.”
It worked for the Cardinals, too. Angsman had two 70-yard touchdown runs and Trippi scored on his long run and his punt return. Eagles quarterback Tommy Thompson went 27-for-44 for 297 yards, setting two playoff records in what was still primarily an era of the run.
There wasn’t nearly as much scoring the next season when the 9-2-1 Eagles and the 11-1 Cardinals met for the title in Philadelphia. In fact, there nearly wasn’t a game at all.
There was so much snow in Philadelphia that Van Buren, thinking commissioner Bert Bell would postpone the game until the following Sunday, didn’t bother to show up. After a frantic call from Neale, he just made it .
More than 36,000 fans showed up for what was the first televised championship game.
As might be expected, the game was scoreless until the fourth quarter. Then Angsman fumbled, the Eagles recovered deep in Chicago territory and Van Buren scored from 5 yards out 1:05 into the fourth quarter.
It was the first championship for the Eagles, who went on to win again the next season, when they beat the Rams 14-0, and again in 1960, when they defeated Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers 17-13. That was their last title, although they went to the Super Bowl after the 1980 and 2005 seasons and will be in their fifth NFC title game this decade .
The Cardinals’ history is much more sour, of course — until this season, they had made the playoffs only once since arriving from St. Louis in 1988.
Trippi remains a Cardinal. If his team finally makes it to the Super Bowl, he says he’ll be there — “if Mr. Bidwill invites me.”
As the star of the Cardinals’ last title team, that would be more than fitting.