Blast from the past

It was only one season. But for John Biolo, 1939 was the season of a lifetime. It forever links him with one of the great chapters in Green Bay Packers history — a season in which Green Bay captured its fifth world championship.<p>

In 1939, the Packers possessed a roster loaded with talent. They boasted a pioneering, always dangerous receiver named Don Hutson. A one-man wrecking crew at fullback named Clarke Hinkle. A stout offensive line featuring the likes of guard Charles "Buckets" Goldenberg and center Charlie Brock. Not one, but two outstanding quarterbacks in Arnie Herber and Cecil Isbell. And cracking the whip on the sidelines was a flamboyant, domineering head coach named Curly Lambeau.

Into that setting walked a 5-foot-10, 191-pound guard from Lake Forest College (Ill.) named John Biolo. Biolo was not a starter, yet he wouldn't trade his role as a spot player on that team for anything. With a soft smile, Biolo remembers 1939 like it was yesterday.

"Sixty years ago is a long time, but, yes, that was a great season we had," Biolo said during an interview in 1999 at the Packer Hall of Fame.

"One of the strangest things about the season was that in the third game we played a Cleveland Ram team, which was the predecessor to the Los Angeles and now St. Louis Rams, and they were not supposed to be such a good team but we lost to them (27-24 at Green Bay)."

The Rams' defense made life miserable for the Packers' quarterbacks all afternoon, intercepting three passes. Even though the Packers led by 10 points heading into the fourth quarter, the Rams rung up 13 points in the final period and scored the winning touchdown after swiping a pass from Isbell.

In truth, the Packers of 1939 were not the dominant team their 9-2 record suggests. Though their defeats were by only three points, Green Bay finished the season ranked third on offense and fifth on defense while six of its victories were by a touchdown or less. Yet, this was a team that managed to find ways to win, capturing its second straight Western Division crown to earn a berth into the championship game against the New York Giants at State Fair Park in Milwaukee.

"I don't know if anyone is aware of this," Biolo says with a beam of satisfaction lighting up his face, "but that was a historic game in the sense that it was the first time in a playoff game that a team was held scoreless."

Indeed, the Packers' 27-0 thrashing of the Giants marked the first championship-game shutout in NFL history. It was a day of sweet revenge for Green Bay, which had lost 23-17 to the Giants in the title game at New York the year before. Despite 35 mph winds that hampered both teams, Herber and Isbell each threw a touchdown pass and the Packers' defense slammed the door on the Giants with six interceptions. Adding to the immense satisfaction of their hard-earned victory, each Packers player took home a record winner's share of $703.97.

Victory with vengeance. David dumps Goliath. Tiny Green Bay tramples all over the superiority complex of the big, bad New York Giants. The size difference between the two cities, contends Biolo, was a much bigger issue in those days than it is today.

"Back then it was the big city against the hick community," Biolo recalls. "Of course, the players on the Packers were not overconfident or anything. Lambeau wouldn't even let us think about being overconfident. We approached the game, got into it and, once things got rolling, everything worked out. We were the underdogs primarily because we came from a smaller town more than anything else. I think too much emphasis was placed on the fact that New York was the No. 1 city in the country and they weren't about to lose to small-town Green Bay."

As a head coach, Lambeau often is credited with being better at pushing his players' emotional buttons than for being an Xs and Os tactician. Biolo agrees.

"I feel that Curly Lambeau was a great motivator. Sometimes he used unusual tactics," Biolo adds with a grin, "like threatening to cut your salary! But he was a great motivator, a great speaker. He knew how to appeal to people and, at the same time, direct them. "

Lambeau's pregame speech, said Biolo, was fairly basic. "About all Lambeau did was appeal to the idea that ‘we're playing a big-city team, we want the championship and we want to prove that we can play as good as anybody in Green Bay.'"

Time moves forward, but some things never change. Like the fact that moving the '39 championship game from Green Bay to Milwaukee caused a real fan uproar.

"That's true," recalls Biolo. "That was the first championship game that was played outside the city from which the team belonged. The fans up here weren't very happy about it but the stadium we had here didn't have seats for more than about 25,000 people. Milwaukee's State Fair Park had seats for about 38,000. So money was the big question."

Biolo was born in Iron Mountain, Mich., about 100 miles north of Green Bay, on Feb. 8, 1916.

"Most of northern Michigan," he recalled, "would be Detroit Lions fans, originally the Portsmouth Spartans before they moved to Detroit. But the western part of the Upper Peninsula were mainly Packer fans because we got the radio broadcasts up there whereas we didn't get the Detroit broadcasts as easily."

Biolo played his college football at Lake Forest College in northern Illinois and, after his senior season, he found himself suddenly immersed in the fierce Packers-Bears rivalry on a very personal level.

"All I know is that my coach, Ralph Jones, who used to coach the Chicago Bears, had indicated to me after the season that he was going to have me meet with (Bears owner/coach) George Halas. The next thing I knew, I got a call from Curly Lambeau and how that worked out, I don't know," said Biolo.

"Somebody had reported to (Lambeau) that Jones was thinking of recommending me to Halas. So he got hold of me and came right down to see me.

"Typical of his appeal and polish, Curly had a smooth, suave way of doing things, you know, smiling and saying things like ‘We'd like to have you up here because we feel you're a member of our group, from Iron Mountain, Mich. People from Iron Mountain buy season tickets in Green Bay.' So that was the appeal.

"I did go and interview with George Halas at the request of (Jones), of course. When I talked to Curly I told him, but he already knew this, that I was being recommended to Halas. And all Lambeau asked me was ‘If you go and see George Halas, please don't sign a contract until you talk to me.' I wasn't thinking in terms of negotiating back and forth because you didn't do much of that back in those days. But I did get back to him and he offered me a contract which was a little bit better than what the Bears would do, so that was it."

Like the rest of his teammates — indeed the rest of league — Biolo found himself marveling at the unbelievable speed, grace and pass-catching ability of Don Hutson. He also remembers him as a true team leader. Was Hutson everything he was made out to be?

"As far as a player, absolutely," said Biolo. "But Don was also quite a guy. In practice, of course, this was after he got to be a little more renowned, even the coaches wouldn't challenge him too much, but he would go through the calisthenics kind of in a lazy way, doing it half-heartedly. But when we started our regular practice, the runs and all of that, he'd go full speed. I'll tell you, he'd be the leader.

"He could catch that ball with his eyes closed, I think! And he had a unique style of running. He looked like he'd be cruising and you'd think you were catching up to him and all of a sudden — zoom! — he'd be gone. He sure had another gear.

Following the 1939 season, former Packer Johnny "Blood" McNally was fired as coach of the NFL's Pittsburgh franchise. Blood then became coach of the Kenosha team in the newly formed American Football League, and as he began to pick his coaching staff he remembered a friend in Green Bay named John Biolo.

"He invited me to come down there and be a line coach as well as to play," recalls Biolo, "so I played with Kenosha for the next two years and as an assistant coach."

Biolo's hopes for getting into full-time coaching never materialized so at the end of the 1941 season, his football career was over.

Would he have liked to have played more with the Packers? "I think if I were honest," Biolo confides, "I would have liked to played a couple more years but I didn't."

Biolo lives in Green Bay, is a member of the Packer Hall of Fame Board of Directors, and continues to follow the green and gold. Frequent trips to the hall bring him face to face with the players, the coaches, and the images from that golden time of his life. Leather helmets. Tiny shoulder pads. Trophies. Teammates. Lambeau, Hutson, Herber and all the rest, captured forever in glorious black and white photos.

1939. It was only one season. But what a season it was.

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