When Steagles ruled the state

<b>LATROBE -- </b> Bill Cowher once played for the Philadelphia Eagles. He now, of course, coaches the Steelers. So would that make him a Steagle? <br><br> Cowher let out a laugh. "I guess I am a hybrid of the two teams," he said.

It was no laughing matter back in 1943. The Eagles and Steelers merged because of restrictions caused by World War II and they became known as the Steagles. The remaining members of that team will be honored Saturday night at Heinz Field where the Steelers will host the Eagles in a preseason game.

A 60th anniversary tribute will be made to players such as Allie Sherman, Ernie Steele, Ray Graves, Al Wistert, Frank "Bucko" Kilroy and Vic Sears. The other surviving Steagles – Tom Miller, Ted Doyle and Jack Hinkle – are unable to attend the festivities, which will include a halftime video tribute and a re-creation of some of the era's game entertainment.

World War II veterans will also be honored that night since the war was the reason the Steelers and Eagles merged.

Up until that point, the Eagles never had a winning season and the Steelers had only one – the previous year. Yet, the Steagles were respectable. Even the game in which they set – and still hold – the NFL record for most fumbles, the Steagles beat the New York Giants, 28-14. The Steagles finished 5-4-1, a game behind the Giants and Washington Redskins, who tied for first in the Eastern Division.

Because the league had lost 311 players, coaches and club officials to the Armed Forces prior the 1943 season, the NFL was left with inexperienced youngsters, 4-Fs and over-the-hill veterans, but pressed on. The Indianapolis 500 had been canceled. Night baseball was a scratch. The U.S. Open was canceled and thoroughbred racing was shut down. Hockey did away with overtime and didn't bring it back until 1983. President Franklin D. Roosevelt insisted that baseball continue, and the NFL agreed, but with restrictions.

The league was ordered to reduce travel by 37 percent, so schedules were revised and rosters were cut from 33 to 28. The Cleveland Rams couldn't continue, and were allowed to suspend operations because of losses that included their co-owners, Fred Levy and Dan Reeves. Needing to cut one more team to get down to eight, commissioner Elmer Layden urged the Steelers and Eagles to merge for the season and Steelers co-owners Art Rooney and Bert Bell came to an agreement with Eagles owner Alexis Thompson: The teams would divide home games, split the coaching duties between the Steelers' Walt Kiesling and the Eagles' Earl "Greasy" Neale and split their name. Thus, the Steagles were born.

"They were pretty good," said Steelers chairman Dan Rooney. "The fans really liked it. Their attendance picked up. People were looking for things to do so it worked out pretty well. They weren't total flops or anything like that. It was a well done situation."

The 129,347 fans represented the largest aggregate attendance for the Steelers franchise to that point. The team played four games at Shibe Park in Philadelphia and two at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. The games at Forbes Field drew close to 18,000 for the Chicago Cardinals and approximately 23,000 for the Detroit Lions. The games at Shibe Park averaged 22,087 fans, proving at the time that the state could support two NFL teams even in wartime.

The fans watched players such as quarterback Roy Zimmerman, who passed for 846 yards but was intercepted 17 times against 9 touchdowns. Sherman, who would later coach the Giants in the early 1960s, was his back-up.

The team led the league in rushing behind Hinkle, the rookie running back from Syracuse. He gained 571 yards and finished one yard behind league-leader Bill Paschal of the Giants. Hinkle's total, historians later learned, did not include a 37-yard run game that statisticians had missed earlier in the season.

The Steagles' leading receiver was Tony Bova, a military 4-F who was blind in one eye and partially blind in the other. He caught 17 passes. Hall of Famer Bill Hewitt, who'd come out of a four-year retirement, caught only 2 passes for 22 yards and retired for good after the season.

Steagles named to some of the various All-League teams that season were tackle Sears, guard Eberle Schultz and backs Hinkle, Steele and Zimmerman. Sears was the most decorated of the all-stars. He was named to the first team by UPI and the second team by AP and the New York News.

The coaches would both enter the Hall of Fame, but they didn't get along much that year. Neale and Kiesling would argue over strategy as well as the future rights to players they'd signed. They were also very protective of the players they brought into the merger. Hinkle told Pittsburgh Magazine in 1993 that the worst spat between the coaches occurred when Neale called one of the Steelers "a statue of sh--." Kiesling promptly pulled all the Steelers off the practice field before harmony was restored.

"A lot of that was overplayed," Rooney said. "Kies was more of a defensive coach and Greasy Neale was more of an offensive guy, so you'd think they'd get along, but they would start arguing about plays and whatnot. You know how it is: ‘You're making it difficult on the offense; you're making it difficult on the defense.' The next year with the Cardinals, where there were four guys who were all head coaches, it was like building a camel and they were 0-10."

The Steagles disbanded after the 1943 season and the Steelers and Cardinals merged for the winless 1944 campaign, while the Eagles went on to finish 7-1-2 in 1944 behind the running of first-round draft pick and future Hall of Famer Steve Van Buren.

The Eagles won their first NFL championship in 1948, while the Steelers were revived in 1946 by the return of Bill Dudley, who led the league in rushing, interceptions and punt returns to win league MVP honors.

The Steelers' next winning season and first playoff appearance came in 1947, when they lost to the Eagles in the playoffs, 21-0. The Eagles went on to lose the title game to the Cardinals, 28-21, but won the next two, the only time in franchise history the Eagles have won back-to-back titles.

"The old Steagles," Hinkle would say later, "that's where it all started."

Jim Wexell
SteelCitySports.com

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