December 27, 1964.
Four generations of Cleveland fans have immortalized the date, recalling it easier and with more joyful excitement than birthdays and anniversaries. I was there – and remember more about that Sunday in old Cleveland Municipal Stadium than from my own Bar Mitzvah at Euclid Jewish Center the day prior.
Despite the date’s mythic status among the Cleveland diaspora, let’s do some myth-busting:
- It wasn’t that cold, almost balmy for America’s North Coast at Christmas: cloudy, 34 degrees with a 23-degree wind chill, nowhere near the sub-zero temperatures of the 1981 Red Right 88 playoff game against the Oakland Raiders. Sitting alongside my late dad in Section 35, Upper Deck below the post seats with our backs to Lake Erie, only my feet felt cold – even though my mom had tightly wrapped them in boots, two pairs of Bailey’s Department store socks and a layer of The Cleveland Press. (In 1964, Clevelanders read not just one, but two daily newspapers. Now The Plain Dealer gets printed daily, but not for home subscribers.)
- If everyone who says “I was there” had actually attended the game, Cleveland Stadium would have needed 500,000 seats – more than the city’s total population today. In fact, the game was blacked out on local TV, forcing some fans to drive to Erie, Pa., or Toledo so they would be beyond the 90-mile blackout limit to catch the CBS signal. Pre-cable, pre-satellite, it was also the first NFL title game telecast nationwide – and only in black and white.
- While the final score was 27-0, this was no laugher. But unlike all the other named Cleveland sports moments with sadder outcomes, the game lacked drama. The first half was a scoreless 0-0 tie, with the Browns first lead coming midway through the third quarter on a long 43-yard Lou Groza field goal. (In 1964, every NFL kicker kicked straight-on, making 43 yards on the painted mud of the old place in late December is probably equivalent to a 70-yard field goal in today’s soccer style, prescription turf hot-house environment.)
If ESPN had existed back then, SportsCenter would have been hard pressed to come up with its Top 10 game highlights:
- The years have blurred each of the three Frank Ryan to Gary Collins’ “post pattern” touchdown passes into one morphed memory of the lanky receiver beating all-pro cornerback Bobby Boyd – and setting a title game touchdown record that still stands today. (If you want to win a bar trivia contest, ask anyone who won the Corvette as The Sporting News game MVP, since most fans would guess Jim Brown or even Ryan, not Collins.)
- While Jim Brown gained 127 yards on 27 carries, his only memorable run was a 46-yarder in the third quarter that set up the first Ryan-Collins touchdown.
- The most dramatic play may have been Browns linebacker Galen Fiss blowing past three Colts’ blockers to upend Colts Hall of Fame halfback Lenny Moore on his butt for an eight-yard loss in the first half – exposing the Colts’ veneer of invincibility.
More than the game itself, we recall the players from December 27, 1964 – the dawn of the “Mad Men” era, as well as more troubling times – Vietnam escalating, civil rights battles, end of the post-war economic baby-boom. Yet, one remembrance of that period always elicits a smile – the ’64 Browns team photo. You can’t miss it entering my Cleveland man-cave.
Unlike today’s super-sized NFL rosters full of pass-rushing specialists, long snappers, punt gunners and slot cornerbacks – just 40 players total. And only a handful of assistant coaches, not the legions of “special assistants” that troll today’s sidelines.
For my generation of Browns fans, that picture is our Mona Lisa.
- Five Hall of Famers. Lou Groza then just an aging kicker, Jim Brown and guard Gene Hickerson at their career heights, rookie receiver Paul Warfield and punt returner Leroy Kelly (Walter “The Flea” Roberts returned kickoffs). Interestingly, the defeated Colts’ squad featured seven Hall of Famers: Moore, quarterback Johnny Unitas, offensive tackle Jim Parker, defensive end Geno Marchetti, wide receiver Raymond Berry, tight end John Mackey and head coach (and native Clevelander) Don Shula.
- The ’64 squad was anchored by two “near Hall of Famers” who spent their entire NFL careers wearing only seal brown, orange and white: linebacker Jim Houston and tackle Dick Schafrath, who later served multiple terms in the Ohio General Assembly. Two California natives, offensive tackle Monte Clark and defensive end Paul Wiggin later became semi-successful pro and NCAA head coaches.
- Other post-Browns achievers included Ryan, who went on to a flourishing academic and business life after football, and defensive end Bill Glass, who ministered around the globe. But few know – or care – that backup linebacker and special teams ace Sidney Williams moved on up as well, marrying Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and also served as U.S. Ambassador to the Bahamas.
- More significantly, two of those 1964 Browns laid the groundwork for much of the wealth and fame enjoyed by modern-day NFL players and coaches. Cornerback Bernie Parrish, whose activism helped jump start the NFLPA union, and guard John Wooten (disclosure: a long-time family friend) who heads the Fritz Pollard Alliance overseeing NFL Rooney Rule compliance.
The team also featured solid but unspectacular middle-men Vince Costello and John Morrow, Giants’ cast-off Dick Modzelewski alongside one-game wonder Jim Kanicki at defensive tackle, a woefully weak secondary featuring forgettable Bobby Franklin, Larry Benz and Walter Beach. Yet, each man continues to live in Cleveland immortality on that 1964 team photo.
The one person not in the photo? The man arguably most responsible for that title team, who hand-picked and tutored every man pictured. Some of us may not recognize or want to admit it, but he’s the reason why more than a half century later, we all remember December 27, 1964.
Paul Brown. – RC
Next: No. 3: 1950 NFL Championship