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THE '30s
Peter King
August 30, 1999
The seed for a title game is planted
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August 30, 1999

The '30s

The seed for a title game is planted

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Though it happened almost 67 years ago, there is much about the first unofficial NFL championship game that Charles (Ookie) Miller will never forget. Played on Dec. 18, 1932, the game spawned significant changes in the passing rules, made hash marks the law and was such a hit that the NFL was split into Eastern and Western divisions the next year so there could be an official playoff for the league title.

But what Miller, who played center and linebacker for the Bears that day, remembers best is the smell of Chicago Stadium, the indoor arena where the game was played the day after a circus had performed there. "You know how animals are," Miller, 89, recalled late last month in a crisp, authoritative voice. "Oh, it was a stinking place. Smelled all like horse manure."

A 19-inch snowfall had blanketed Wrigley Field, the original site of the game, but George Halas, the Bears' owner, was expecting a profitable gate and was loath to postpone the event. So the Bears and the Portsmouth ( Ohio) Spartans, a franchise that would become the Detroit Lions and that had tied Chicago for first place, played indoors before a crowd of 11,198, and atop trucked-in grass that did not mask the stench left hours earlier. The field was only 80 yards long, and because it extended to hockey boards on both sides, every time a play ended at the sideline the officials moved the ball 15 yards from the boards. On plays that ended inside the sideline, the ball would be placed at the spot of the tackle. The following year hash marks became a part of the game.

"We were just playing a game," Miller says, "but a lot of things happened that day that changed the course of pro football."

Take the passing rules. At the time a player had to be at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage to throw a forward pass. In a scoreless game midway through the fourth quarter, the Bears had fourth-and-goal at the Portsmouth seven. Time for a field goal, right? Not when you've got Bronko Nagurski in your back-field and Grange flanked wide. Miller snapped to Carl Brumbaugh, who pitched to Nagurski. Just before he got to the line, Nagurski threw a strike to Grange, alone in the end zone. The Spartans protested vehemently that the play should not have been allowed because Nagurski was within five yards of the line when he released the ball, but to no avail. The Bears won 9-0. The dispute led to the question: Why shouldn't passes be thrown from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage?

"What else do I remember about that game?" Miller says. "Halas was having trouble financially, and the share for winning the tide was $210 per player. I got my money in July."