THE NAVY NEEDED RECRUITS IN 1943 BUT DIDN'T want Ray Graves. "They found out I was deaf in one ear," recalls Graves, 88, who now lives in Tampa. "They didn't want any deaf pilots." So the Philadelphia Eagles used a ninth-round draft choice to acquire the smart, hardworking former captain of the Tennessee football team.� Graves arrived at his first pro training camp that summer to find that the war had followed him to the NFL: In an attempt to handle the manpower shortage resulting from so many players going into the military, the Eagles had merged with the Pittsburgh Steelers.� The Phil-Pitt Combine, which became known as the Steagles, called Philadelphia home and wore Eagles uniforms but had two coaches—Earle (Greasy) Neale of the Eagles and Walt Kiesling of the Steelers. This led to what Graves called an "impossible situation.� "We had a mixture of different coaching philosophies," Graves says. "On the field, it was a challenge to all of us."
It was especially a challenge for the two coaches, who, as tackle Al Wistert recalls, had polar opposite personalities.
" Greasy Neale was very self-confident, very sure of himself," says Wistert, 86, who now lives in Grants Pass, Ore. "Wherever he went, he was the boss. Greasy was so domineering that Kiesling had to take a backseat."
Like Graves and the majority of the Steagles, Wistert had been declared 4-F—unfit for military service—after being diagnosed with a bone disease.
"At the time," Wistert says, "[not serving] didn't bother me too much, because I wanted so badly to play professional football."
Professional football certainly did its bit for Uncle Sam during World War II. In 1942 the NFL collected nearly $700,000 over 15 games to donate to war relief efforts, and by February 1943 the Associated Press reported that 330 NFL players were in the service, enough to fill the rosters of 10 teams.
Neither Pittsburgh nor Philadelphia had enough players to field a team for the 1943 season, but the Steelers' ranks were hopelessly depleted: They had only six players (seven by the time the season began).
By the time the owners adjourned from their annual meeting in June 1943, active rosters had been cut from 33 to 25 (the number would subsequently reach 28), and because of the approved merger between the two Pennsylvania teams, only eight of the previous 10 teams remained in the NFL. (The Cleveland Rams suspended operations because their owners were in the armed services.)
The conjoined team was not popular in the press. Arthur Daley of The New York Times wrote in October 1943 of "the horribly named Steagles who hail, presumably, from either Philburgh or from Pittadelphia."
Earning $1,300 to $1,500 a season, the Steagles players were also forced to hold additional jobs. Wistert worked as an inspector at a shipyard in Camden, N.J., a 45-minute commute from his home in Germantown, Pa. Graves worked as a scout for the Army football team and lived with many of the other players and coaches at the Hotel Philadelphian, where it wasn't unusual to find a group of Steagles playing pinochle, gin rummy or poker.