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In Los Angeles 54, 412 sun-soaked fans gurgled happily as the hometown Rams butted their way to a convincing 27-7 win over the Philadelphia Eagles. In Chicago 20,996 wondered whether Coach Paul Brown had got his dates mixed as his Cleveland Browns, the best team in football, put on their exhibition game manners and were beaten 9-7 by one of the worst, the Chicago Cardinals.
At Baltimore the Colts kicked the Chicago Bears 28-21, and in Green Bay the Detroit Lions roared through the Packers 20-16. At Pittsburgh the Steelers blasted the Washington Redskins 30-13, and at San Francisco the New York Giants crushed the 49ers 38-21.
For the more than 2 million fans who prefer technical excellence to emotion and tradition in football, the season of 1956 was finally under way, and from all indications it will be a banner year for a sport which only 20 years ago was hard put to show a total season attendance of over 500,000. This year pro football looks forward confidently to its first 3 million year, and with 214,766 already in for the kickoff games and every team from the lowly Cardinals to the opulent Rams pointing to enormously increased preseason sales, the prediction seems conservative.
From the topsy-turvy nature of the first game scores, which augur a season as wide-open as a Klondike mining camp, it even seemed possible the stretch-games crowds would be limited only by stadium capacity—even at $3.90 or thereabouts a seat. A pro football crowd may be like an operatic crowd—inclined to applaud only at superartistry and hypercritical of a false note. But it is an addiction not easily shaken. For the pros have brought the ancient and honorable sport of old Rutgers to its highest refinement—the players are the elite of sport, big but fast, nerveless but cat-agile, burly but bright. To the hooked pro fan, comparing it with college ball is like comparing the Ballet Russe to the high school recital.
Yet it was not so long ago that pro football had something of the quality of a floating crap game with its own small following—a few high rollers but mostly a lot of last-chance characters shooting for the moon with their last C note. National Football League Commissioner Bert Bell alluded to this gaudy but insolvent past at last year's draft meeting when—surveying the roomful of honest, earnest young executives poring over draft lists as though they were Standard and Poor market analysts—he snorted:
"Look at 'em! Why, I can remember in this league when you choosed up sides, picked the roughest guys you could find and climbed into a bus to make the circuit. Where you saw a level piece of ground, you stopped the bus and practiced. If anybody showed up, you passed the hat."
There are still lingering vestiges of the old days. The tie in the winged collar sometimes comes loose, and the Homburg tilts at a rakish angle.
There is, for instance, the business of exhibition games. The pros play five to seven of them apiece prior to a regular season of 12 games. This is a little like the New York Yankees showing up at the Stadium in mid-February for a 90-game spring training schedule—at midseason prices.
Most of these games, wisely enough, are played in places like Jacksonville and Little Rock and Portland, where some local charity benefits, but the exhibition schedule in pro football still partakes of the nature of a side show for the sucker trade. The teams often make their important revenue on them (Ram Owner Dan Reeves confided they make the difference between profit and loss) because they field a team which costs them only board, room and $25 a week per man—or about what the pros got in the old days Bert Bell talks about.
The exhibition teams composed of unsigned rookies and unpaid regulars cannot be expected to put on the polished show that pro fans are accustomed to, and the customer winds up paying fair-trade prices for a cut-rate product. The aging regulars and the ambitious rookies, with jobs at stake, play all-out, but the star players, in their brief appearances, often move about with all the verve of somnambulists trying to find some place to lie down. Some years ago the best coach in the league, Paul Brown, set the dreary pattern for exhibition games by simply treating them as a full-dress scrimmage, primarily for his untried rookies. Other coaches followed suit, with the result that exhibition games degenerated into contests in which victory was secondary to the testing of new talent or the reappraisal of the old.