Notes from The Game Before the Money Podcast — a football history podcast that often includes interviews with NFL legends.
GREAT NFL MOMENTS IN WEEK ONE
Many great moments have happened in Week One in National Football League history. We take a look at a few here, including Norm Van Brocklin’s record-setting 554 yards passing in one game, the first-ever game at Lambeau Field, and the first game in Minnesota Vikings history. We also look at the American Football League’s first game in 1960 and Dan Marino’s amazing return from a career-threatening injury in 1994.
What was the biggest comeback in Cincinnati Bengals history? The Bengals came back from 21 points down to win over the Seattle Seahawks in Week One of the 1981 NFL Season. The Bengals later won the AFC Championship that season.
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Football History Podcast:
Hi, everybody, welcome to "The Game before the Money Podcast" celebrating pro and college football history.
This episode, a brief history of great NFL season openers.
NFL Oral History
Hi, everybody, welcome to "The Game Before the Money Podcast", I'm Jackson Michael, author of the book The Game Before the Money Voices of the Man Who Built the NFL. It's an oral history of pro football featuring interviews with NFL greats who played between the 1930s and 1970s. And it's published by the University of Nebraska Press. You can pick that up at any major bookseller and you can learn more about it at The Game Before the Money.com.
Super exciting time right now as football is underway, both college and pro football. We didn't know if we'd have football this year. We still don't know really how everything's going to play out. A couple of college games have been postponed due to covid-19 outbreaks. You may have heard the TCU SMU game was postponed, the Baylor Louisiana Tech game was postponed, and over 60 NFL players have opted out for the season. But the twenty twenty NFL season kicked off this past Thursday.
It was great to see NFL football back, and it inspired the content for this podcast episode, a brief history of great NFL season opening moments. And we're going to look at some record setting performances, some great comebacks as some not so famous firsts, although they probably should be famous because of the history involved. They'll be well known to you, at least after this program.
1950 Cleveland Browns vs Philadelphia Eagles
The first game that comes to mind is one we've discussed before on the podcast. The nineteen fifty NFL season opener featured the Cleveland Browns at the Philadelphia Eagles.
Cleveland Browns legend Dub Jones spoke about that game on the Dub Jones episode of the podcast and said it was the biggest game that he had ever played in. And this is coming from a man who won several championships with the Cleveland Browns. The background leading up to the Eagles Browns game was that the Eagles had won back to back NFL championships and both championship wins were shutouts. People like to guess about what records might be unbreakable. That might be an unbreakable record. Two straight championship games shutouts. And that was the Philadelphia Eagles coming into the nineteen fifty NFL season. The Cleveland Browns were new to the NFL but had won four straight championships in the rival league, the AAFC. There was a partial merger of the two leagues before the 1950 season and this game was one of the biggest events in NFL history at the time.
The Browns felt they had a lot to prove. A lot of people talked down the Browns before the game. Many wondered how legitimate the AAFC championships were. The Browns answer to that question, they throttled the Eagles thirty five to ten in front of over seventy one thousand fans on a Saturday night in Philadelphia. To give comparison as to how big that game was at the time. The Browns won the NFL championship game later that year in front of about thirty thousand fans. So the Eagles Browns season opener drew twice as many fans as the championship game.
Norm Van Brocklin’s Passing Record
That was in 1950. In nineteen fifty one the next year, one of the most famous records in NFL history was set in week one. It was the opening game in the nineteen fifty one NFL season. It was played on a Friday night. In late September, the Los Angeles Rams hosted the New York Yankees and easily won 54 to 14. But the game's remembered for a long standing NFL passing record. It's the Norm Van Brocklin game!
Norm Van Brocklin threw his way into the NFL record book by throwing for a record five hundred and fifty four yards that game and that record still stands going into the twenty twenty season. Van Brocklin threw five touchdowns in that game, four of them to Elroy Hirsch. There are a lot of interesting facts about that game. I mentioned that Van Brocklin threw for five touchdowns, but he almost had six. His receiver was pulled down at the one yard line. Another interesting note is that Van Brocklin also added a rushing touchdown in that game, but he was far from perfect. He did throw two interceptions and he also contributed to one of the Yanks two touchdowns by tossing a pitch out that was nabbed by a defender and ran back for a touchdown. And Norm Van Problem wasn't the only Rams player to throw the ball that day either. The Rams tried a trick play and had an end. Tom Kean throw the ball and that play ended up an interception.
Also interesting about that game, Van Brocklin's record isn't the only one still standing from that day as a team. The Rams racked up seven hundred and thirty five yards and that is a single game record that still stands going into the twenty twenty season. The two teams combined for a league record of eleven hundred and thirty three yards, which still stands as a regular season record. The total stood as an all time record for any game until the Eagles and Patriots combine to break that record in Super Bowl. Fifty two. The Rams also set a record for most first downs in a game with thirty four that has since been broken. But all of that happened in the NFL's season opener on a Friday. All the other games that week were played that Sunday.
You might wonder how many passing yards Norm Van Brocklin had that year, he only ended up with seventeen hundred and seventy five yards passing and the most yards he had in a game the rest of the season was one hundred and sixty seven yards against San Francisco. He threw for one hundred and sixty two yards in a rematch against the New York Yankees that season. The reason for Van Brocklin comparatively low season total is that he split time at quarterback with another Hall of Famer, Bob Waterfield. Waterfield missed the first game due to an injury, but he was already back playing at quarterback the next week.
The Rams won the NFL championship that year in nineteen fifty one and the New York Yankees folded after the season was over. One last piece of information about the season opener. The Yanks starting quarterback in that game was John Rauch, who also was head coach of the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl two.
When was the first game at Lambeau Field?
Skipping ahead to week one of the 1957 season, still held in late September, September, twenty ninth to be exact, September 29th, 1957, was the date of the first game at what is now known as Lambeau Field. The Green Bay Packers played against — any guesses? Yes, the Chicago Bears.
The new stadium replaced a high school stadium the Packers were using. I'm not making that up. You can hear more about that in the Roger Zatkoff episode of "The Game Before the Money Podcast" he played for the Packers while they played in that high school stadium. The new stadium had been funded by taxpayers.
The first touchdown was scored by Bears quarterback Ed Brown. And there are some trivia for you. Brown had led the Bears to the NFL championship game the previous year. But in this game, the Packers rallied for an upset win with a fourth quarter touchdown pass from Babe Parilli to Gary Knafelc for a twenty one seventeen victory. At the time, the stadium was simply called New City Stadium, and the opening was a stellar affair, featuring appearances by then Vice President Richard Nixon, NFL Commissioner Bert Bell and Miss America.
That game was a sloppy game. There were 10 turnovers that day, six of them by the Bears. The Packers only won two more games that season, and both of them came on the road. The Bears ended up five and seven.
First American Football League Game
The 1960s brought a decade of firsts, and especially in 1960, as it was the first year of the American Football League. So here we have a really big season opener, the first ever AFL game that was between the Boston Patriots and the Denver Broncos. The first pass in AFL history was intercepted by Broncos safety Goose Gonsoulin. You can read a story about it in the book, The Game Before the Money, and you can hear some more of his stories on The Goose Gonsoulin from the Vault episode of "The Game Before the Money Podcast."
The first score in AFL history wasn't a touchdown, it was a field goal. Fittingly, it was kicked by the Patriots Geno Cappelletti, who led the AFL in scoring for five seasons. The Broncos had two big plays in the game played at Nickerson Field on the Boston University campus. One of the Broncos big plays was a fifty nine yard touchdown pass from Frank Tripuka to Al Carmichael. That put them ahead seven to three. And then Gene Mingo later took a punt return over 75 yards for a touchdown. And although the Patriots Geno Cappelletti often led the AFL in scoring, Gene Mingo was the AFL scoring leader.
In 1960, the Patriots trailed the Broncos thirteen to ten in the fourth quarter. They started a potential game winning drive, but that was halted by a Goose Gonsoulin interception and the Denver Broncos, who didn't register a victory in the preseason, won the first ever American Football League regular season game. Thirteen to ten. Both teams finished last in their respective divisions that year.
Minnesota Vikings First Game Ever
In nineteen sixty one, week one of the NFL season marked the first game in Minnesota Vikings franchise history. The Vikings actually have some AFL roots as the original investors in the Minnesota Vikings were originally granted an NFL franchise. But the NFL countered by offering them an NFL franchise. That AFL franchise was later awarded to Oakland and became the Raiders. The Vikings, therefore, had to wait a year to play, but it was worth the wait.
They opened their franchise history at home in Metropolitan Stadium against any guesses? Yes, the Chicago Bears. The Vikings Bears game was played on a day that Roger Maris hit a 12th inning game winning home run for his fiftieth homerun of the season at Detroit in chasing Babe Ruth's single season home run record. And there were all kinds of sports magic that floated around the Midwest that afternoon. The Vikings defense pulled off four interceptions and forced a total of five turnovers. And on offense, the Vikings had some rookie kid from Georgia playing quarterback. His name was Fran Tarkenton, and he threw four touchdown passes that day.
He also ran for a touchdown, setting the stage for his Hall of Fame career. Tarkenton's first touchdown pass, was the first ever touchdown in team history, fittingly scored by Bob Schnelker, the team's future offensive coordinator. Future Hall of Famer Hugh McElhenney also caught a touchdown pass from Tarkenton that afternoon and Minnesota upset Chicago thirty seven to thirteen in the first ever game in Vikings history.
That was a huge surprise, but the Vikings head coach had a history of some opening day magic. Norm Van Brocklin was the Vikings head coach that first season. After opening day, however, the magic wore off. Minnesota lost their next seven games and finished three and eleven on the year. The Bears finished at a very respectable eight and six that year.
1970 NFL Season — AFL NFL Merger
In 1970, the AFL and NFL completed their merger and started play as the American Football Conference and the National Football Conference. Three NFL teams moved over to the AFC, the Baltimore Colts, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns. Can you guess what the first ever game was in the new combined league? It was two NFC teams, the Cardinals, who finished below. Five hundred the year before played the powerful Rams in Los Angeles and the Rams won the game quite easily. The NFL didn't play up the season opener like they did in 1950, at least for that very first game of the season that was played on a Friday night in 1970.
But there were two really interesting matchups that weekend. On that Sunday, there was a rematch of the previous year's Super Bowl at Metropolitan Stadium in Minnesota, where the Minnesota Vikings hosted the defending world champion Kansas City Chiefs in a rematch of Super Bowl for the Chiefs, of course, controlled the game in Super Bowl for the opening game in the 1970s, season was controlled by the Minnesota Vikings. One of the place that turned the tide was a fumble return by Jim Marshall. He ran the correct way in this game. There's no reason to simply remember him by his infamous wrong way fumble return against San Francisco in nineteen sixty four. In this game against the Chiefs, Marshall forced a fumble. He picked up the ball around twenty four yards. Yes, towards the Chiefs Goal line. He then lateraled the ball to a teammate and his teammate Roy Winston took it in for a touchdown and the Vikings were on their way to a twenty seven to ten victory. After the game, Minnesota's defensive coordinator said that his defensive line played their best game ever. And that says a lot for that defensive line with two future Hall of Famers in Carl Eller and Allen Page.
First Ever Monday Night Football Game
Of course, combining the two pro football league's into one was a huge deal and perhaps the biggest event the new combined league had to celebrate. That was the debut of Monday Night Football. The league put together a very interesting match for that game.
The New York Jets, who had won the Super Bowl just two years prior, faced the Cleveland Browns in Cleveland. The Browns were a perennial NFL playoff team that had moved to the AFC So that was a very intriguing matchup for its time. And it was on national television, which was a huge deal in 1970, especially primetime. And that game set up late night NFL excitement for years to come. The Browns jumped out to a twenty one to seven lead at home, but the Jets climbed back to within three points after Emerson Boozer scored his second touchdown of the night and Joe Namath hit George sour for a score. The game came down to the final two minutes. Near the end of the game, Cleveland had a twenty four to twenty one lead. The Jets forced the Browns to punt, with about two minutes remaining in the game and probably would have had the ball in their own forty. But their return man misjudged the punt and the ball rolled inside their own five. So Joe Namath had about two minutes to drive the Jets. Ninety five yards. But the Browns halted the comeback attempt with an interception return for a touchdown. And so the Cleveland Browns won the first ever edition of Monday Night Football. Thirty one to twenty one. In case you're wondering who scored the first touchdown in Monday Night Football history, it was Gary Collins of the Cleveland Browns, the man who scored three touchdowns for the Browns in the nineteen sixty four NFL championship game.
So there's some more trivia for you.
Biggest Comeback in Bengals History
And here is yet another piece of trivia for you. What's the biggest comeback in Cincinnati Bengals history? It was the opening game of the 1980 one season and there are a lot of cool elements to the story. The game marked a new era for the Bengals. In many ways, a very visible change started the season.
This was the first game the Bengals wore the classic striped helmets and striped uniforms. The Bengals opened the season at home against the Seattle Seahawks and Ken Anderson started at quarterback and he threw a pass that went for a touchdown. Only it was an interception return for a touchdown. So the Seahawks took a seven nothing lead. Then Steve Largent scored for the Seahawks on a long pass and the visitors led 14 to nothing. The Seahawks scored another touchdown and the new look Bengals looked at the scoreboard. And trailed twenty one to nothing in the first quarter, quarterback Ken Anderson stats she already tallied two interceptions.
Coach Forrest Gregg replaced Anderson with a third string quarterback because backup Jack Thompson was injured. Rookie Turk Shonen came into the game and fumbled to put this into context. The Bengals had finished four and twelve for two straight seasons before they improved to six and ten in nineteen eighty. So at this point in the very first quarter of the nineteen eighty one season, it looked like the only thing different about the Bengals was these at the time — Very strange looking uniforms.
History now forgets how odd the Bengals uniforms looked at first and how terribly their Nineteen eighty one season started. In the second quarter of the Bengals opening game of the nineteen eighty one season they got a bit of a foothold with a field goal. Then running back Pete Johnson added a touch down before halftime and by the end of the third quarter the Bengals climbed to within one point at twenty one to twenty.
The fourth quarter turned out to be rookie Turk Schonen's big moment. The rookie quarterback drove the team eighty four yards in fifteen plays, and the drive ended with a Pete Johnson touchdown and the game ended with a twenty seven twenty one victory still going into the twenty twenty season, the biggest comeback in Cincinnati Bengals history.
After the game, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Jim Zorn said that championship teams don't lose twenty one point leads. It turns out there was a championship team on the field that day and that was the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals would win the AFC championship that year and play in Super Bowl 16. Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson won the league MVP that year, and it all started with the Bengals being down twenty one points, a benched starting quarterback and people wondering how long those uniforms would actually last. The 1981 Bangles season opener proof that it's not how you start, it's how you finish.
Dan Marino Injury Return and Dolphins Victory
Lastly, we'll jump ahead to 1994 and the season opener for the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins hosted the New England Patriots. And the build up to this game went back to October of 1993 as the legendary Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino suffered an Achilles injury that knocked him out for the season. A total of 11 games.
And a lot of people forget this. That injury actually threatened his career and for younger listeners is similar to the situation with Drew Brees and Peyton Manning. People weren't sure if Dan Marino would recover and how well he would recover from that injury. The only difference was Marino stayed with the Dolphins rather than Brees ending up with the Saints and Manning with the Broncos after recovering from injuries. But when Marino returned to the Dolphins for the 1994 season, nobody really knew if the 33 year old quarterback could even come close to the level of play that we were used to seeing.
All of that was answered in week one and answered so well that few people remember that Marino even had a career threatening injury. The Dolphins played the New England Patriots at home and Joe Robbie Stadium, which was one of those stadiums that was shared with a Major League Baseball team, and that Matt Marino came back from his Achilles injury on a muddy field. The mud didn't stop Marino. The injury didn't stop Marino and the Patriots certainly couldn't stop Marino. Marino threw for four hundred and seventy three yards that day and five touchdowns to rally Miami over New England.
After trailing twenty one to ten, the Dolphins want to shoot out thirty nine to thirty five. Marino through the game winning touchdown on a fourth and five play with about three minutes left in the game.
Also in that game he threw for his three hundredth career touchdown and at the time he was second on the all time career touchdown list behind Fran Tarkenton, who he also mentioned in this episode. Tarkenton at the time was the all time leader with three hundred and forty two career touchdowns. Marino did end up setting a record in that game as he tossed Johnny Unitas his record for most games with four touchdown passes.
The Dolphins official website has highlights of that game. And I urge you to watch them if you can. Dan Marino, he threw the ball like no one else before or since, just a magical, pure passer. Marino threw for over 4,400 yards that season, and both the Dolphins and Patriots made the playoffs that year. Miami won the AFC East with Marino at quarterback and the Patriots qualified as a wild card. Neither team made the Super Bowl, however. That was the year of the 49ers Chargers Super Bowl.
There are so many great moments in NFL history that have happened in week one. I could probably do a greatest moments for each team, but we'll end it there with Dan Marino and the opening of the 1994 season.
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Fran Tarkenton threw 4 touchdown passes in the first-ever game in Minnesota Vikings history — the Season Opener for the 1961 NFL Season.Embed from Getty Images