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Reusse blog: College All-Stars helped us tolerate exhibition games

  • Blog Post by: Patrick Reusse
  • September 3, 2013 - 12:14 PM

I've been trying to figure out why our dislike of NFL exhibition games is more intense than during the first couple of decades the Vikings played in Minnesota. There are a few obvious reasons:

*In the earliest years, we were happy to be part of it and willing to embrace anything that resembled NFL competition.

*There were cuts throughout camp, leaving fewer players for coaches to choose from, and first-teamers were on the field for stretches for every exhibition game. The paranoia over injury with coaches wasn't nearly as great as it is today.

*Two full-priced home exhibitions were not part of the season-ticket package until 1970. Also: prices weren't so steep as to cause ticketholders to complain that they were getting "ripped off for meaningless exhibitions.''

When the Vikings arrived in 1961, the schedule consisted of five exhibitions and 14 regular-season games. During that preseason, there was one game at Met Stadium, one at Baltimore, and games in Sioux Falls, Cedar Rapids and Portland.

In 1962, there was an exhibition at Parade Stadium (capacity 15,000) in Minneapolis, another at Met Stadium, in Portland, and in Atlanta and Seattle, which were not yet NFL cities.

It wasn't until 1968 that the Vikings played two of their exhibitions at Met Stadium. There were six exhibitions from 1969 through 1971, back to five from 1972 through 1974, and then six again from 1975 through 1977. It wasn't until 1978 that the regular-season schedule was expanded to 16 games and the exhibitions cut to four.

I'm thinking TV and non-stop media coverage is another reason for our current loathing of exhibitions. Hundreds of sporting events are available to us during the week and there are higher standards for entertainment.

I have another reason that we had a better attitude about exhibitions in the 1960s and into the '70s: The College All-Star Game that was played in Chicago in the summer.

I was reminded of this last month, when looking up some information on rookie quarterbacks for a column. One player I checked on was Ron VanderKelen, a backup to Fran Tarkenton for five years from 1963 through 1967. It was noted in VanderKelen's bio that he was a quarterback and the game's MVP in when the College All-Stars last won the game with the NFL champs -- 20-17 over Lombardi's Packers on Aug. 2, 1963.

The College All-Star Game was started by Arch Ward, the sports editor of the Chicago Tribune, in 1934, one year after he was the driving force for baseball's All-Star Game. The Chicago Tribune Charities received a big check from these NFL/All-Star games, which were played from 1934 through 1976.

There was no game in 1974 due to an NFL work stoppage, and it was cancelled early in 1977 because of NFL teams' increasing unwillingness to allow its top draft choices to play in the game. The coaches wanted players in camp from the start to prepare for the season ahead, and general managers fretted injuries.

By the '70s, players were being held out and attendance at Soldier Field was in decline. But I know two things:

*From the time I started taking in sports in the mid-'50s and into the '60s, the College All-Star Game was must-watch and the sign sign that another football season was upon us.

*The College All-Stars gave it their best shot. And if it was close, watching the NFL champs get nervous was the equivalent of watching a 2-seed trying to choke away a game to a 15-seed in the NCAA tournament.

The game was played in late August in the early years and the college players missed a large hunk of training camp. It started moving forward to late July or early August in 1961, when the AFL had started and the NFL had expanded.

The NFL champs had a 19-8-2 advantage and was 10-2 since 1951 entering the 1963 game. The Packers had beaten the All-Stars 42-20 a year earlier and were heavy favorites again.

VanderKelen had become a national celebrity when he led a stirring comeback for Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. For some reason, he had gone undrafted by the NFL, but was chosen as one of the All-Star quarterbacks by coach Otto Graham.

Mississippi State's Glyn Griffing led a long drive that produced a field goal and a 13-10 lead over the Packers early in the fourth quarter.

Late in the game, the All-Stars were facing third down inside their 30. VanderKelen found Pat Richter, his Wisconsin teammate, and Richter went 74 yards for a touchdown.

Down 20-10, the Packers had Bart Starr in the game and throwing frantically,  but there were only six seconds left in when Jim Taylor scored from the 1 to make it a 20-17 final for the All-Stars.

The invaluable quarterback was in the game to the end -- "flooding the skies with passes,'' a report said. The great fullback was plunging for a touchdown on the Packers' last offensive play.

We saw an NFL team trying desperately to win -- and a group of neophytes headed for the pros trying to embarrass the champs. I'm saying scenes like that gave us an entirely different attitude about all summer football games that didn't count in the standings.

 

 

 

 

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