Charles Bidwill escaped a brutal Chicago winter just after he rang in 1947 and arrived in Georgia with the hopes of returning home with football’s prized possession of the time.
Charley Trippi was a national sensation when Bidwill made the trip to Athens, Ga., having finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting behind Army’s Glenn Davis and having led the Georgia Bulldogs to a Sugar Bowl win a few days earlier. One national college football poll even crowned Georgia national champions and Trippi, who was 25 when Bidwill came calling, was at the center of it all.
Trippi was driving Bidwill around his adopted Southern home in early January when they were involved in a car accident. If it was just Trippi in the car, the Hall of Famer believes it wouldn’t have been worthy of a sentence in the local newspaper. But since the owner of an NFL franchise was involved, the story became national news.
“People say the reason I had the accident was because I asked for a bigger raise than they wanted to give me,” Trippi said with a laugh. “It wasn’t that big of a deal. The press made it big. If I was in the car by myself, nothing would’ve been said.”
But the accident helped ease any tension that was built during the negotiations.
Soon after the accident, with a $100,000 contract on the table, Trippi signed with the Cardinals. Sixty-five years after joining the Chicago Cardinals and leading them to their only NFL championship, Trippi will make his first trip to Arizona to see the current version of his former team Sunday when the Cards host the Lions. Trippi, who has already been inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor, will finally be celebrated in-person for that distinction.
Trippi was the biggest prize of the 1945 NFL Draft, a shifty running back from Eastern Pennsylvania who became as part of Southern football lore as tailgating. When he was drafted first overall by the Cardinals, two years before he graduated from Georgia, he hadn’t strapped on a Bulldogs helmet in two years. He was fulfilling his duty to his country – and solidifying his name as an elite pro prospect – on the Third Air Force Football Team by traveling the United States playing in all-star games.
It was during his first two years at Georgia and his military playing days that Trippi caught Bidwill’s eye. But Trippi had options after college. He was being courted by the New York Yankees of the rival All-American Football Conference and by various professional baseball teams. But his relationship with Bidwill resulting from the car accident and the hefty contract were enough to lure Trippi to the Windy City, away from the glitz and glamour of New York City or the confines of a baseball field.
“The Cardinals were more established,” Trippi said. “The NFL, at that particular time, was established and the other (football) league was just beginning. I had no idea what was going to transpire with that league. I had no idea. I knew the NFL was strong enough to maintain its position.”
SERVING HIS COUNTRY
Two years after Trippi arrived at Georgia, World War II was starting to consume America. By 1943, the Allies began crippling Germany’s once-impenetrable army and, stateside, the country threw its full support behind the war effort.
About 5,000 miles away from the front lines, Trippi was a 20-year-old enjoying the college life, studying for his business degree and playing football. Before he was drafted in to the service, Trippi had already won a Rose Bowl and established himself as one of the premiere athletes in all of college football.
At basic training in Greensboro, N.C., Trippi tried out for the football team, and to no surprise, made the squad. Later that year, he tried out for the service’s baseball team and also made it.
“People were laughing at me, saying this isn’t a football situation,” Trippi said. “It happened that I was able to do both sports in the service. I had a good time in the service.”
While some soldiers specialized in various aspects of combat, Trippi’s specialization was football. His superiors froze Trippi’s ability to go overseas, which prevented him from seeing any live combat action. Trippi never even held a gun.
“All I did was play football and baseball,” he said.
THE LEGEND ARRIVES
In the nine years before Trippi became a Cardinal, the franchise had eight losing seasons.
They wanted Trippi.
They needed Trippi.
When word got around Chicago, thanks in part to a billboard on Jackson Avenue, that Trippi would accompany Bidwill on a train to the Midwest, a stir circled through the city. Current Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill, who was 15 when Trippi signed with his father, remembered the city shut down the train station.
“They had to tamp it down so there were not a lot of people trying to get in to get autographs. They had people trying to get in and trying to get out,” Bill Bidwill said. “That’s the way it was.
“They went ballistic, the city. And no one heard from (Bears coach) George Halas for a week.”
Trippi holds a unique place in the Bidwill family. He was the last player Charles Bidwill signed before passing. The owner died in April, 1947.
“(Trippi) stands for a lot generationally, just in terms of setting the NFL on the course to be where it is today,” current Cardinals president Michael Bidwill said. “There were many people that played a role in that and Charley Trippi was one of those people. He bridges generations.”
The expectations intensified around the Cardinals – and Trippi – after watching their crosstown rivals, the Bears, win the 1946 title. Trippi didn’t disappoint.
One of Charles Bidwill’s final projects was to build a backfield that elicited league-wide envy and Trippi was the last piece. He joined Paul Christman, Pat Harder and Elmer Angsman to complete what’s now known as the “Dream Backfield.”
“Actually there was so much talent attached to that group and we all wanted every one of us to succeed,” Trippi said. “With the talent they all had, it was easy playing with them. It was just a great experience playing with those guys. You don’t get that opportunity many times in football.
“When (Charles Bidwill) signed the team, he said, ‘I have the greatest backfield I could ever want.’ My biggest regret is that Mr. Bidwill, who had an idea that we’d win the National Football League championship that year, didn’t get a chance to see it.”
AND THE LEGEND CONTINUES
Seven decades later, Trippi still sits among rare company in the NFL. He’s one of the few first overall picks to live up to the hype.
Although his stats were among the least impressive of his nine-year career, sans his final season when Trippi’s lone duty was to punt, he was at his finest his rookie season.
But the Legend of Charley Trippi is built around one game that first year.
The Cardinals were 8-3 heading into the NFL Championship Game against the Philadelphia Eagles at old Comiskey Park. The South Side of Chicago was their side of the Windy City, and although the Eagles also hailed from a cold-weathered environment, the winters in Chicago were another animal. On Dec. 28, 1947, with a wind chill at 20-below, they played on a frozen turf.
Bill Bidwill remembered the Eagles coming out with filed-down cleats to better maneuver the ice, but the referee sent them back to the locker room with instructions to change their shoes.
As he would later that afternoon, Trippi outsmarted everyone. He combated the ice with basketball shoes for better traction.
“We put on a pretty good football game considering the elements,” Trippi said. “That’s not something you want to do every week. It was quite an experience, really, playing on a frozen field in sneakers.”
He finished with 206 total yards, 75 of which came on a punt return for a touchdown and another 44 on a rushing touchdown. The Cardinals won 28-21.
“He was the real thing,” Bill Bidwill said.
But that was just the beginning. Although the Cardinals never won another championship with Trippi, he became Mr. Everything, playing quarterback, running back, receiver, punter and kick returner. He finished his career with 3,506 yards and 23 touchdowns rushing, 2,547 yards and 16 touchdowns passing, and 1,321 and 11 touchdowns receiving. He also had 1,457 yards returning kicks and 864 yards returning punts.
His versatility started in high school in Pennsylvania and continued into college and the NFL.
“He was physical. He was fast. And he could play defense,” Bill Bidwill said. “He could pass the ball. Any place on the field he could play. And he was a real star.”
In 1968, Trippi was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Twice in his career, Trippi was called the greatest football player ever, once by former Alabama coach Bear Bryant in college and again by Jim Thorpe in the 1950s.
“He was very generous back then,” Trippi said of Thorpe. “Well, what probably happened, he saw me on a good day. If I played on a bad day, he could’ve said I was the worst football player ever.”
A FOOTBALL FANATIC
When Trippi turns 91 on Friday, he’ll be embarking on a new set of firsts.
He will make his first trip to Arizona to watch the Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. It’ll be a weekend out of character for the nonagenarian. He usually watches football, pro or college – he’s not picky – from his home in Athens, Ga., flipping through the channels to find whatever game is on. Trippi even watches the late-night replays.
“I might watch the same game twice,” he said with a chuckle.
Today’s NFL is a football field away from Trippi’s NFL, but he’s embraced the biggest, faster, richer football of today. And if he could, Trippi would suit up in a heartbeat.
“I would love that opportunity,” he said. “I wouldn’t worry about the money part. I just enjoyed competing.
“Maybe I’d be playing better with better football players and have better linemen, probably.”