Charley Conerly: December 3, 1956

Monday, July 7, 2008 |

  


I'm turning thirty-three this week. 

Facing that formidable round number, immortalized by such Giant "greats" as George Adams and Delvin Joyce, I've come to the sobering realization that I'm now older than all but four of the eighty-one players the Giants will bring to training camp this summer: Jeff Feagles (42), Amani Toomer (34), Sam Madison (34), and Renaldo Wynn (34). I've only got two months and a day on Sammy Knight, and he's closing fast.

Thirty-three certainly ain't what it used to be.
By the time my old man (the original Bluenatic) was my age, he was already married with two kids, had a house in the suburbs, two cars, and was seven years removed from the completion of his military obligations. He was, by all accounts, a legitimate adult in the world; mature, regardless of what my mother might say to the contrary.

But me, I'm still a work in progress, which means it's a good thing I'm not an NFL player.


In the NFL, thirty-three is an age at which many players retire. Some manage to hang on for a few more seasons, but the odd Bruce Matthews or Darrell Green aside it's the rare NFL player who makes it past thirty-five these days. My childhood heroes, Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson, retired from pro football at age thirty-four and thirty-five respectively. Defensive stalwarts Leonard Marshall, Carl Banks and Jessie Armstead all hung them up at thirty-three exactly, several years past their primes. Rodney Hampton and hundreds more never even sniffed thirty; some because of injuries, some because of performance, and some because they just couldn't get their shit together.

Needless to say, it's a young man's game.
And by the time former Giants quarterback Charley Conerly was thirty-three, he was ancient. Or at least he looked ancient; hardly the type likely to blend in with my peer group.

"Chuckin'" Charley became the first of nineteen identifiable New York Giants to appear on the cover of America's preeminent sports weekly, Sports Illustrated, when this issue hit newsstands on December 3, 1956. The Giants were eighteen years removed from their last championship at the time, and hadn't been to the playoffs in six seasons. But behind the inspired play of their fearsome defense and Pro Bowl offensive stars Frank Gifford and Kyle Rote they won six of their first seven games to open the season. And by the time the rival Bears visited Yankee Stadium in November, three days after Thanksgiving, Sports Illustrated dispatched reporter Tex Maule and photographer John G. Zimmerman to the Bronx to cover the game and to capture the veteran quarterback that had led the upstart Giants to the top of the NFL's Eastern Division.

There is some conflicting information on the subject of Conerly's exact age at the time. In his story's second paragraph, Maule reports that Conerly is thirty-two years old. Yet Conerly's 1956 Topps card contradicts Maule's report by listing his birthdate as September 19, 1922, making him thirty-four at the time of the photo shoot. And the usually reliable data compilers at pro-football-reference.com say "Chuckin'" Charley's actually a year older than that, listing September 19,1921 as the Mississippi native's born on date. Wikipedia, databasefootball.com, The College Football Hall of Fame and The Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame all agree, which leads me to believe that it's accurate. But whichever is true--whether Conerly was thirty-two, thirty-four or thirty-five in that photo--one thing that's not in question is that his appearance suggests that of a man significantly older than he actually is. And really, it's all in his eyes.

Look into them. They are eyes that reflect the calculated confidence of experience. Eyes that know things, that speak of an innate toughness borne of challenge. They are not eyes that are surprised by things, that convey even the slightest uncertainty of purpose. No. These are eyes that have seen the kinds of battles that make the violent skirmishes of the gridiron seem trivial by comparison.

Conerly
served four years with the Marines in the Pacific theater during World War II, achieving the rank of corporal. It was an experience that affected him deeply. "He hardly ever talked about the war," longtime roomate Frank Gifford told Dave Anderson of The New York Times*, "but he was in a few island invasions. He once had his rifle shot out of his hands."

After beginning his collegiate career at the University of Mississippi in 1942, Conerly returned to campus after the war a different man and a different player. He earned All-SEC honors as a single-wing tailback in his first year as a starter, 1946. One year later he'd be selected to the All-America team and finish fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting after setting NCAA single-season records for completions (133), passing yards (1,367) and consecutive passes without an interception (61) while leading the Rebels to their first bowl birth in twelve seasons and their first Southeastern Conference title in school history.

By the time Conerly got to New York as a seventh round pick in 1948, the Giants were still reeling from the gambling scandal that cost them not only the 1946 NFL championship but also their starting quarterback, Frank Filchock, and reserve back Merle Hapes (who preceded Conerly at Ole Miss) to suspensions. The Giants had won only twice in 1947, their 2-8-2 record the worst in Steve Owen's twenty-three years as Head Coach.

With Conerly under center, the Giants improved (marginally) to 4-8 in 1948. But he finished second in the NFL behind All-Pro Sammy Baugh both in completions and passing yards, third in passing touchdowns behind Philadelphia's Tommy Thompson and Baugh, and at the end of the season Conerly was named the league's Rookie of the Year. He topped that with his second straight 2,000-yard passing performance the next season, improving the Giants record by two more wins before breaking through with ten wins, an Eastern Division title, and a Pro Bowl selection in 1950. And beyond that, Conerly's rugged play earned him a reputation throughout the league for being one of its toughest competitors.



"He played one whole season, '52 or '53, with a shoulder separation," said Gifford.

Listed at six feet even and 185 pounds, Conerly was tiny by today’s standards. In today's NFL he’d be lucky to play cornerback at his size. But by 1956, when Sports Illustrated came calling, he had long since established himself as one of the top quarterbacks in the league. Remarkably, at the end of the season Conerly was voted to his second (and last) Pro Bowl, without having started even one game.

In an experiment conducted for much of the 1955 season and all of 1956, Head Coach Jim Lee Howell and his bright young offensive assistant, Vince Lombardi, used the Giants number two quarterback, Don Heinrich, to start off games. Lombardi would send Heinrich in with a list of plays that, according to Maule, were "designed to test the reactions of the opposing defense so that when Conerly replaced him—usually in the second quarter—he could probe at the obvious weaknesses."

"You don't see much of a game when you're in," Conerly told Maule. "You're looking for the guy you're going to pass to or the guy you're making a hand-off to, and you don't see much else. I guess I wouldn't even recognize half the guys I play against in a game if I saw them on the street afterward. They're just a blur when they are coming in at you, and you don't look at them again until you come out of the huddle. Then they are uniforms in a defense and you don't see faces, just the defense."

Conerly studied the Bears defense from the sidelines for three quarters on November 25, 1956. Though the Giants only managed a tie in that game, Conerly's study and Lombardi's imaginative gameplan resulted in a forty-seven point offensive explosion thirty-five days later in a Championship Game rematch versus the Bears. The score was 34-7 at halftime, and Conerly added two second half touchdown passes (to Rote and Gifford) punctuating the victory to the joy of the 56,836 fans in attendance at Yankee Stadium.

"
I got most of the accolades that year," Gifford--the league MVP in 1956--told Anderson, "but we knew who got us there."

Yet despite Conerly's and Gifford's best efforts, neither could get the Giants there again. Nobody could for another thirty years. Instead, the Giants followed up their amazing triumph in 1956 by losing five of the next seven championship games and then missing the playoffs for seventeen consecutive seasons.

The 1957 season included an undefeated November and a 7-2 record before consecutive losses down the stretch to San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Cleveland derailed their playoff hopes. But Conerly and the Giants rebounded in 1958 with nine wins and a shutout of Jim Brown and Cleveland in the Eastern Division Playoff, setting up a championship showdown with the Baltimore Colts in what would later be known as "The Greatest Game Ever Played."

Conerly's fifteen yard touchdown pass to Gifford early in the fourth quarter could have (some believe should have) won the title game in regulation, had it not been for the heroics of the opposing team's quarterback, twenty-five-year-old phenom Johnny Unitas, and an unfortunate spot and measurement on the part of the game officials.

Driving late in the fourth quarter and in a position to run out the clock, the Giants faced a critical third and three on the Colts forty-three yard line. Gifford swept left. With most of the Colts defense reading pass, only future Hall of Fame defensive end Gino Marchetti stood between Gifford and the championship-clinching first down. Marchetti tackled Gifford near the marker as teammate Eugene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb piled on, accidentally breaking Marchetti’s ankle in the process. After Marchetti was taken off the field on a stretcher, the 64,185 anxious Giants fans packed into Yankee Stadium held their collective breath as referee Ron Gibbs spotted the football. They nearly rioted when the subsequent measurement found that Gifford had been stopped inches short of the first down.

To this day, Gifford (now seventy-seven years old) is convinced that he made the first down. He has even made the outrageous claim (in Mark Bowden's new book, The Best Game Ever) that referee Ron Gibbs came up to him after the game was over and admitted that he had blown the call. That confession offered Gifford little consolation then and offers even less now, however, as the Giants were forced to punt. With just under two minutes to play and starting from their own fourteen yard line, Unitas calmly drove the Colts down the field, finding Raymond Berry (another future Hall of Famer) three times on the drive for sixty-five of Berry's astonishing 178 total receiving yards on the day, setting up Steve Myhra (who had had played nearly the entire game at linebacker after Leo Sanford was injured on the game's second play) for a chip-shot field goal to send the game into the NFL's first sudden death overtime.


I think we all know what happened after that.

"Chuckin'" Charley wasn't finished, though. In 1959 Conerly, then thirty-eight years old (or was he 37? 35?), was the N.F.L.'s top-ranked passer and was named the league's Most Valuable Player by the Associated Press. But the Giants lost their title game rematch in Baltimore, 31-16, as Conerly was again outplayed by the amazing Unitas.

With his production waning in 1960, Conerly found himself sharing time with newcomer George Shaw, the former number one overall pick in the 1955 NFL Draft who had been Unitas’ backup in Baltimore the previous four seasons. The following year--Conerly's last--the Giants brought in thirty-five year old Y.A. Tittle from San Francisco to replace him as the starter. Without as much as a grumble, "Chuckin'" Charley sat behind Tittle (playing sparingly) for that one season before hanging up his spikes and heading home to Mississippi, where he later opened up and operated a successful chain of shoe stores.

"Unlike many of today's players [would have], Charley never complained when Tittle came over," said Wellington Mara, the late Giants' co-owner. "He didn't ask to be traded. He didn't ask for anything."

Instead, Conerly understood the truth of his situation. "If you win," he said, "you're an old pro. If you lose, you're an old man." 
 

At the time of his retirement, Conerly held the franchise records for career touchdown passes (173), completions (1,418), passing yards (19,488) and passing attempts (2,833).* Today, forty-seven years after he played his last game, Conerly still ranks second only to Phil Simms in both career passing yards and touchdown passes. Despite having thrown 1,814 more career passes than Conerly, Simms only threw twenty-six more touchdown passes than "Chuckin'" Charley did over his fourteen years in blue.

And though his playing days were behind him, Conerly continued to appear regularly in Sports Illustrated for the next twenty or so years, his grizzled image spread across the pages of the magazine as one of the very first Marlboro Men, America's archetypal twentieth century tough guy. Fitting.

Conerly died on Valentine’s Day, 1996, at the age of seventy-four, cruelly, of heart failure. Just three weeks earlier, Dave Anderson had included him in a list of eleven players deserving of Hall of Fame enshrinement. Of those eleven, seven still await their call from the Hall. Conerly once came within two votes of being elected, but, Anderson wrote, “unfairly, he was somehow forgotten.”
 
"Charley is the best player who is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame," Mara said shortly after Conerly’s death. "He has better numbers than some quarterbacks who are there."
 
"When I got in, I was embarrassed to be there when Charley wasn't," Gifford added.


 *     *     *

Years later, another Ole Miss quarterback by the name of Eli Manning would twice win the Conerly Trophy (2001, 2003), awarded each year to the best college football player in the state of Mississippi, before leading Conerly's New York Giants to a championship of his own.

Still a baby-faced twenty-seven-year-old, Manning, too, knows a thing or two about playing with a separated shoulder. Through four seasons as the Giants starter he has proven himself to be one of the most durable quarterbacks in the league, having not missed a single start in that span despite being sacked ninety-three times. But unlike Conerly, whose stare was possessed of an intensity that could melt a glacier, Eli's going to have to work a bit on selling his "serious face." He's significantly more believable when he goes to his trademark "aw shucks face" or even his "pumped the fuck up face." Hell, anything's more believable than his "tough guy face."

Give the kid some time, though. Conerly was just a rookie when he was Eli's age (or was he?), and it didn't take long for him to go from this to this. A few more rollercoaster seasons in New York and who knows? In five years Eli might look like Brett Favre.

And me? I'll just pretend like that old pro with the leathery visage and salt and pepper hair isn't six years younger than me.

________________________________________________________________________

* Sports of the Times, 2/15/96
* Charley Conerly's career stats

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