If someone proposed it today, they’d get laughed out of the room. But there was a time when one of the major events of the American sports year was a game between the reigning NFL champions and a team of college all-stars. And it all came to an end 42 years ago today.
Known as the Chicago Charities College All-Star Game, the contest was played every year from 1934 until 1976, with the exception of 1974, when it was canceled by an NFL players’ strike. Soldier Field hosted every game except the 1943 and 1944 games, which were played at Northwestern’s Dyche Stadium.
Could a ragtag group of 22-year-olds who had barely had time to practice together really compete with the best team in the NFL? Amazingly, in those days, they could. In the 1930s and 1940s, the best college players didn’t always choose to play pro football, and pro players weren’t necessarily better than college players. The first five College All-Star Games featured two wins by the college players, two ties, and only one win by the NFL team. (That one, in 1935, was the only year when the NFL’s runner-up, rather than the reigning champion, represented pro football.)
By the 1960s and 1970s, however, pro football had become America’s most popular sport, and the money that came with playing pro ball meant all the best college players wanted to turn pro, and many of the top pro players were training year round, rather than finding offseason jobs. As a result, in the last couple decades of the College All-Star Game, the pro teams were beating the college teams consistently, and often easily: The pro teams won 16 of the last 17 College All-Star Games, and few of those games were even close.
The last game the College All-Stars won came in 1963, when the Green Bay Packers fell to the College All-Stars 20-17. Packers coach Vince Lombardi felt humiliated.
“We used to have a social get-together after a night game,” former Packer Boyd Dowler recalled in 2013. “Lombardi came in, and he looked visibly upset — like death warmed over. He wasn’t real kind when we got together for training camp again.”
Packers great Willie Davis added that Lombardi “would always bring it up to us when we weren’t playing well. Believe me, we never would forget it.”
On July 23, 1976, the Super Bowl champion Steelers played what would become the last College All-Star Game. A horrific thunderstorm broke out in the third quarter, and video of the game has to be seen to be believed: Not only was the storm like something out of a disaster movie, but when the college team’s coach, Ara Parseghian called a timeout to try to get his players organized in the monsoon, the fans took the opportunity to storm the field. Eventually the game was called off in the third quarter, both because of lightning and because those fans on the field had torn down the goal posts and showed no signs of being willing to vacate. The Steelers led 24-0 at the time the game was called.
And that was the end of the College All-Star Game, for that year and forever. The game had come to seem pointless, as the college players really couldn’t compete with the NFL players anymore, fans were losing interest, and players were more concerned about avoiding injuries than winning the game. The plug was pulled, and what had once been a major part of the American sports year came to an end.