In 1943, the United States was in the middle of World War II. Every able-bodied man in the country that could pass their physicals was overseas taking on the Axis of Germany, Japan, and Italy. Famous athletes from the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and the National Hockey League were being recruited to help fight the evils in Europe and the Pacific.
With the dwindling number of professional athletes available, the major sports leagues were desperate in preparing their teams for a season. All three begged long-retired stars of their games to temporarily come back to fill roster spots. Age restrictions were lifted, as was evident when the Cincinnati Reds signed a 15-year-old to pitch for them. Some leagues even had to resign to combining franchises on a temporary basis.
Two such franchises that joined for one season only were the Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers. At that time, over 600 players and coaches across the NFL were recruited by the military. “It was done out of necessity,” said former Steelers owner Art Rooney, Sr. in 1974. “The war was going on, and most of the players were in the service. A lot of the coaches, too. We didn’t have the manpower to field a team and neither did the Eagles, but we thought we could make it work if we pooled our resources.”
Even with it being the best approach for the situation, there were still issues that needed to be resolved. The home games were split between the two franchises’ home fields: Half of the games were played at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, while the other half were at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh.
Coaching was also an issue. The owners of the two franchises chose to name their respective head coaches as co-head coaches for the Steagles, rather than picking one over the other. Both men, “Greasy” Earl Neale of the Eagles and Walt Kiesling of the Steelers, were considered stubborn, and they had a hard time getting along. “They didn’t get along at all,” Steagles tackle Frank “Bucko” Kilroy once said about the co-head coaches. “The idea was for Greasy to coach the offense and Kiesling to coach the defense, but they spent most of the time fighting with each other. It was actually kind of funny to watch.”
Even with the two franchises combined, there were still problems with filling the roster. Both the Steelers and the Eagles had lost a majority of their star players to World War II. The only players that were left were either those that failed their military physical, or those that aged out of joining the military. The team had to recruit former NFL stars to come out of retirement, such as future hall-of-fame end Bill Hewitt.
In addition, the government was requiring all players that were “left behind” to work 40 hours per week in factories to support the war efforts. This left very little time for football outside of the games.
The NFL was also worried about the Steagles’ performance in the upcoming season. Even though they were a combination of two franchises, and the Steelers finished the season before 7-4, it was the first winning season in Pittsburgh’s history, and the Eagles never had a winning season since the franchise’s founding in 1933.
To try and make the team competitive, the league convinced the Washington Redskins to trade their backup quarterback Roy Zimmerman for cheap. Zimmerman was behind future hall-of-famer Sammy Baugh, so he wouldn’t get much playing time in Washington. The NFL wanted to make sure the Steagles had a competent quarterback under center for the season.
The 1943 season started strong for the Steagles. After a two-week bye to start the campaign, they defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers, 17-0, and the New York Giants, 28-14. They would slip in the next two games, falling at the eventual NFL champions that year, the Chicago Bears, 48-21, and at the New York Giants, 42-14.
The next three games saw the Steagles win, tie, and lose, respectively. They would conclude the season with a win against the Detroit Lions, 35-34, a win at the Washington Redskins, 27-14, and a loss against the Green Bay Packers, 38-28.
The Steagles wrapped up their unprecedented year with a winning record of 5-4-1. This was the Steelers’ second winning season in a row and their second in franchise history, and it was the Eagles’ first winning season in franchise history. They finished third in the NFL East Division, ending the year one game out of first place.
Zimmerman didn’t have a stellar season at quarterback. He finished the year with a 34.7 completion percentage, 846 total passing yards, 9 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions.
Four players, Jack Hinkle, Johnny Butler, Ernie Steele, and Bob Thurbon, split the handoffs in the backfield. They combined for 1633 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns. Hinkle had 571 of those yards, and lost out on the NFL rushing title by 1 yard.
Tony Bova was Zimmerman’s main target, making 17 catches for 419 yards and 5 touchdowns.
The defense returned two interceptions for touchdowns during the season. One was recorded by Ben Kish during their Week 7 win against the Chicago Cardinals, while Larry Cabrelli had the other the next week against the Redskins.
The 1943 Philadelphia/Pittsburgh Steagles season exceeded expectations. Despite the lack of players, the craziness that comes with combining two franchises, and the differences in thinking between the two co-head coaches, the team finished with a winning record and missed the playoffs by just one game.
The Eagles would split from the Steelers again the next season. Philadelphia used their top draft pick in 1944 on future hall-of-fame halfback Steve Van Buren, and they went 7-1-2 and finished half of a game out of first in the NFL East Division and just missed a trip to the NFL Championship game. The Steelers decided to partner with the Chicago Cardinals that year, becoming the Car-Pitts, and going 0-10.
In all, the Steagles had a lasting impact on the NFL. Two players were picked to All-Pro teams in 1943. Tackle Vic Sears was selected by both the United Press and Pro Football Illustrated, while guard Elbie Schultz was also picked by Pro Football Illustrated. Three members of the team were elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Neale and Kiesling were inducted as coaches, and Hewitt went in as a player.
Before the preseason game between the Steelers and Eagles at Heinz Field on August 17, 2003, six of the nine living members of the Steagles were honored both in a pregame ceremony and at halftime. It was in honor of the 60th anniversary of the Steagles. Those that attended were quarterback Allie Sherman, defensive back Ernie Steele, center Ray Graves, and tackles Al Wistert, Vic Sears and “Bucko” Kilroy. End Tom Miller, tackle Ted Doyle, and halfback Jack Hinkle weren’t able to attend.
None of the members of the 1943 Steagles are still alive today. Doyle was the last surviving Steeler that played for the Steagles when he passed away in 2006 at age 92. Wistert was the last surviving player for the Steagles when he passed away in 2016 at age 95.
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