Didinger: The Return That Silenced Critics

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The Eagles will open the 2016 regular season with a home game against the Cleveland Browns. That hasn't happened since 1969, the first game of the Leonard Tose era. It has happened only five times in franchise history. Interestingly, two of them occurred when the Eagles were the defending world champions.

In 1950, the Eagles were coming off back-to-back championships and NFL Commissioner Bert Bell scheduled them to open the season against the Browns who were joining the NFL after dominating the rival All-America Football Conference. It was not a coincidence that the two teams met in the opener. Bell wanted to put the Browns - and their fans - in their place by putting them up against the NFL's best in Week 1.

There was so much interest in the game that it was moved from Connie Mack Stadium to the much larger Municipal Stadium and 71,237 fans filled the seats. It remains to this day the largest crowd ever to attend an Eagles home game. They expected to see the Eagles roll over the Browns, but the newcomers from that other league proved to be much better than most people thought. Coached by the great Paul Brown, Cleveland routed the Eagles, 35-10, and went on to win the NFL Championship that season.

A decade later, the Eagles were coming off winning the title in 1960, but most experts predicted a steep fall the following year. That's because head coach Buck Shaw and quarterback Norm Van Brocklin both retired after the championship game against Green Bay. It is the only time in NFL history both the head coach and quarterback retired after winning the title. So the Eagles came back in 1961 with Nick Skorich as head coach and Sonny Jurgensen as the starting quarterback. For Eagles fans, it was a leap into the unknown.

Skorich was the line coach under Shaw, but he was untested as a head coach. Jurgensen had spent the previous three seasons on the bench behind Van Brocklin. The schedule makers did the Eagles no favors by putting them up against Cleveland in Week 1. The Browns still had Paul Brown on the sideline and they had Jim Brown and Bobby Mitchell, two future Pro Football Hall of Famers, in the backfield. The game was scheduled for Franklin Field and a sellout crowd of 60,671 filled the seats, but it wasn't the usual boisterous Philly crowd. Yes, the Eagles were the defending champs but ...

"I remember it was actually quiet which was unusual for Franklin Field," said Tom Brookshier, a star cornerback on that team who is now in the Philadelphia Eagles Hall of Fame. "Normally that place was rocking. People were either cheering or booing but they were always loud. That day it was different. No one knew what to expect. I think if you took a poll of the fans and they were honest they would've picked us to win maybe six or seven games.

"But we (the players) felt like we could be a good team. That's because we saw Sonny every day in practice. The fans didn't know how good he was but we did. Van Brocklin was the league MVP in '60, he is one of the all-time greats, but there wasn't much difference between him and Sonny when it came to throwing the football. And Timmy Brown was like this secret weapon. He was with us in '60, but didn't play that much. We knew he'd have a bigger role in '61 and he'd make a lot of plays."

Brown didn't waste any time. He took the opening kickoff 5 yards deep in the end zone and returned it 105 yards for a touchdown. It was the longest kickoff return in franchise history, a record that stood for 53 years, and it brought the Franklin Field fans roaring to their feet.

"I couldn't believe he brought it out," Brookshier said.

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It set the tone for a 27-20 Eagles victory. Jurgensen threw touchdown passes to flanker Tommy McDonald and tight end Bobby Walston and the defense came up with four takeaways, including a Brookshier interception of Browns quarterback Milt Plum.

Brown's electrifying return ignited an Eagles hot streak that saw the team win seven of its first eight games. Jurgensen played brilliantly (he set a club record with 32 touchdown passes that season) and McDonald led the league in touchdown catches (13) and receiving yardage (1,144). It looked like the Eagles might shock the experts and repeat as Eastern Conference champions, but Brookshier suffered a career-ending leg injury at midseason and the defense was never the same. The team finished 10-4 which was good for second place behind the New York Giants.

"When I think back on that season, I always think of that Cleveland game and how it started," Brookshier said. "Seeing Timmy break into the clear and hearing that crowd explode, it was one of those goose-bump moments. By the time he reached the end zone we were all thinking, 'You know, this season could be a lot of fun.'"

An award-winning writer and producer, Ray Didinger was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. Didinger will provide Eagles fans a unique historical perspective on the team throughout the year for PhiladelphiaEagles.com. You can read all of his Eagles History columns here.

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