When the Eagles meet the Atlanta Falcons on September 6, it will be in the role of defending World Champions. They haven’t been in that position very often - just three previous times to be exact.
The last time was September 1961, and no one who was there will forget what happened when the curtain went up. Timmy Brown returned the opening kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown, and the Eagles went on to defeat the Cleveland Browns, 27-20, before a packed house at Franklin Field. It was a breathtaking start to the season.
The 105-yard return was the longest in franchise history, and the record stood for more than half a century. It was finally broken in 2014 by Josh Huff who scored on a 107-yard return against the Tennessee Titans. What it was, really, was a preview of what was to come as Brown emerged as an NFL star in the 1960s.
“Timmy is just coming into his own,” Eagles coach Nick Skorich said after the game. “He has a lot of talent, and we’re going to give him more opportunities. He’s an exciting player. He demonstrated that today.”
Green Bay originally drafted Brown but Vince Lombardi, who rarely made a mistake in player evaluation, cut him after he fumbled in a preseason game. The Eagles claimed the 5-11, 185-pound halfback and he returned punts and kickoffs for the team during the 1960 championship season. Of course, the Eagles won the title game over Lombardi’s Packers, 17-13, so Brown got the last laugh.
I still remember the 105-yard return. I was sitting in Section EE with my parents and grandparents when Brown fielded Lou Groza’s kickoff. From where we were sitting it looked like Brown was more than 5 yards deep in the end zone. It was so deep that we couldn’t believe it when he ran it out. “What the heck is he doing?” I thought.
But he flew through the first wave of defenders and found an open lane in the middle of the field. He breezed past the lumbering Groza and pulled away from the Cleveland pursuit to score the touchdown. I still remember the sight of Browns coach Paul Brown in his suit and tie, hands on his hips, glaring at his players as they came off the field.
After the game, Brown was asked why he decided to run the ball out.
“I was just excited,” he said. “It was the start of the season. All summer, all during (training) camp, I couldn’t wait for this day. I saw the ball coming my way, and it was like, ‘Let’s go.’”
Skorich was asked if he said anything to Brown after the return.
“Yes,” the coach replied with a smile. “I said, ‘Nice run.’”
Brown went on to lead the league in kickoff returns (29) and kickoff return yardage (811) that season. His 105-yard return was the NFL’s longest in 1961 and his 27.97-yard average was second in franchise history only to the great Steve Van Buren’s 28.7-yard average in 1945.
The game itself was a back-and-forth affair with the Browns actually outgaining the Eagles, 432 yards to 305. The difference was turnovers. The Browns lost four turnovers to the Eagles’ one. Jim Brown had another big game - 19 carries for 99 yards - but the Eagles shut down his backfield partner Bobby Mitchell (10 carries, 4 yards).
This was a different Eagles team from the one that won the championship the previous December. The head coach Buck Shaw had retired and returned to the West Coast where he operated a corrugated box company. Quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, the league’s MVP in 1960, had also retired to become head coach of the expansion Minnesota Vikings. It was the only time in NFL history that both the head coach and quarterback retired after winning the title.
Skorich was the line coach under Shaw, and he took over as head coach in 1961. Sonny Jurgensen, Van Brocklin’s backup for three seasons, succeeded the Dutchman at quarterback. Jurgensen was the Eagles’ fourth-round draft pick in 1957, and he showed promise as a rookie - including a 17-7 upset of the Browns - but he went to the bench when the team acquired Van Brocklin in a 1958 trade with the Los Angeles Rams.
No one knew what to expect from Jurgensen in 1961. In the Eagles’ first game - a preseason exhibition against the College All-Stars - Jurgensen threw three touchdown passes in a 28-14 victory. He also threw a pass behind his back and completed it for a first down. It was a move right out of the Harlem Globetrotters’ playbook, and it had fans rubbing their eyes and asking, “Did I really see that?” The quarterback was being rushed and a defender had him by the jersey but still, a behind-the-back pass?
“Sonny does that all the time in practice,” wide receiver Tommy McDonald said. “This is just the first time he did it in a game.”
Against the Browns, Jurgensen didn’t throw any behind-the-back passes. In fact, he didn’t throw many passes at all. He was 11-of-17 for 183 yards but he threw touchdown passes to McDonald (6 yards) and tight end Bobby Walston (18 yards). Walston also kicked three field goals in the win.
Jurgensen had a superb season in 1961, leading the league in completions (235) and passing yards (3,723). He threw 32 touchdown passes, and that stood as the Eagles’ record until it was finally topped last season by Carson Wentz (33). His success surprised most people, but it probably shouldn’t have. As Jurgensen said, “I spent the last three years with Van Brocklin, watching film, watching him play the game. I wasn’t playing myself, but I was learning a lot.”
The Eagles finished the 1961 season with a 10-4 record, just a half game behind the New York Giants in the Eastern Division. They were 6-1 when Tom Brookshier, their All-Pro cornerback, went down with a broken leg. Most players on that team believed if Brookshier had not been injured the Eagles would have gone back to the NFL Championship Game and played the Packers again.
“There were a lot of questions surrounding that team,” Brookshier said. “Buck was gone, the Dutchman was gone, it was a new cast in many ways. But we believed in each other, and when Timmy ran that opening kickoff back against Cleveland, it was like, ‘Yeah, baby, we’re still the champs.’”
An award-winning writer and producer, Ray Didinger was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. He has also won six Emmy Awards for his work as a writer and producer at NFL Films. The five-time Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year is a writer and analyst for NBC Sports Philadelphia. 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. He is also the author of The Eagles Encyclopedia: Champions Edition which comes out in October.