Tom Ross: Blame Dad for Lombardi's only playoff loss

It was bad enough that my mother square-danced with the Eagles' QB

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— I'll never forget the moment I first glimpsed the Green Bay Packers in "living color."

It was Dec. 26, 1960, and I was seated in the living room of my maternal grandparents' home, high on a hill above the Willamette River in Portland, Ore.

Vince Lombardi's boys, Bart Starr, Willie Wood, Paul Hornung, Willie Davis and Jim Taylor, were warming up to play the Philadelphia Eagles for the NFL Championship at historical Franklin Field. The Eagles, led by veteran quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, were the favorites.

The brilliance of the Packers' gold helmets and pants knocked me right through the uprights.

Many of you will spend Sunday watching the NFC and AFC championship games and it's likely that you've never seen an NFL game in black and white. The last time I can recall watching a strictly black-and-white TV was in about 1977. This weekend, if you're sufficiently upwardly mobile, or have friends who want to share the wonders of their new TVs, you'll watch the games in "high-def."

However, color TV sets were still relatively rare in 1960 when I was a lad of 7. The quality of the picture depended upon the antenna on your roof, and it was never high definition. That year's NFL championship game represented the first time I had ever laid eyes on one of RCA's big color consoles.

Not only were 1960s-era television sets different from today's HD wonders, but the NFL was notably different.

It was the pre-Super Bowl era and the league included 13 teams split unevenly between the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference. The Packers were the winners of the seven-team Western Conference with a modest record of 8-4. The fledgling Dallas Cowboys went 0-11-1 that year. Somehow, the Baltimore Colts found themselves in the West with the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears. The only true Western teams were the Los Angeles Rams and the San Francisco 49ers.

The Eagles, at 10-2, dominated the Eastern Conference, which included the Cleveland Browns, New York Giants, St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins.

There was no sudden death overtime in the NFL in 1960 and the league, which played a 12-game regular season, saw 10 unsatisfying tie games that year.

The economics of the league also were vastly different. The Packers' star fullback, Jim Taylor, had been drafted in the second round two years earlier. His rookie salary was $9,500. Taylor, his wife and infant child lived in an apartment behind a bar in Green Bay.

Packer fans are uncertain to this day whether those living arrangements were a matter of necessity or convenience for the fun-loving Taylor.

My parents must have had a pretty good year in 1960 because traveling from Madison, Wis., to Portland in the middle of winter was a big deal. We boarded a coach train on the Milwaukee Road, which carried us from the old downtown depot in Madison to Minneapolis. There, we caught a magnificent train called the Empire Builder for the long journey across the plains of the Dakotas and Eastern Montana, through the Rockies and finally down the Columbia River Gorge.

The Empire Builder offered my family its own sleeping coach. We ate our meals in a dining car with starched linen tablecloths. There also was an observation car, which allowed us to watch the lonely pronghorns stream by.

My parents managed to keep my Christmas gift, a Lionel electric train, hidden from sight.

As it turned out, Christmas morning was much more satisfying than the football game the next day. Green Bay led 6-0 early in the second quarter on field goals by Hornung, who saw double duty as the team's halfback and place kicker.

Van Brocklin led the Eagles back on a 35-yard touchdown pass to Tommy McDonald before halftime. That was a particularly painful moment because my mother took the opportunity to remind all the Packer fans in the room that she had "almost dated" the Eagles signal caller while they attended the University of Oregon. The truth is, they were in the same physical education class and in those days, square dancing was part of college gym class. So, my mother can legitimately claim to have "held hands" with the quarterback who finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1949.

If that weren't bad enough, my father insisted at halftime of the big football game that we tear ourselves away from the color TV and begin the drive over the flanks of Mount Hood to visit my paternal grandparents on the ranch in Prineville.

I was convinced that if I abandoned them, the Packers would lose the game.

Sure enough, the Eagles won the game 17-13 on a late touchdown run in what would be the final game of Van Brocklin's storied career.

Ever since, I've held my father responsible for the only playoff loss of Vince Lombardi's career.

Tom Ross is a longtime Steamboat resident. His column is published every Monday in Steamboat Today.

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