Growing up in the 1960’s, the College All-Star game was an important piece of the sporting calendar. It was a game for football fans of my generation that evoked fond memories.
I never missed watching the game on television. It was a greatly anticipated event as it was always the first football game of the season (unless you counted the June American Football Coaches Association All-Star game that was played from 1961-1976). Watching the All-Star game was a reminder that the upcoming football season would soon be played, but it was also a notice that summer was coming to a close and the next school year would soon begin as well.
Without air conditioning, I can recall at least one occasion of my father moving our large black and white console television set onto the patio to escape our warm house hoping to catch an early August evening breeze. There my father and a few of my neighborhood friends would sit on lawn chairs and the game while drinking Royal Crown Cola. While I’m not certain, I’m sure RC Cola was the preferred soft drink in our family as my father must have received some sort of discount on the beverage at the pharmacy where he worked. Not only did the prospect of a cold RC and the black and white glow of the television set attract neighborhood kids but moths and other flying nocturnal insects which would on occasion have to be driven from the set.
While we soon had both a color set and air conditioning, it would not have made any difference to the viewing of the annual college vs. pro clash as it was not until late in the game’s history that the contest was televised in color. The lighting conditions at Soldier Field were so poor that television cameras of the day could not generate color pictures in the foot candle challenged stadium. Even still photography was hampered as the Sports Illustrated cover for the 1970 game was shot in black in white. While working out in the stadium prior to the 1969 game, one New York Jet player called the dim lighting “50-watt bulbs.”
One of my earliest recollection was that the All-Stars were seemingly always matched against the Green Bay Packers. Having always been a supporter of the underdog causes my loyalties were with the College All-Stars.
In 1968, the game took on added importance in our household with the birth of our own hometown team, the Cincinnati Bengals. We then had a preview of how our top draft picks selected for the All-Stars might perform in a Cincinnati uniform. That year, three All-Stars, Utah State defensive tackle Bill Staley, Trinity (TX) defensive end Harry Gunner, and Bob Johnson, the future Hall of Fame center from Tennessee, would soon be turning in their blue all-star jerseys for the black and orange of Cincinnati.
However, while the 1968 game was anticipated, the 1969 game was most assuredly highlighted in that week’s TV Guide. For playing quarterback for the All-Stars against the Super Bowl winning New York Jets that year was former Cincinnati Bearcat, and soon to be Cincinnati Bengal first round draft pick, Greg Cook. To my disappointment, Notre Dame’s Terry Hanratty, won the starting role on a coin flip. The Jets led 16-0, when Hanratty was benched and Cook led the All-Stars on the comeback trail throwing touchdown passes to Stanford’s Gene Washington, Bob Klein of Southern California, and SMU Hall of Famer, Jerry Levias. The 26-24 loss would be the last time the All-Stars made the game competive. Cook would go on to be named the American Football League Rookie of the Year but an undiagnosed rotator cuff injury early in the season would essentially end his promising career.
Many other future Bengals would become All-Stars. Harvard’s Pat McInally broke his leg scoring a touchdown in the 1975 game causing him to miss the entire season and the following year the professional debut of two-time Heisman winner Archie Griffin was cut short in the 1976 game when a torrential rain storm hit the Chicago lakefront with a little over a minute to play in the third quarter. The Pittsburgh Steelers led 24-0, and after a group of fans tore down one of the goalposts, the officials brought an end to what was the last game in series history.