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A Date To Remember: The “Sneakers Game” redux

The Giants capture the 1956 NFL Championship, thanks to a little help from their shoes. Again.

Andy Robustelli knew football. And the defensive end knew sporting goods. His two worlds collided in the 1956 NFL Championship Game.
New York Giants

A Date To Remember is an occasional series Big Blue View will be running through the Super Bowl, highlighting the glory of the Giants’ past and celebrating the biggest playoff wins in franchise history.

The “Sneakers Game,” Part II

Dec. 30, 1956

NFL Championship

Giants 47, Bears 7

The experiment might have won the NFL championship.

Or maybe the Giants’ victory had more to do with a Hall of Fame defensive end/sporting goods store owner who knew a thing or two about sneakers and traction.

Regardless, the true hero of the Giants’ 47-7 blowout in the 1956 NFL Championship was not Frank Gifford or Charlie Conerly. It was... white sneakers.

Venerable Yankee Stadium was an icy mess after a mixture of snow, ice and rain fell in The Bronx. Just under 57,000 fans braved the 18-degree cold to watch the Giants and Bears face off.

And 22 years after the famous “Sneakers Game,” the Giants were ready for a sequel.

Before the game, coach Jim Lee Howell devised a way to test field conditions. He ordered defensive back Ed Hughes to wear cleats and halfback Gene Filipski to wear sneakers. Then he made them sprint. Hughes only took a few steps before falling. Filipski kept his footing.

”Everyone wears sneakers,” Howell told his team, according to a 1996 Chicago Tribune story.

Those “state-of-the-art sneakers” had been “resourcefully ... obtained from U.S. Keds more than a week earlier” by Andy Robustelli, the Tribune explained. The future Hall of Famer happened to own a sporting goods store in Greenwich, Connecticut.

And those Keds seemed to make the difference as the Giants dominated from the start to win their fourth championship.

Of course, the Giants were following a familiar script.

The first “Sneakers Game” occurred in the 1934 NFL Championship, when the Giants switched from cleats to sneakers for the second half at a frozen Polo Grounds. They scored 27 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to beat the Bears, 30-13.

The teams were the same in 1956. And so was the result. Although this time, the Giants began the game wearing basketball shoes and consequently dominated from kickoff.

They took control just 2:40 into the game when Mel Triplett scored on a 17-yard run. The Giants built leads of 13-0 in the first quarter and 34-7 at halftime as they cruised in their first season playing at Yankee Stadium.

Although the Bears wore sneakers as well, they weren’t the same quality.

”Those sneakers were better than ours,” Bears coach Paddy Driscoll had said according to the Tribune. “Their soles were thicker than our soles. This helped their footing greatly.”

Robustelli’s expertise was the difference, according to Bears assistant coach George Connor.

”He got his team the latest, best shoes,” Connor said, according to the newspaper.

His assessment might have been more than merely sour grapes.

The teams had tied, 17-17, just five weeks earlier in a regular-season game also played in The Bronx. The Bears entered the rematch as slight favorites.

But then, well, the sneakers.

Granted, the Giants were loaded with Hall of Famers, including Gifford (a 14-yard TD reception), Roosevelt Brown, Sam Huff and Robustelli. And a couple of their assistants were rather noteworthy as well: offensive coordinator and future Packers legend Vince Lombardi and defensive coordinator and future Cowboys legend Tom Landry.

It might have been Gifford’s signature game. He caught four passes for 131 yards and a touchdown in helping the Giants win their first title in 18 years.

Meanwhile, Alex Webster had two touchdown runs, and Conerly threw two touchdown passes.

Although not as fondly remembered as the 1958 NFL Championship in which the Colts beat the Giants in sudden death, this game helped establish the NFL as a dominant force.

”I’ll always believe that that game was the key to the development of the NFL today,” Gifford said years later. “People forget what the NFL was like in those days. It was not America’s No. 1 sport. But once we played the game, we became heroes in New York. The thing just grew from there.”